Enhancing Intentional Rest with Guided Imagery
for Auto-Immune Disorders
Miriam Franco, Psy.D.
Auto-Immune Disorders, such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), are associated with inflammatory disease processes that evoke muscle or joint stiffness, bone wearing fatigue and high levels of anxiety due to the lack of predictability and uncertainty of future outcomes. Typically, daily rest periods are required. These timeouts are rarely welcomed and are frequently described as “crash downs” in which one suddenly experiences a pocket of immobilizing fatigue. Naturally, these rest breaks are often resented and perceived as ‘dead space’, pulling one out of being with loved ones or getting productive tasks accomplished. They also serve as constant reminders of the intrusion of the disease on one’s sense of self and of the loss of former functioning.
These rest breaks are necessary but can also be converted into better utilized therapeutic windows of healing. As a Relaxation and Guided Imagery Specialist, I teach clients with autoimmune disorders how to empower themselves and use this time to improve short-term immune function, renew energy and balance and to engage in a playful, heightened state of body relaxation, curiosity and sensory imagery rather than just burn out.
By teaching GI, gentle yet powerful mind-body techniques, clients learn how to become deeply relaxed in their bodies while awake. In order best to deeply rest and combat anxiety, they need to learn to breathe from their bellies ( which centers them) and stay in the present rather than over anticipate their future or dwell on their past. Intentional rest periods are times to rest but also to enjoy their bodies and reduce muscle tension and stiffness. Relaxation and Guided Imagery has been demonstrated to improve short-term immune function (Trackhtenberg, 2008), reduce muscle tension and stiffness in MS (Franco, 2008), RA Baird et al, 2010), reduce arthritic pain (Giacobbi et al, 2014)and to renew energy and vigor in MS (Sutherland et al, 2005). It’s easy to learn, user-friendly, inexpensive, non- invasive and a versatile technique you can practice anywhere ( just not while driving).
First, one is taught how to relax by just slowing their exhale and then instructed to not work on relaxing. Diaphragmatic breathing will develop as one exhales slowly and unfold naturally. As one breathes from the belly, more oxygen is brought to the muscles which reduces muscle tension, as well as slows heart rate and breathing. This induces heightened parasympathetic functioning- that part of the central nervous system that is always on, especially during rest, and repairs cells, renews energy and restores balance. In short time, a meditative state is evoked in which visual scanning and processing move to a more immediate and present focus. This results in what is commonly referred to as The Relaxation Response.
If you then add sensory images, even simple grounding exercises like imagining your ideal place of relaxation or picturing someone easy to love, a wonderful thing starts to happen! Your body starts to receive these images and experiences the healing properties of them. When deeply relaxed, guided sensory exercises can create deep reverberations in the body and the body treats these images as having real effects. In fact, right brain processing is heightened by this and people are capable in this conscious state of experiencing these images as more immediate, more vivid and emotionally charged. As a result, in a relaxed way, they can experience rapid shifts in perception and behavior.
With brief practice, rest periods become intentional times of expansive self – healing. Tired bodies can offer creative experiences that allow for recovery while enjoying imagined vistas and memories of a time when love flowed easily. This promotes living in the present and is experienced as a deeply felt, whole body restorative state.
I now have a GI app (ImageryWork) so clients don’t have to purchase CDs and can easily transport GI exercises to their intentional rest periods or practice it while sitting in a Dr.’s office. I start practice for Intentional Rest Periods with my De-Stress 101, a sensory laden body scan in which one imagines letting go of tension stored in their body. Then I move onto Imagine the Possibilities where one can experience outcomes they would like to have more of with their senses. Or Going to a Safe Place where you feel serene and recruit with your senses all the healing properties of a ‘sanctuary, anchoring yourself before taking on life’s next challenge.