The Value of Mental Pictures
How One Woman Fights PTSD With Guided Imagery
Illustration Credit: Creatress by Janine Jackson
Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) turn me into an involuntary time traveler. I look like a middle-aged woman but I feel like a terrified child. I will myself to make coffee, drive carpool, and finish work while under siege. It’s my own mind I’m battling, amped up on adrenalin or flattened by excruciating numbness. I’ve tried sitting meditation to regain control, but it is as effective as hitting the brakes when the car hydroplanes. My tires need traction. I don’t want to be one with crashing.
“No one has to override fear the way a trauma survivor does,” explains Belleruth Naparstek, author of Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal. In sitting meditation, the “mind can suddenly release intensely distressing images and memory fragments.” That’s certainly what happens for me.
Naparstek, the godmother of guided imagery, is a therapist and now an advocate for people with PTSD. She has become my go-to resource because her audios are customized with words, music, and content sensitive to trauma. She believes not only that trauma is manageable, but that it can be healed.
“You just have to press ‘play’ and the tape will do the work for you,” said Naparstek during a webinar. “Listeners can be bone-tired, disgusted, depressed, disbelieving, listless, resistant, distracted, mentally disabled, physically unfit, or at death’s door and imagery will still be something they can use.”
And that’s true. I get myself to a bed, lean back, and breathe into my belly. The only thing I have to commit to is listening. I can do that.
Here’s an excerpt from one of Naparstek’s guided imagery scripts.
. . . you might begin to notice a tingling in the air all around you . . . the pleasant, subtle feel of energy on your skin . . . tingling and vibrating . . . as if you were surrounded and protected by a magical cushion of air . . . alive with humming energy . . . tiny waves of it, sparkling and dancing with light and color . . .
Within moments, I feel the dampness of lush green leaves and pretend I’m swimming in a warm lake where rainbows appear. The scenes I create are imaginary, but the impact on my body is real. I feel safe, secure, and tethered to the planet.
Guided meditation and imagery isn’t always dreamy. Often, when my breathing slows, I sob deeply. I never regret folding into emotion because it makes me feel connected to myself. Without the encouragement of the meditation, I’d recoil from my own sadness. With it, I feel brave.
This tool is available 24/7. Unlike therapy, it doesn’t require big bucks or planned appointments. I practice while alone, but I feel tended to and nurtured.
Recently, it’s Rick Hanson I’m taking to in bed! He’s a neuropsychologist, but I think of him as a Buddhist Mr. Rogers who dumbs down complex material on neuroplasticity and contemplative practices with quirky exuberance. My other favorite soft-spoken souls and spiritual elders offering guided meditations are Pema ChÖdrÖn, Cheri Huber, and Tara Brach.
Even when I’m not symptomatic, listening before bed pulls me out of obsessing about bills, parenting, or my to-do list. I feel tucked in by tenderness and reminded to focus on beauty as moonlight streams through my bedroom window.
My practice is daily because I approach my trauma recovery the way I do dental care—expecting to need regular maintenance. I’ve learned that being compassionate with and responsive to my own needs and limits is most healing.
Sources of Relief
Tara Brach, Meditations for Emotional Healing, Sounds True
Pema Chödrön, Smile at Fear, Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Belleruth Naparstek, Healing Trauma, Health Journeys
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., & Richard Mendius, M.D., Meditations to Change Your Brain, Sounds True
Cheri Huber, Unconditional Self-Acceptance, Sounds True