How visualization works to heal chronic illness
Use neuroscience to harness your brain's healing power
Imagining movement lights up the same brain pathways as physically moving
In my twenties and thirties, I was a professional modern dancer. My dance experience is the foundation of my career now, as a movement and meditation teacher and bodyworker.
One of the coolest things I learned from dancing was "Armchair Rehearsal". This practice is grounded in principles of neuroscience. If a sequence of movements was particularly difficult, my teachers taught me to lie down (or sit down), eyes closed, and imagine dancing the sequence exactly how I wanted to: easily, smoothly, with style. This technique sometimes worked even better than practicing the movements in reality. I could get up from Armchair Rehearsal and dance that sequence with much more fluidity and grace than before.
Competitive athletes have used the power of imagination to improve performance for a long time. MRI imaging shows that if you imagine a movement, the same centers in the brain light up as when you actually perform the movement physically. If in reality you are struggling, you can use your imagination to find feelings of speed, lightness, or accuracy. Lounging on the couch, your brain will find the pathways necessary to move with greater skill, and the next time you practice physically, you will kick more butt.
This same principle of neuroscience applies to healing chronic illness
The principles that make Armchair Rehearsal successful also apply to healing chronic illness or Lyme disease. As we visualize healing pathways, our brain organizes around them. This is such a powerful concept. We have enormous control over our health, right inside our own thoughts and feelings. We can make our treatments more effective by visualizing them working. We can improve our detoxification pathways by imagining them cleansing our bodies. We can harmonize our immune system by visualizing its power.
In my work with private clients, I am continually amazed by how immediately their thoughts affect their physical bodies. If I have my hands on a client's head, and I am hoping to feel their lymph begin to move more freely (very important for Lymies) the first thing I do is suggest they begin to imagine it. I give them suggestions as to how this might feel, imagery they might use or adapt. A cleansing Spring rain, flowing through areas that feel sticky. A warming, softening ray of sunlight filling tight areas of the brain. As soon as an image begins to work for them, I feel a change in their lymphatic flow, and usually they do too.
Interrupt a focus on symptoms by visualizing health
There is a gravity and inertia to ill health. Whenever I am feeling Lymie, my attention is drawn to my symptoms. I notice that I even habitually describe my symptoms to myself in words, as though feeling them weren't bad enough already. "My sinuses are inflamed and my head feels like it's in a vice!" Says my brain to me. Four times in ten minutes. This is normal - it's my brain at work defending me, bringing my attention to whatever it perceives as a threat.
Unfortunately this pattern of focusing on symptoms absolutely does not serve those of us with chronic illness or Lyme disease. It would be useful if we had a splinter, and needed to notice and get after it. But with chronic illness, a focus on symptoms just reinforces the symptoms themselves. A focus on feelings of illness just makes our brains more practiced at feeling like crap.
We Warriors can fight back, busting through this inertia and imagining feelings of health and wellbeing instead. It takes effort, I won't lie! It takes a push. But shifting our focus toward health is a free (!!) tool that we all possess. If you have a headache, don't let your mind linger on the feelings of pain, and explain them to you over and over. Find an image that works against the pain, such as beautiful colored light filtering through your brain, or a delicate rain rinsing your brain clean. The imagery can be anything on Earth that works for you personally. The feelings are what is important. Do you start to relax? Does your breathing deepen? Are you able to find some pleasure and release? The deeper and more profound the good feelings, the more power they have to shape your neurology and your health.
Three things to improve the power of your visualizations
Set aside a half hour a day for visualization. Give yourself a quiet, focused space with no interruptions. A meditative state improves focus, and deepens the power of your visualizations.
Use emotion! The more powerful positive feelings are, the stronger their effect will be on shaping neurology. Encourage feelings of pleasure, joy, relaxation and bliss. Pay attention to them, welcome them in to your practice.
Use words, sensory feelings and visual imagery. Play with all, in order to involve as much of your brain as possible. If you are imagining a spring rain cleansing your brain, what does it smell like? What is the feeling of the rain on your skin? What are the colors?
Guided visualizations give you a roadmap
Sometimes I can find my way to a great visualization on my own, and sometimes that is just too much to ask. You may need help from guided visualizations to get started.
I wrote The Cell's Breath to help myself and other Chronic Illness Warriors find feelings of health and wellbeing in our bodies, when doing that alone is just too difficult. Each track focuses on a different physiological system crucial to healing. The imagery is poetic, but based in concrete physiology. Listening will help you feel your lymphatic fluid cleansing your tissues, feel your liver burning through toxicity. Focus on the words and music, and your body will relax and let go. Your brain will begin to wire itself toward healing, creating new patterns that support your full recovery.
Thank you so much for reading! Please share this post with anyone who might like it.
Wishing you quiet focus and powerful healing.