Relaxation and mental imagery are among the most valuable tools we have found to help patients learn to believe in their ability to recover from cancer. In fact, we mark as the conception of our present approach the first time Carl used mental imagery with a patient. Since then, we have discovered that mental imagery is not only an effective motivational tool for recovering health, but is also an important tool for self-discovery and for making creative change in other areas of life.
We owe our discovery of the relaxation and mental imagery process to Stephanie’s background in motivational psychology. Because of her training, we were aware that this process for altering expectancies had been used by people in many different disciplines. The common thread running through these disciplines was that people created mental images of desired events. By forming an image, a person makes a clear mental statement of what he or she wants to happen. And, by repeating the statement, he or she soon comes to expect that the desired event will indeed occur. As a result of this positive expectation, the person begins to act in ways consistent with achieving the desired result and, in reality, helps to bring it about.
For example, a golfer would visualize a beautiful golf swing with the golf ball going to the desired place. A business person would visualize a successful business meeting. A stage performer would visualize a smooth opening night. A person with a malignancy would picture the tumor shrinking and his body regaining health.
As we were learning of the effectiveness of the relaxation and mental imagery process, we were also learning of the evidence that biofeedback researchers were amassing, that people could learn how to control inner physiological states, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature. When interviewed, these people frequently stated that they had not been able to command the body to alter the internal state but instead had learned a visual and symbolic language by which they communicated with the body.
One woman, who had a dangerously irregular heartbeat, created a picture in her mind’s eye of a little girl on a swing. She would see the little girl rhythmically swinging back and forth whenever she needed to bring her heartbeat under control. Within a short time, she needed no heart medication and had; no more difficulties. Her success and the experiences of thousands of others in using mental imagery to control body states suggested to us that mental imagery—used in conjunction with standard medical treatment—might be a way cancer patients could influence their immune system to become more active in fighting their illness.
Carl first used the mental imagery technique in 1971 with a patient whose cancer was considered medically incurable. The patient practiced three times a day visualizing his cancer, his treatment coming in and destroying it, his white blood cells attacking the cancer cells and flushing them out of his body, and finally imagining himself regaining health. The results were spectacular: The “hopeless” patient overcame his disease and is still alive and healthy.
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