Guided Imagery for IBS Pain Relief

Instructions and Examples

Photo: Dylan Ellis/Getty Images

Guided imagery is an option you can consider if you are looking for IBS pain relief. Though there is not a great understanding of how guided imagery works, nor much evidence for its use in IBS, it anecdotally has helped many sufferers of many kinds of chronic symptoms -- and it is completely safe.

Guided imagery is thought to work by using the power of your imagination to bring about desired physical changes.

It is theorized that imagery appears to directly access the autonomic nervous system, the part of our body that controls our inner organs and processes such as digestion.

When you consider what happens to your body after reading a racy section of a novel, it perhaps becomes easier to understand the effect of imagery on bodily processes.

Guided imagery has been used as a way to reduce suffering from a wide variety of human ailments, including headaches, cancer, and postoperative pain. Although a search of studies specifically assessing guided imagery for IBS pain revealed little, studies have shown that guided imagery is effective in reducing symptoms in children who suffer from functional abdominal pain.

Step by Step Instructions for Using Guided Imagery

1. Get into a comfortable position in a quiet place.

2. Use deep breathing techniques to slow your breath and begin to calm your body.

3. Imagine yourself in a place that represents beauty and safety for you.

It could be a real place or just a place that you imagine. Use all of your senses -- sight, taste, smell, hearing, and touch to place you fully in the scene.

4. Form an image in your head of your IBS pain.

5. Imagine yourself gently modifying the image in a way that will serve to relieve pain (examples below).

Spend about ten minutes on this step.

6. Go back to your "safe place" image and spend a few moments relaxing there.

7. Open your eyes and return to the present.

Examples of Pain Imagery and Soothing Alternatives

Readers of this site have generously shared descriptions of their IBS pain. For each example, I offer a soothing alternative:

Pain Imagery:

"It feels like a train going to and fro in my intestines, and feels like the train is scraping some parts of the railway underneath."

Soothing Imagery:

Imagine the train starting to gently slow down. Imagine that the tracks ahead are smoothing into one long straight line. Now see yourself squirting a lubricant onto the tracks so that the train can move more smoothly. Imagine that as the wheels of the train are traveling along the smooth, straight track, that the whole train is moving more silently and comfortably.

Pain Imagery:

"It feels like my insides are being squeezed hard and twisted altogether, making rumbling sounds like an old washing machine!"

Soothing Imagery:

Imagine that you are servicing the washing machine within you, adding lubricant and gently untwisting and smoothing out the parts. See yourself gently swishing the contents of your insides in a very, gentle soothing motion, quieting the machine and quieting your intestines.

Pain Imagery:

"The pain feels like someone is taking my body and wringing it like a dishcloth that has a knife in it."

Soothing Imagery:

Imagine that you are gently taking hold of the dishcloth and gently pulling out the knife. Imagine that the warmth of your hands is slowly melting the sharpness of the knife and use the soft knife to slowly spread warm butter throughout your intestines. Imagine using the dishcloth to further massage the warm butter to lubricate and soften your intestines.

Pain Imagery:

"It feels like there is someone inside me stabbing or punching (depending on the severity) me from the inside out."

Soothing Imagery:

Imagine yourself working alongside the person and showing them how to gently massage your insides instead of stabbing and punching. Imagine using your hands to gently massage your intestines, radiating warmth from your hands and stimulating blood flow.

Pain Imagery:

"It feels like this section of my intestines is expanding like a balloon."

Soothing Imagery:

Imagine that you go inside your self and gently take hold of the balloon. Gently and lovingly, begin to untie the knot in the balloon, slowly letting the air escape. Imagine the balloon slowly beginning to deflate. Gently and lovingly imagine that warmth is radiating out from your hands as you gently massage the outer skin of the balloon, encouraging the air to continue to seep out as the balloon gets smaller and smaller.

More Imagery Examples

  • Twisting down low -- Gently massage and untwist the "ropes" of your intestines.
  • Moving a softball, something growing inside of you -- Imagine using warmth to slowly melt, soften and shrink the "softball" or the foreign object.
  • Insides are going to fall out -- Imagine that the muscles in your pelvis are strong and supple, gently cradling your intestines. Imagine warmth radiating from your pelvic muscles, working its way up through your colon -- warming, soothing and quieting.

Things to Remember

Use your imagination! Feel free to experiment with different images. You may find that it is helpful to have a variety of images available to use at different times and for different sensations.

Using guided imagery may not make your pain disappear entirely. What is more likely is that you will experience a lessening of the pain, helping you to better cope with it.

Sources:

Ball, T. et.al. "A pilot study of the use of guided imagery for the treatment of recurrent abdominal pain in children." Clinical Pediatrics 2003 42:527-532.

Bresler, D. "Free Yourself From Pain" Awareness Press 1979.

Naparstek, B. "Staying Well With Guided Imagery" Wellness Central 1994.

van Tilburg, et.al. "Audio-Recorded Guided Imagery Treatment Reduces Functional Abdominal Pain in Children: A Pilot Study" Pediatrics 2009. 137:1261-1269.

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