Whether you are struggling with physical pain, body memories, illness, headaches, or any of the other distressing symptoms that can come with being a trauma survivor (or someone with a chronic illness) - there are imagery techniques out there that can help alleviate your suffering! As I'm sure you're well aware, medications do little to nothing to relieve your body of pain it’s reliving from the past. Conditions like fibromyalgia and other autonomic/nervous system disorders are also highly prevalent amongst trauma survivors, and they, too, show some of the greatest resistance to medications and other external approaches to treatment. While there are several therapies that can help release your mind and nervous system of these specific types of pain, one solid tool you can use anywhere and anytime, no matter what shape your body is in, is imagery. More specifically, Healing Pool or Healing Light imagery.
We'll walk you through both of these techniques, but to make sure you have the greatest chance at success, we want to be sure you understand the concept of imagery and how it's used first. (If you're already familiar, you can skip this part and head straight to the exercise!)
Imagery is a coping skill that allows you to picture things in your mind's eye - very vividly and in exquisite detail - to bring yourself and your body to a calmer state. It may be used to relieve pain, put away upsetting memories or intrusive thoughts, contain distressing emotions, retreat to a safer or quieter place, get some desperately needed rest, or just about anything your mind can create. This is a skill that, like all tools for combatting trauma symptoms, does take practice and is one to experiment with when you don't "need" it. This way, when you're flustered, overwhelmed and unable to think clearly, it's second-nature instead of "some dumb thing that's probably useless anyway". (Yes, we're very familiar with that rhetoric and guilty of it ourselves when distressed.) Imagery is a technique constructed around being as detailed, descriptive, multi-sensory, and personalized as possible. Imagining yourself in a place or scenario that holds absolutely zero interest to you, that you have a hard time visualizing, or is even upsetting to you, is NOT going to be helpful. Commanding the full use of your mind and its senses will engage so many more neurons and ask them to get off the upsetting or painful feedback loops they’re currently on - which is good not only mentally but for your physical health. So, more detail, more customization toward my preferences and interest, got it! What else?
Have patience with yourself. Sometimes your mind is going to wander, that's okay. Sometimes the environment just isn’t going to work well, and you might feel frustrated, but that's also okay. It's not your fault, or an inability to "do it right", or "never going to work". Your body may be under a lot more distress than can be managed at that moment or it’s a visualization that just isn’t tailor-made for these symptoms. If for any reason it's making things worse, perhaps there's something triggering about the scene you chose that you hadn't even considered. Or, particularly for those with DID, maybe there's a part of your mind who has misgivings about allowing you to feel comfort or make the pain "go away". (Even if you don't have DID, some aspect of your mind may still feel this way.) This happens sometimes. It doesn't mean all is lost, that you'll never be able to use this skill, or that your mind is sabotaging you. You just need to work with that stumbling block and either talk through it or at least find a compromise.
And, finally? The more you truly believe these skills are working for you - drawing out the pain from your physical body, sealing up those memories nice and tight, slowing not only the intense emotions but your heart rate and tense body too - the better it will work. If you just go through the pictures in your mind and don't try to connect them to what your body and mind are truly experiencing (whether that’s because you were sure it couldn't possibly touch the level of pain you’re in, were just doing it to tell your therapist you did, think coping skills are worthless, yadda yadda), welp, then, you're right, it's not going to work. The mind is sooo powerful, and highly susceptible to the input YOU give it. If you tell your mind you're now feeling differently or that parts of your body are starting to feel numbed or relaxed, it's likely going to believe it at least a little (if not much more) and start to follow suit. (And not just in a hocus-pocus, frou frou kind of way, but instead a well-researched, biological way - based on the new neural connections you helped your body make.) Trust in it; the more you do, the more success you'll have. And truly, if you're in distress and just need the madness to pause, or the pain to stop, what do have to lose by committing your whole self to the exercise? You've probably tried everything else, possibly even things with serious side effects. This has zero, so why not give it your all?
Now for the fun part!
Healing pool is just what it sounds like. It's imagery that relies on a body of water with personalized healing properties to target and alleviate your pain from head to tippy toe.
To start, choose a location that feels the most calming and soothing to you based on the type of pain you’re experiencing and the environment that appeals to your senses. Nothing is off limits! It can be a real place you’d like to visit or one you’ve already been and love. Or, you can create a magical, mystical wonderland that’s the perfect fantasy destination for healing. Try to paint the scene as vividly as you possibly can. Is it a tropical oasis? ..on a beach with crystal clear waters, sand, and an ocean breeze? Is it in a mythical forest? ..with a hidden spring, ancient stone fountains, and tall woodland trees all around you? Is it in a rainforest or Hawaiian escape? ..with tall, cascading waterfalls emptying into a warm, quaint natural pool? (Hey, it can be magic, remember? That pool doesn't need to empty out somewhere else just because there's a waterfall leading in!) Or, do you prefer something in a colder climate? A northern, mountainous retreat with perhaps a hot spring bubbling up, or a cooler lake to calm the aching? If none of these known environments are pleasing to you, you can even leave this world behind and be on your own planet, in a futuristic world, or high atop the clouds in a land with its own prodigious body of water. Creativity in imagery knows no earthly bounds!
Once you've chosen a general landscape and water source that is perfect for you, go deeper still into that world. What do you hear? Are there birds or other animal/nature sounds? What kind? Are they quiet and sporadic or filling your ears like music? Does the water itself make a trickling sound, have crashing waves hitting the shore, or does it bubble as it waits for you to enter? What do you feel? Is the air warm? The hot and muggy kind? Sunny but breezy? That still and "just right" feeling? Or, is it instead cold, clear, crisp and refreshing? Now, what about the time of day? This may change each time you return, but is your healing hideaway in the invigorating daylight, amidst the beautiful colors of a sunset, or is this a moonlit dip in the water? (You can try all the above in future visits!) Now, return your focus to the water. This is your healing water - not just any old water. Does it have a special color? Does is glisten or sparkle? Does it have any billowing mist coming off of it? Perhaps it's not even earthly water, and instead a mystical, dry ice-like fog? Or, maybe it's more like a warm liquid gold? Maybe crystal blue ocean water with iridescent ribbons of light eager to heal your pain speaks to you? The possibilities are endless!
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Now it's time to get in. We know when you’re in terrible pain and agony, the urge to just jump right in and submerge yourself immediately can be so intense - anything to stop the pain immediately. But, this technique actually works much better, and for longer, if you can gradually go through each part of your body, one at a time - really feeling it take effect not only in your mind, but in your skin, muscles and bones. Some may even witness the coloring in their skin shift through different techniques as their body responds as though this were entirely real. So, go slow and commit yourself to experiencing the variety of sensations; relief will find you much more completely.
Go ahead and stick your toes in. What happens? Does the water change color? Make a sound? Begin to draw the pain out of your body, dissolving it as it hits the water? Is it cold on your toes - almost making you shiver or giving you goosebumps? Or is it so warm and inviting - everything you ever hoped to be - stirring an audible sigh of relief at first touch?
Now, go ahead and let it cover your ankles. Wiggle your toes around and paddle your feet, remembering that this is YOUR healing water, no one else's. It knows just what you need.
Move further still, putting your calves in. Notice them relax, surprising you at just how much tension they were holding while you were totally unawares. Give your legs another kick, pushing and pulling against the weight of the water, feeling it whisk between your legs as they pass each other.
Scoot further in now and let it cover your knees. Spend some extra time here and let it fully soothe your tired legs and aching joints. Notice how incredibly weightless they feel. It's quite possibly the best feeling you've ever had.
Slide in now and feel the water come up over your thighs and up to your hips. It's not too hot or too cool, it's exactly what your body craves, almost as if it was pulling you in. Notice your legs just completely melt, almost wishing to release a sigh of their own. It's as if not only the healing properties but the water itself goes straight through your skin into every tissue, cell and fiber of your body, drawing out every ounce of hurt or exhaustion in your poor, tired legs. They feel almost euphoric in the release.
Go in up over your tummy and up to your ribs now. As a wave of relief washes over you, even the coloring in your face changes and the tension held in your pained expression relaxes. All the nausea and cramping and pain - any body memories or low back pain - it's all just drawn out of you and replenished with a level of comfort you didn't even know was possible. Cooling, numbing, calming every inch, while warming and softening other aching muscles.
Go ahead and let your arms start to fall in now. After your fingers dip in, it's only natural to want to play with the water. You've never been in anything like it! What does it feel like? Does it swirl? Can you pick it up, does it change when you hold it in your hands?
Now sway your wrists and hands through the water, pushing and spreading it out. See how cramped and pained your hands were? You maybe didn't even notice in all the rest of your body's aching. Or, maybe they were swollen and rigid and tense and this was exactly what you wanted. Spend extra time on them. Now you can open and close a fist without pain, wiggle your fingers loosely, and dance in the water without pressure or restriction. They feel FREE!
Drop your arms until the water covers your elbows - now able to stand completely comfortably, your shoulders more relaxed. Take a nice deep breath. Do you want to keep walking around in it now - free to twirl in a circle - or, would you rather sit on an underwater stone or rocky ledge and just take it easy?
Either way, dip yourself slowly lower until the water is up to your collarbone. Feel your chest cavity expand and the fresh oxygen rush into your lungs. You'd been holding your breath for so long in the pain and you're now invigorated with such clean, healing air. You didn't know your lungs could open so far! Notice your heart rate slow and steady. And the PAIN held in your heart and chest, the spaces between your ribs - all of that weight from such emotional anguish and hurt - it just dissolves. ...almost as if the healing water swirled around inside of you and gave your heart a warm, loving hug. Stay here as long as you need. This is so important.
When you're ready, cover your shoulders - possibly relaxing back against a cozy ledge. Goodness, it's like your whole body has become jello now. Some of those last bits of tension are melting away and releasing the hold on you they'd had for so long. Take another deep, deep breath. Close your eyes if you want to. And, now it's up to you if you want to take your head under or just splash some on your face instead. If you have a headache or migraine, I'm sure you almost can't wait. If you don't want to go under, that's okay, too. Just being close, or rinsing your face can be more than helpful.
If you decided to dip yourself under, go ahead. Good news is that in this healing pool, you don't have to worry about holding your breath. Just let the water relax your jaw, smooth away the creases from your brows and forehead once contorted from pain. Feel it draw out all of the throbbing, aching, pounding, or sharp pains in any and every part of your head. Your thoughts calm and slow, and the worries, memories or awareness of pain just disappear. Everything goes quiet, and feels still. You could almost sleep in the absolute serenity. You're only right here, right now, and it's all you could ever hope to feel. Breathe deep. Spend all the time on you and your body that you need before lifting your head out of the water.
You can decide if you want to stay here and swim, take a nap in this place, or just relax for a few more moments - making sure you truly experience deep, deep healing in even the most stubborn parts of your body. When you're ready to leave you can slowly bring your awareness back into the present, but don't worry, the healing doesn't just disappear. You take at LEAST a piece of it with you for the most sore parts of you, and even more elsewhere. It wants to gift it to you and you’ve already changed a great deal of how your neurology while you were here. It won’t just undo. Over time, if it wears off or symptoms return, you can return. You can come back to this at any time and change any part of it that you need - customizing it for any future aches and pains, headaches, overstress or body memories.
You may need to take a couple extra moments for grounding after coming out of such a calming oasis. If you're heading to bed or doing this before sleep, you're a-okay. But if you need to return to the regular world, you may need to shake the fog from your eyes and fully connect with your surroundings before re-engaging with life again. So, be sure to orient yourself fully. (If you aren't sure what to do for grounding, good thing we've got 101 Techniques for that!) But, even though reconnecting with the real world can be undesirable, that doesn't mean the calm, peace, and pain relief found there just goes away! You're more refreshed than you've been in...maybe ever. Just be sure to fully re-orient, even if that haze seems more inviting. ;)
Healing Light works in a very similar way to Healing Pool, but it's especially great for anyone who has any kind of uneasiness around water, needs more of a localized "spot treatment", or has a harder time creating more scenic imagery in their mind.
Just like Healing Pool, this skill is much more effective when you make it as descriptive and detailed as possible - only this time you will mostly need to focus on detailing the light and less so your surroundings. The light can even reach you right where you are sitting or laying right now if you'd like. But, if you want to visit a more soothing environment as you practice this, you are more than welcome to include one and detail it just as we did earlier! It’s all about your comfort and what will maximize the benefits you’ll receive.
So! When it comes to light, the possibilities here are endless. Is it a sun ray that bursts through the clouds and finds you? Is it more like a secret weapon, a thin, pain-zapping laser? Is it more like a glowing orb of light, personalized just for you? Or, perhaps it’s more conical like a flashlight, being emitted from some other precious source that you can turn on and off? Maybe it's no beam of light at all, but more like a dancing, ribbon-y, spritely kind of light flitting through the air. Is there a trail of shimmer or glistening particles that follow it in its magical nature? Is it warming and softening, or cold and tightening? Possibly something more gaseous, or like pressurized ice that can flash-freeze and numb ANY type of pain, seems more satisfying for your needs?
Does it make a twinkling sound, the whirring of a pulsating orb of light, or is it more of a buzzing or zap of a machine as it obliterates the pain? Does the light come in one color or many? Maybe you have different colors for different areas of the body, or a variety of colors and styles dependent on the type of remedy you need for it to give. Perhaps you have one light that heats and relaxes the skin, another that freezes your pain dead in its tracks, a third that envelopes and "holds" the pain until the throbbing stops, a more aggressive light that shatters the pain into a million pieces and then individually dissolves each one, another that injects coolness through the area like a gel and feels like an internal ice pack, a highly unique one that simply erases the aching entirely as if it were never there, and a super satisfying light that draws the pain out from your body like a magnet or vacuum. You can even have one that incorporates more of a spiritual element, or the energy and care of someone you love, who can offer a special kind of comfort that no one else can. So many options!
Like the slow entry into the water in Healing Pool, it is oftentimes more effective to start with an area of the body that's unaffected - gradually approaching your "target" area so that your mind and body have an opportunity to fully connect this imagery exercise with your actual pain. If you're a fan of those that obliterate and destroy the pain with like dry ice blocks, etc, you miiiight want to give the light a "seeking" function that just cools and nurtures the healthy areas as you begin the process, then let it 'scan for' the most painful section you want it to destroy. We don't need you feeling like your forearm just got pulverized or flash frozen when it was your shoulder that was waiting for the relief, ya dig? ;)
Okay, so, first!
Visualize in your mind's eye where the light source is coming from. You might even start to feel building anticipation of the relief you’re about to receive. Picture this light source, notice its glow, feel the warmth or coolness it’s emitting, listen to its unique sound.
If it's your head that is throbbing, perhaps allow the light to first hit your spine - releasing and soothing each individual vertebrae as it climbs your back to your neck and head. Allow the healing particles to weave throughout your jaw and mouth, completely relaxing them along with your brows, forehead, and eyes. Then send it to your pounding skull. Let it do there what you’ve desperately been needing it to. Let your mind subconsciously direct it. If your abdomen or low back are aching, maybe show some love to your toes, feet and legs before reaching the pain of your midsection. If it's your shoulders or neck, let the light graze your fingertips and creep up your forearms, triceps and deltoids before tackling your upper body pain and releasing that suffering.
This light is so detailed and meticulous, so specified to you and your needs. It reaches through every capillary, tissue, cell wall, vein and nerve fibre. It knows what you need without your instruction.
Visualize what's happening beneath the surface as it finds your pain. The way it coats, cools, and soothes your pulsating nerves. See the light pierce through all parts of you to find your toughest tissues and muscles, melting them into the greatest relaxation you've ever felt. Imagine how your light sprinkles your skull with tingling, healing properties - how they then trickle through all the wrinkles and spaces and curves of your brain, quieting and soothing not only the aching but all your frenetic thoughts, too. Picture its warming, swirling path to all the cramping and twitching muscles that are remembering something from the past. See it drawing out the inflammation and "darkness" that can feel so heavy when it gathers in your joints, or even in your lungs or heart. It's gone now. You can breathe. You can feel that relief. It may have even felt so good that now you need that light to go everywhere else. That's perfectly okay! Practice that self-care and bathe in that light if that feels right to you. This is your light. No one else's. It's made just for you, for your pain. No one can change it, tamper with it, or even know about it if you don't want them to! This is YOUR healing light.
When you've decided that you are finished, you can watch the light slowly leave your body - taking any last stubborn remnants of pain with it. Take a deep breath knowing that as it leaves, the pain will not just immediately return; it's been healed. Your mind and nervous system have chosen a different path and sent wellness to that area. You aren't just "imagining" relief, you've neurologically and chemically given your body some different instructions. And when life is being a jerk again, you can call on your healing light any time to give your body that relief once more. It is so precious.
These techniques are but a few in a sea of treating ailments and managing distressing trauma symptoms through imagery. There are countless others, like those involving the use of colored “pain water” that fills up the body but is slowly drained out from the heels. Another semi-silly one that is taught in some trauma units is called "flick the pea". In this one, you imagine your pain as a very large sphere (like a basketball or even larger if it feels more massive). You then move that ball away from that area causing you so much distress, toward your arms, shrinking it down in size as it travels, until it's so small (the size of a pea) that once it reaches your fingertips, you can flick it away with a very, very satisfying flick. There's another that is specific for numbing that just involves sticking your finger in an ice cold water and mentally carrying that frozen feeling up your arm and through your body until it meets the pain you’re suffering with. This is one you can often see the color change occur in the skin as your mind registers the chill taking over you.
We have also made a post on Color Breathing, which not only helps with emotions and panic, but pain as well. There is also an introduction to imagery techniques that use dials to help modulate pain, intense feelings, and memories which you can find here. If you would like us to share any of these in more detail, we can certainly do that. We are planning to make many more articles on imagery - particularly containment skills (for memories, emotions, intrusive thoughts, self-harm urges, etc), but we wanted to be certain to tackle those that help with physical pain first!
We truly hope these skills help! Feel free to expound upon any of them, make them your own, or - if you're just learning - even let your phone or computer read them out to you so that you can just close your eyes and follow along, visualizing as it guides you through! These can also work for anyone, not just trauma survivors! So don't hesitate to share them with friends and loved ones, particularly if they have chronic pain or any chronic illness! Good luck, and if you have any questions, please ask below or message us!
More Resource Posts You May Find Helpful:
✧ Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
✧ Distraction 101: 101 Distraction Tools
✧ Flashbacks 101: 4 Tools to Cope with Flashbacks
✧ Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201: Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
✧ Coping with Toxic/Abusive Families During the Holidays
❖ Article Index ❖