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Imagery Gives Voice to Your Emotions

Imagery seems able to take us for a "glass-bottom boat" ride into our unconscious minds and to let information come to light from that hidden source of intelligence.
02/02/2011 04:43pm ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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Imagery is the language of the arts, the emotions, your deeper self, and the brain regions in which that ancient wisdom abides. It is the neurological "royal road" to reconnecting with the deep emotional and intuitive wisdom that has guided us to thrive, or at least survive, for hundreds of millions of years. When we aren't sure what to do, when we have a problem that we can't figure out, or when we have physical symptoms that defy medical understanding or treatment, imagery makes room for the silent, emotional, intuitive areas of our brains to express themselves and add their wisdom to our perspective.

Julie, a 46-year-old health professional, volunteered to be a demonstration subject in an imagery class I was teaching. She told me that she had been suffering severe pain in both forearms for over three years. It had been diagnosed as a form of tendonitis and she had seen many doctors for it. Nothing had helped her, including intensive physical therapy, splints and even sizable doses of narcotic medications.

I led Julie through a relaxation process, and then invited her to let an image come to mind that could tell her something useful about the pain. Black steel rods in her arms came quickly to mind. She didn't understand what they had to do with her pain, so I asked her what qualities she noticed in the rods and she said they were rigid, cold and unyielding. As she told me about these qualities, an image of her grandfather suddenly came to mind. I asked her to just observe it and see what thoughts came with the image. She said that she had cared for her grandfather in his last two years of his life, because she was his only remaining relative. Julie said that her grandfather was a difficult person and noticed that he had the same qualities that the image conveyed. He was hard, cold, and unyielding, and that had made it especially hard to care for him. She also recalled that she had developed her arm pain during the time she spent with him.

I invited Julie to imagine that she could talk with the image of her grandfather. She said she wanted to ask him why he was the way he was, something she never dared to ask him in real life. When she did that, I encouraged her to imagine that he could communicate back to her in a way she could understand. In her imagination, her grandfather said that he was brought up to be the way he was, and he was very sorry that he hadn't been able to express his softer emotions to her. He said that he loved her very much and appreciated all the help and love that she had given him. She felt a sense of warmth from him and was both surprised and deeply moved. After a while I suggested that she thank him for coming and she imagined that he reached out and hugged her.

Julie felt very relieved after this imagery session. We reviewed her experience for a few minutes, and then I asked her to notice how her arms felt. She was surprised to find that her pain level was quite a bit lower than when she started.

Afterward, Julie went to a grief counselor who supported her in continuing to "talk" to her grandfather this way. Her pain completely resolved after about six sessions and didn't return.

One of the many interesting things about Julie's story is that the imagery led her to an awareness of the connection between her feelings and her physical pain, a connection that we know is there but often have trouble understanding from a rational perspective. The imagery added the missing information that made it difficult for Julie and her doctors to understand why her arms hurt so much for so long.

Imagery seems able to take us for a "glass-bottom boat" ride into our unconscious minds and to let information come to light from that hidden source of intelligence. We might say that Julie's mute, non-verbal, emotional brain was crying out through her body, until she learned how to let it express itself more directly. Once she heard, felt and understood its message, her emotional brain was able to stop signaling for attention.