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How to become a guided imagery therapist

woman with closed eyes picturing mental visual scenarios
joe edwards

Written and reported by:
Joe Edwards
Staff Writer

Recent scientific research has shown that guided imagery healing can have profound effects on stress management, pain tolerance, and many other forms of physical and psychological discomfort. 

What is guided imagery?

Guided imagery therapy, a relaxation technique used by medical and mental health professionals to help patients visualize events, scenes, or other things that cause feelings of calm and positivity, finds its origins in the concept of the mind-body connection.

Used to modify behavior in an individual, akin to that of polarity therapy, the mind-body connection emphasizes the interaction between the mind—its thoughts, feelings, and attitudes—and how these can positively or negatively affect the body.

In mental imagery therapy, a person focuses on mental images to improve their physical and emotional health and help change destructive or negative behaviors and improve health.

Guided imagery for anxiety and other uses

The goal is to trigger the body’s natural relaxation response and help a patient handle emotional, mental, and physical stress.

Further study is needed, and studies have their limitations, but thus far Guided Imagery has exhibited some positive results, particularly with:

  • How to calm a racing heart
  • How to stop heart palpitations
  • Slowing breathing
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Relaxation
  • Relieving pain
  • Techniques for falling asleep
  • Dealing with nightmares
  • Helping with depression & PTSD

For example, a therapist may ask a client dealing with cancer to perform guided imagery meditation and picture their immune system attacking cancer cells, or assist an artist or sports figure in cultivating a relaxed state to aid creativity or performance.

4 steps to becoming a Guided Imagery therapist

Understand the benefits of visual imagery therapy.

therapist talking patient through visual process

Before joining the field, take some time to explore the benefits of what you’ll be pursuing:

Anxiety and stress relief: Studies show that mental imagery helps reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. A 2017 study involving progressive care unit patients compared the stress-relieving benefits of guided imagery therapy with a clinical massage.

The study found that 30 minutes of visual imagery therapy (anxiety images) had similar positive results to a 15-minute massage. Research from 2018 also concluded that visual imagery therapy might help reduce pre-surgery anxiety.

Another study, performed by a guided imagery therapist, found the therapy decreased pre-exam anxiety in students.

• Improves sleep: Stress and anxiety can also make it difficult to sleep. However, several research studies suggest guided imagery therapy may help improve a patient’s sleep. For example, research into the effect of visual imagery techniques (sleep images) on older adults undergoing abdominal surgery found that the practice improved sleep quality and relieved insomnia.

Relieves pain: Stress can also worsen an individual’s perception of pain. However, mental imagery therapy can help distract someone from pain. A 2017 review reported that guided imagery might help patients manage pain after orthopedic surgery. Similarly, another 2019 study found that it decreases post-surgery pain in children. According to another research report, mental imagery therapy and progressive muscle relaxation helped ease pain in cancer patients.

Reduces depression: Intrusive negative mental scenarios or images may be a key factor in the onset and continuance of depression. This response then triggers the question of whether positive images can genuinely help one’s mental health.

One clinical trial study involving participants undergoing hemodialysis found that the level of depression and anxiety was lower in those who had received the guided imagery intervention than in those who had not.

Explore training and certification programs.

woman researching school programs on laptop

Guided imagery therapy requires several hours of specialized training in addition to graduate-level education. Different schools and associations provide training and certification in guided visualization therapy.

Individuals interested in gaining skills in the field can receive training in fundamental techniques, such as relaxation methods and working with polarity.

Most programs include a post-graduate curriculum aimed at healthcare professionals like physicians, nurses, and mental health therapists and include topics such as:

• Medical research
• History of visual imagery
• Symbolism and beliefs
• Elements of therapeutic guided visualization
• Guided imagery intervention

Often, you’ll be introduced to guided visualization therapy through firsthand experience. Further study is usually focused on practice, theory, the history of the field, and ethical and professional practice.

Training duration

Training is typically done in a workshop setting, although some self-learning approaches may also be incorporated into the curriculum. Earning certification requires completing a particular number of training hours, which vary by the certifying organization.

Training, which often consists of three levels that must be completed within 24 months, is delivered through online group workshops and home-study modules. In addition, interested guided imagery practitioners must:

• complete 150 hours of training,
• 33 hours of self-learning or independent study,
• and must be licensed as mental health professionals.

Additional continuing education and training are also available through the Academy for Guided Imagery. Health educators, bodyworkers, personal health coaches, and counselors can also pursue training in guided visualization.

The average length of study

Practitioners can complete introductory training in as little as a week of hands-on, intensive training. For example, The Academy for Guided Imagery requires 150 study hours for its professional certification program. However, programs that lead to certification can take a year to finish.

Guided imagery certification

Guided imagery practitioners are not formally regulated or licensed in the United States, but several training programs lead to professional certification. Most organizations like the Academy for Guided Imagery and the Center for Healing and Imagery offer training and certification for already-licensed professionals, such as psychotherapists, massage therapists, and nurses.

Training requirements

Eligibility for guided imagery training can vary with the institution. However, it is a common requirement that interested individuals hold a master’s degree and be certified or licensed professionals in their chosen fields of study, such as psychology.

Some institutions recognize unlicensed professionals like health educators who might be able to provide healing benefits to clients. These unlicensed professionals interested in pursuing guided imagery therapy certification might be required to submit a resume, any pertinent proof of specialized certification or credentialing, and a letter of intent.

Consider the outlook for guided imagery therapy.

woman with closed eyes touh forehead with finger

Mind-body medicine continues to become more mainstream, and both clinicians and patients are focusing more on drug-free and preventive wellness.

The NIH National Library of Medicine confirms that in 2020 “meditation and other mind-body practices, such as yoga and mindfulness, are growing in popularity, with 14% of the U.S. adult population reporting having used these techniques within the previous year.”

As a result, practitioners with guided imagery meditation training may be in higher demand in fields ranging from psychiatry, psychology, medicine, dentistry, and even sports.

While mental imagery can be practiced at home using written materials or audio recordings, guided imagery therapists work in various settings such as hospitals, stress management clinics, and cancer treatment centers.

Salaries for Guided Imagery Therapists

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics includes guided imagery therapists in the category for all other types of diagnosing and treating practitioners. These individuals earned a median annual salary of $106,230 in 2021.

Decide if this field is right for you and take action.

woman therapist checks reclining patient

The ideal candidate for guided imagery therapy training is a caring health professional looking to enrich their career in mental health, health care—and even bodywork—and someone with a whole-person, integrative philosophy regarding medicine and wellness, such as holistic health practitioners and those practicing in the adjacent field of Reki.

Skilled mental imagery practitioners can use the technique to bridge the gap between the unconscious and conscious mind, allowing patients to experience the therapeutic benefits of focused and directed mental imagery on both body and mind.

Parting words

Practitioners with mental imagery training help their clients tap into the healing influences that the mind can have over the body, using relaxation techniques, directed thoughts, visualization, storytelling, and a variety of other methods.

Extreme care should be taken, or this type of therapy avoided altogether, for people who are pre-disposed to psychosis, delusions, dementia, delirium, hallucinations, have unprocessed trauma, and/or personal and religious beliefs that may conflict with the imagery sessions.

Updated: September 13th, 2021