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Guided Imagery & Diabetes: A Special Report for Practitioners

08 Aug

What is Guided Imagery, Anyway?

Guided imagery is an immersive, hypnotic, audio intervention, consisting of calming words, soothing music and positive images, designed to structure a relaxing, healing experience that targets specific health goals.

It can be spoken by a practitioner or self-administered with a recording.

Considered the “lazy man’s meditation”, because it takes no training or preparation whatsoever, it is extremely easy, user-friendly, portable and private, requiring only an audio player and the ability to press “Play”.

It works well as an adjuvant therapy alongside conventional treatment, and is also helpful on its own.

If you click on the links below, you’ll hear brief audio samples that will immediately convey to you the nature of this intervention.

Guided Imagery & Diabetes
Download the Report (PDF)

An Explosion of Research

Over the past two decades, with the development of more sophisticated research methods and a better understanding of mind-body medicine, we’ve learned that techniques that promote relaxation and mood regulation will shift biochemistry in ways that can profoundly benefit people with diabetes.

Studies investigating guided imagery1, breath management2, relaxation3, autogenic training4, hypnosis5 (all of these techniques are also forms of guided imagery), as well as biofeedback6, acupressure7, yoga8, tai chi9 and mindfulness based stress reduction10 have yielded impressive or promising results with blood glucose, HbA1c, lipid status, peripheral circulation, post-prandial hypoglycemic levels, blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, depression, anxiety and improved self-care.

Guided imagery is one of the simplest, most user-friendly, portable, self-administered and scalable of interventions. It is easy to add to a treatment plan, has built-in reinforcement for continued use, and it will support motivation for increased self-care, with even the most challenging of daily regimens.

General Benefits

Four decades of research have established numerous benefits. Guided imagery is an astonishingly simple, flexible and easy tool for promoting health and wellness, getting through difficult medical procedures, managing symptoms and, in some cases, even reducing disease. [See Appendix A for a sampling of general findings on the efficacy of guided imagery for various health challenges.]

It is a practice that packs a powerful punch, because of the way it can skip around cognition and send healing messages straight into the whole being, by way of primitive, sensory and emotion-based channels in the brain and nervous system.

Imagery travels primarily via “right brain” sensing, perceiving, feeling and apprehending, rather than through left brain thinking, judging, analyzing and deciding.

Indeed, imagery is the gift that keeps on giving, creating a highly receptive reverie state, where healing images can act like a depth charge dropped deep beneath the surface of the mind, reverberating again and again, delivering rich, complex, healing messages to mind, body and spirit. Impact is cumulative and intensifies over time.

It is fast, powerful, costs little or nothing, and gets easier and more effective with continued use. Its end-user needn’t be smart, rich, well educated, young, strong, nor mentally healthy to reap its considerable benefits.

Listeners can be bone-tired, disgusted, depressed, disbelieving, listless, resistant, distracted, mentally disabled, physically unfit or at death’s door, and yet the imagery will still bestow its benefits.

In addition, it easily, comfortably and non-competitively supports other ongoing therapies, helping to anchor the inroads made by conventional treatment.

To summarize, guided imagery offers a wide range of general benefits:

  • Promotes relaxation
  • Reduces stress, anxiety
  • Counters depression
  • Lowers cholesterol
  • Improves blood pressure
  • Improves focus, concentration
  • Improves performance
  • Helps with sleep
  • Boosts energy
  • Increases self-esteem
  • Promotes and maintains smoking cessation
  • Improves surgical outcomes
  • Helps patients tolerate difficult medical procedures
  • Reduces pain and ameliorates other symptoms
  • Decreases side effects of medication and treatment

Particular Benefits for Diabetes

In addition, guided imagery has some special advantages for those working to promote the proper management of diabetes. Among other things, it can do the following:

  • Lowers hemoglobin A1C
  • Reduces blood glucose, in the short and long term
  • Helps with circulation and neuropathy
  • Raises endorphin levels - decreases pain, lifts mood
  • Enhances feelings of empowerment, hope, mastery
  • Increases motivation for self-care, even with a difficult daily regimen
  • Reduces anxiety-based behaviors, including compulsive eating, smoking & drinking
  • Is user friendly - doesn’t ask a lot from weary, discouraged end-users
  • Delivers immediately felt benefits, thus reinforcing continued use
  • Is self-administered, allowing the end user to be in control
  • Has portability – can be uploaded to a phone or MP3 and used anywhere
  • Facilitates transition – can be introduced in the hospital and brought home
  • Offers wide application - listeners don’t need to be trained, focused, motivated, smart or even awake to benefit from use

Practical Tips for Success

  • Put some imagery audio clips on the phone line at your hospital and make them available to patients who are getting stressed on the floor.

  • Upload clips of guided imagery, breathing exercises, affirmations, walking meditations to your patient’s smart phone or MP3 player and show them how to use it.

  • If they’re technologically intimidated, order some Playaways for simplifying mistake-proof use.

  • Remember, this technique works well with other treatments and tools. Not only does it not compete with them, but it supports them by promoting hope, motivation and self-care, along with improved biochemistry.

  • If there is resistance to trying guided imagery, start with one that helps with sleep. Patients are more likely to relax and let go when trying to sleep.

  • Don’t get discouraged if a patient doesn’t “get it” at first: skill, efficiency, speed and impact increase with practice.

  • Don’t “sell” it too hard. But you may want to play a segment in the office, so they can hear it with you first. Otherwise, they may not try it out on their own.

  • It helps to advise people to not worry about being perfect at this – half-baked attention works, too.

  • People who are not used to being both relaxed and awake at the same time will routinely fall asleep while listening. Reassure them this is okay - it will benefit them anyway.

  • If dozers want to know what’s on the recording, they can listen sitting up, standing or walking. But it’s okay for them to nap.

  • Tell people they can change the narrative in their own minds to suit themselves. If they’re religious, let them invoke Jesus or a symbol of faith at the start; or you can encourage them to fill in the blanks with favorite people and places. They can also ignore parts they don’t like.
  • Remind your patients that they don’t have to be “visual” for this to work – the imagery engages all the senses – sights, sounds, tastes, feel, smells, emotion. (Remember, only a little over half of the population is strongly visual.)

  • Take advantage of a group setting. The altered state is contagious, and people will have a more impactful experience in a group. So introduce imagery in a support group or even very large audience if you can.

  • Music increases the effects of imagery, unless the listener is a music major or musician who gets analytical or hypercritical about music, in which case it may be better without music altogether.

  • If a listener has hearing problems, the music can mask the words. In that case, it’s better to get an audio without music or to read from a script found in a book, while playing the background music at lower level.

  • Remember that the patient does not have to be a “believer” in guided imagery in order to benefit from it. Even a skeptical willingness to give it a try is enough to get the ball rolling.

  • Keep in mind that people who normally would not give it a try, will almost always when under the gun – especially when facing surgery or other scary situations.

  • Imagery is great with a massage or a Reiki treatment or other forms of physical touch. Touch helps with relaxation and increases the kinesthetic power of the images. [A newly published study in Military Medicine (Sept 2012) shows that guided imagery combined with Healing Touch significantly reduced posttraumatic stress, depression and cynicism, and improved mental quality of life in combat-exposed Marines facing re-deployment – in only 6 sessions/3 weeks, which is just plain astounding.]

  • Encouraging the use of the same posture or hand-positioning with each imaging session creates a conditioning cue that helps the patient respond with an immediate relaxation/healing response to the posture.

  • You can reassure your patients that losing track of the guided narrative is not an indicator that they are listening incorrectly. A wandering mind is just part of the experience. The imagery is still being absorbed.

  • You will notice that people will often tear up, get runny noses, cough, yawn, feel heaviness in their limbs, get tingling along the top of their scalp or in their hands and feet, or experience minor, involuntary muscle-movements. These are normal responses to guided imagery. You can reassure your patients it’s all good.
  • Keep in mind that an indicator of a strong response during the imagery is unusual stillness, increased coloring in the face, and an ironing out of lines and wrinkles. After the imagery, a person’s voice will be deeper and lower, the breathing slower and more relaxed.

  • Usually an imaging exercise will clear a headache or remove back pain, joint pain or stomach aches, because of the combination of muscle relaxation and increased endorphins. But occasionally people acquire a headache. Physical movement, pressing acupoints, changing posture or using additional imagery to release the trapped energy will remedy this.

Try It!

This is a technique that is worth trying. It won’t be for everyone, but it can do a world of good for a substantial number of patients. And it can make your work a lot easier and more rewarding.

And don’t forget yourself or your family, either. It can help you relax, lose weight, sleep better and feel more positive, too. And it can help your kids take a test, win at sports or ace a recital.

So check it out. You won’t regret it.


Featured Guided Imagery for Diabetes


More guided imagery to support diabetes can be found


Imagery has been found to reduce anxiety and depression11, lower blood pressure12, reduce cholesterol13 and lipid peroxides14 in cardiac patients, speed up healing from cuts15, fractures16 and burns17, reduce blood loss18 and length of hospital stay in surgery patients19, beef up short term immune function20, reduce pain from arthritis21 and fibromyalgia22, increase comfort during all manner of medical procedures23, improve motor deficits in stroke patients24, reduce fear in young children undergoing MRIs25 and needle sticks26, cut down bingeing and purging in people with bulimia27, improve success rates in infertile couples28, accelerate weight loss29 and improve concentration in developmentally disabled adults30, to name just a few of the established benefits.


1 Wichowski HC, Kubsch SM.Increasing diabetic self-care through guided imagery. Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery. 1999 Dec;5 (6): pp. 159-63.

2 Richard S. Surwit, Miranda A.L. van Tilburg, Nancy Zucker, Cynthia C. McCaskill, Priti Parekh, Mark N. Feinglos, Christopher L. Edwards, Paula Williams and James D. Lane. Stress Management Improves Long-Term Glycemic Control in Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2002 25: 30-34.

3 McGinnis RA, McGrady A, Cox SA, Grower-Dowling KA.Biofeedback-assisted relaxation in type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2005 Sep; vol. 28 (9): pages 2145-9.

4 Kostić N, Secen S.Effect of autogenic training on glucose regulation and lipid status in non-insulin dependent diabetics. Medisinski Pregled. 2000 May-Jun;53 (5-6):pp 285-8.

5 Xu Y, Cardeña E. Hypnosis as an adjunct therapy in the management of diabetes. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. 2008 Jan;56 (1): pp.63-72

6 McGinnis RA, McGrady A, Cox SA, Grower-Dowling KA.Biofeedback-assisted relaxation in type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2005 Sep; vol. 28 (9): pages 2145-9.

7 Bay R, Bay F. Combined therapy using acupressure therapy, hypnotherapy, and transcendental meditation versus placebo in type 2 diabetes. Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies. 2011 Sep;4(3):183-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jams.2011.09.006

8 Shantakumari N, Sequeira S, El Deeb R. Effects of a yoga intervention on lipid profiles of diabetes patients with dyslipidemia. Indian Heart Journal. 2013 Mar-Apr;65 (2): pp. 127-31.

9 Ahn S, Song R. Effects of Tai Chi Exercise on glucose control, neuropathy scores, balance, and quality of life in patients with type 2 diabetes and neuropathy. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2012 Dec;18 (12):1172-8.

10 Rosenzweig S, Reibel DK, Greeson JM, Edman JS, Jasser SA, McMearty KD, Goldstein BJ. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is associated with improved glycemic control in type 2 diabetes mellitus: a pilot study. Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine.. 2007 Sep-Oct;13 (5):pp. 36-8.

11 McKinney CH, Antoni MH, Kumar M, Tims FC, McCabe PM. Effects of guided imagery and music (GIM) therapy on mood and cortisol in healthy adults. Health Psychology 1997 Jul;16(4): pp. 390-400.

12 J. M. Hermann. Essential hypertension and stress. When do yoga, psychotherapy and autogenic training help? MMW Fortschr Med 2002 May 9;144(19): pp. 38-41.

13 Bennett P, Carroll D. Stress management approaches to the prevention of coronary heart disease. British Journal of Clinical Psychology 1990 Feb;29 ( Pt 1): pp. 1-12.

14 Schneider RH, Nidich SI, Salerno JW, Sharma HM, Robinson CE, Nidich RJ,Alexander CN. Lower lipid peroxide levels in practitioners of the Transcendental Meditation program. Psychosomatic Medicine. 1998. Jan-Feb; 60 (1): 38-41.

15Ginandes C, Brooks P, Sando W, Jones C, Aker J. Can medical hypnosis accelerate post-surgical wound healing? Results of a clinical trial. Am J Clin Hypn 2003 Apr;45(4): pp. 333-51.

16 Ginandes CS, Rosenthal DI. Using hypnosis to accelerate the healing of bone fractures: a randomized controlled pilot study. Alternative and Complementary Therapies in Health and Medicine. 1999 Mar;5(2): pp. 67-75.

17 Fratianne RB, Prensner JD, Huston MJ, Super DM, Yowler CJ, Standley JM. The effect of music-based imagery and musical alternate engagement on the burn debridement process. J Burn Care Rehabil 2001 Jan-Feb;22(1): pp.47-53.

18 Dreher H, Mind-body interventions for surgery: evidence and exigency. Advances in Mind-Body Medicine 1998 (14): pp. 207-222.

19 Halpin LS, Speir AM, CapoBianco P, Barnett SD. Guided imagery in cardiac surgery. Outcomes Management 2002 Jul-Sep;6(3): pp.132-7.

20 Gruzelier JH. A review of the impact of hypnosis, relaxation, guided imagery and individual differences on aspects of immunity and health. Stress 2002 Jun;5(2): pp. 147-63.

21 Sharpe L, Sensky T, Timberlake N, Ryan B, Brewin CR, Allard S. A blind, randomized, controlled trial of cognitive-behavioural intervention for patients with recent onset rheumatoid arthritis: preventing psychological and physical morbidity. Pain 2001 Jan;89(2-3):275-83

22 Citation: Whiting P, Bagnall AM, Sowden AJ, Cornell JE, Mulrow CD, Ramirez G. Interventions for the treatment and management of chronic fatigue syndrome: a systematic review. JAMA. 2001 September 19; 286(11): pp. 1378-9.

23 Richard S. Surwit, Miranda A.L. van Tilburg, Nancy Zucker, Cynthia C. McCaskill, Priti Parekh, Mark N. Feinglos, Christopher L. Edwards, Paula Williams and James D. Lane. Stress Management Improves Long-Term Glycemic Control in Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2002 25: pp. 30-34.

24 Page SJ, Levine P, Sisto S, Johnston MV. A randomized efficacy and feasibility study of imagery in acute stroke. Clinical Rehabilitation. 2001: Jun;15(3):233-40.

25 Smart G. Helping children relax during magnetic resonance imaging. The American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing. 1997: Sept/Oct; 22(5): 237-241.

26 Preliminary doctoral dissertation results presented by Rachel E. Albert, MSN, RN, at the 19th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Pain Society in Atlanta, 2000.

27 Esplen MJ, Garfinkel PE, Olmsted M, Gallop RM, Kennedy S. A randomized controlled trial of guided imagery in bulimia nervosa. Psychology and Medicine 1998 Nov;28(6): pp. 1347-57.

28 Domar AD, Clapp D, Slawsby EA, Dusek J, Kessel B, Freizinger M. Impact of group psychological interventions on pregnancy rates in infertile women. Fertility and Sterility 2000 Apr;73(4):805-11.

29 Johnson DL, Karkut RT. Participation in multicomponent hypnosis treatment programs for women’s weight loss with and without overt aversion. Psychol Rep 1996 Oct;79(2):659-68.

30 Porretta DL, Surburg PR. Imagery and physical practice in the acquisition of gross motor timing of coincidence by adolescents with mild mental retardation. Journal of Perception and Motor Skills 1995 Jun;80(3 Pt 2): pp.1171-83.

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award.