The Benefits of Special Place Guided Imagery for Children, Teens, and Adults
When I’m stressed out, I like to go to the water. Growing up in Northern Michigan, this has always meant the sandy shores of Lake Michigan where the Caribbean blues of our Great Lake meet with soft greens of the dune grass. I like to walk down the narrow path over the dunes to the shore, watching for the place where the perfect sky blue meets the deeper hues of the lake somewhere out on the wide horizon. I like to stand at the edge of the lake in the wet sand and watch as the waves swirl over my bare feet and disappear again into the lake like deep breaths in and out. I like to feel the warm sun on my shoulders and the wind in my hair, and smell the fresh Canadian air swept down from the North. A faint scent of campfire in burnt driftwood from a beach bonfire the night before. I like to close my eyes and listen to the sound of the whitecaps breaking on the shore, the seagulls calling overhead, the wind rustling through the heart-shaped leaves of the silver birch higher up the dune. And I like to wade out into the ice-cold water – smooth as glass in the morning – and look beneath the glittering surface for Petoskey stones resting quietly on the lake floor just for me to discover. Because I’ve been there so many times, I can imagine the scene exactly as it is in my mind’s eye. And by imagining it, I can transport myself there anytime I want to take a mini-vacation from my troubles and de-stress.
This is called Special Place Guided Imagery – a method for managing stress by visualizing positive, peaceful settings in your mind – and it is beneficial to kids, teens, and adults alike for many reasons.
Benefits of Special Place Guided Imagery
- Health. Your body’s immune system functions more effectively when you have less stress, and guided imagery reduces stress. In addition to boosting immune functioning, guided imagery can help reduce post-operative or chronic pain, reduce pain and distress during medical or dental procedures, and speeds up healing from fractures and burns. Guided Imagery, as a mind-body therapy, can be applied to any stress-related health condition to help alleviate symptoms. For example, conditions such as high blood pressure, atopic dermatitis (i.e., eczema), irritable bowel syndrome, chronic allergies and asthma, and autoimmune disorders from Crohn’s disease to rheumatoid arthritis can all benefit from guided imagery. Mental health disorders, such as insomnia, anxiety, and depression, can also benefit.
- Neural Pathways. Neural pathways are created in our brain based on our behaviors and habits. The principle of neuroplasticity states that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that when you practice something new, you are training your brain to create new neural pathways. The more you practice, the stronger the new neural pathways become. With relaxation, the more you practice feeling calm and relaxed in your mind, the easier it will become to relax your body and reduce stress. With repeated practice, simply thinking of your special place will evoke peaceful and positive feelings.
- Security, Predictability, and Control. Guided imagery allows you to create a safe place in your mind to return to whenever you need to feel safe and secure. Guided imagery also allows you to create a predictable environment in your imagination. Your special place only changes if you decide that it should. This can be especially useful in times of transition or turmoil. Lastly, guided imagery meets the need to have power and control over one’s environment. In your special place, you get to create anything you like… and make anything you don’t like disappear! You get to decide who is allowed to enter your special place – no one is invited in without your permission. For those who are sensitive to “space invaders,” this activity can help re-build a sense of control over personal space.
- Positivity. Guided imagery can be used to induce a more positive mindset or help you get unstuck from fixating on the negatives in your life. When you need a shift in your mindset (and we all do, sometimes), guided imagery can help.
- Creativity. Creating a special place through guided imagery is a creative experience in and of itself. The options to express your creativity are limitless. Depending on the script you use, you can add waterfalls or forests, stars, planets, your animal friends, or anything else you can imagine. You can be walking on the moon or floating in a pink lake in the Australian Outback. Having the opportunity to create your own special place can help to grow your imagination and nurture your creative side.
Guided imagery is free, easy to learn, and quick to do so it can easily be practiced every day. Even if you don’t have any stress-related health concerns, daily practice can keep your everyday stress and tension at more manageable levels and help you fall asleep at night. Guided imagery is particularly helpful when problems or conflicts arise that seem to be out of your control. In stressful situations, guided imagery can help you to calm down enough to be able to use more effective coping, problem-solving, or parenting skills. It is easy enough to do (and pleasant enough) that young children with big emotions can learn the technique, too. You just need to pay attention to the following steps:
Steps to Creating Your Own Special Place
- Before you get started with guided imagery, check in with yourself for a current stress/tension rating from 1 to 10, with 1 being “least stressed/tense you have ever been” and 10 being the “most stressed/tense you have ever been.”
- Find a comfortable position sitting or lying down where you can relax. Dim the lights, put your cell phone on silent, and play relaxing music if it helps “set the mood.”
- Close your eyes if it helps you to be able to use your imagination more fully.
- Gently bring your attention to your breathing. Breathe in through your nose, letting your belly expand with air as you inhale. Hold the breath for a moment, then slowly breathe out through your mouth, letting your belly flatten as you exhale.
- While you continue to breathe, allow your mind to take you to a special place. It can be a new or a familiar place, somewhere you feel calm, safe, and secure.
- Imagine a door in front of you. When you are ready, open the door and enter your special place.
- Take a few moments to look around and notice what you see in your special place.
- Everything here is your own creation, completely under your control. Practice adding a special item to your place. Now practice making it disappear.
- Take a few moments to notice what you hear, feel, and smell.
- Now find a comfortable place to lie down and relax in your special place.
- Take a few moments to just be present, noticing all the pleasant sights, sounds, textures or physical sensations, and scents in your special place. Breathe deeply and just enjoy this feeling of deep relaxation.
- Remember that you can return here whenever you like. All you need to do is take a few deep breaths and think about this place.
- When you are ready, start to begin to become aware of the surface you are sitting or lying on, allow your breathing to return to normal, and gently open your eyes.
- After completing the relaxation exercise, check in with yourself again for a new stress/tension rating from 0 to 10. Compare your previous rating to the most current rating, and notice if the guided imagery technique decreased your stress levels or “body talk”.
Guided imagery scripts can be used for general stress reduction, to boost your immune functioning, or for specific stress-related health concerns issues from pain management to autoimmune disorders to cancer treatment. It is also pretty great for getting your child to fall asleep at night (wink, wink). Using an audio recording is recommended so that you can close your eyes and more fully engage with your imagination. If you would like to give special place guided imagery a try, below is a sample of one of the many scripts that I often use in my office with children and teenagers for general relaxation to help with anxiety or depression. You can listen to this guided imagery audio recording I made, or you can make a new recording yourself using the script below as a model and adding in your own sensory details for what you see, hear, feel, and smell in your special place. Try it, and notice how much more positive and peaceful you feel.
Special Place Guided Imagery Script
Today you are going to design your very own special place in your imagination. This is a place where you can visit whenever you want to feel calm, safe, and secure. All you need is your imagination.
But first, let’s get settled and relaxed before you start your visit. Find a comfortable position sitting or lying down. Gently close your eyes if it helps you feel calm and relaxed. Notice how you are feeling right now… in your body and in your mind.
Take a deep breath in through your nose, letting your belly fill with air like a balloon… And then slowly let it out through your mouth, letting your belly flatten as the balloon deflates.
Take another deep belly breath in, and allow your body to relax and soften as you slowly exhale.
Continue to breathe slowly and gently, deepening your relaxation more and more with each breath. Deeper and deeper. More and more relaxed. Calm. Safe. Secure.
Now in your imagination you see that there is an enormous door in front of you. What does your door look like? What color is it? Is it made of intricately carved wood, sturdy wrought iron, shiny reflective glass? Maybe it’s the door to your bedroom or the familiar front door of your home. Imagine your door in front of you now.
Behind that door is the entryway to your very own special place. This place can be any place that you want, a place that is calm, relaxing, and feels good to you. It can be a forest, a beach, an island, on the moon, a star, a planet far, far away or a simple hammock in your back yard. It is the first image that comes to you when you hear the words “special place.”
Now, quietly walk up to the door and place your hand on the doorknob. As you open the door, your special place will unfold before you and you will be free to enter. On the count of three, open the door and step across the threshold into your special place. One…two…three… and there you are!
What do you see before you? Know that all of this place is your own creation. If you would like to add a tree, rock, an animal friend, flower, star, anything at all, it is up to you. Practice adding a special item to your place. Beautiful! Now practice making it disappear. It is all in your power. You decide what is allowed into your special place. Everything in this place is created by you. No one can enter without your permission. You create every bit of it!
What sounds do you hear in your special place? Do you hear birds, a waterfall, waves lapping on the beach, or wind rustling the leaves? You can add other sounds if you would like. Just push your virtual play button and allow the sounds to play.
What do you feel in your special place? Is there a gentle breeze in your hair or sun warming your face? Do you feel grass or sand beneath you, cool water or a soft pillow? What do you feel with your hands and feet and body? It is completely up to you. Are there any pleasant scents in your special place? Salty ocean air? Fresh cut grass or flowers? Something baking in the oven? Take a moment to just enjoy all the soothing sensations around you.
Now find a comfortable spot to lie down and relax in your special place. Just relax for a few minutes, taking in the view around you, listening to what is happening in your special place, enjoying the textures and physical sensations you feel, and smelling any nice scents on the air. Know that this place is entirely complete and whole. You are complete and enough in your special place. Breathe into your heart and connect fully with feelings of relaxation. Breathe through your heart center. Relax, let go of the outside world that is beyond this place. Relax. Let go.
Take some time to breathe deeply and just enjoy this feeling of being in your special place. Calm, relaxed, safe, secure. Remember how this moment feels.
Now it is time to leave. Gently get up and walk back to the door, pause to look over your shoulder for another glimpse of your special place, knowing that you can return in any moment.
At the door, step over the threshold back through the door and close it behind you. If you would like, you can lock the door and place the key in a special location that you can find later when you want to return. The key to return is always with you in your imagination.
Taking two deep breaths in, begin to become aware of the surface you are sitting or lying on. Allow your breathing to return to normal. When you are ready, you can open your eyes, still feeling just as calm and relaxed as you did in your special place.