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Holistic Addiction Treatment: Imagery

One of the major problems with conquering addiction is changing the behaviors and circumstances that led to a person becoming addicted in the first place. Psychologists use a variety of imagery techniques to help patients root out and overcome different mental disorders and negative behaviors. Changing these behaviors is crucial to overcoming addiction.

Therapists use imagery to help change addictive behaviors and restore balance into the user’s life. To understand how you can use imagery to overcome addiction, it is important to understand the fundamentals of imagery as they relate to addiction.

What is Imagery in Therapy?

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Imagery is a type of therapy for addiction that can help you cope with cravings and other symptoms.

The concept of using imagery to invoke emotion is not a new one. You can see early representations of imagery on ancient temples and in the writings of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. There are records of visualization for positive outcomes, fantasies, and other types of imagery in all ancient cultures. Today you see imagery used in books, movies, advertisements, counseling, and even addiction therapy.

Imagery in culture has been around for centuries. We are bombarded by images that invoke feeling every day. It is little wonder that psychologists use it for therapy. Imagery in therapy is the use of visual representations and mental images to change behavior. People rely very heavily on their eyesight to perceive the world. This leaves lasting mental pictures that also invoke specific emotion. The emotions could be something that you felt at the time or something more directly related to the images.

Humans also have very powerful imaginations. The mind is a wonderful tool for seeing both the positive outcomes and negative behaviors that underlie continued addiction and relapse. Imagery is just one of many holistic therapies that use the mind to control the body’s response. Therapists use images and mental visualizations to invoke emotion, change emotion, and modify behavior. They do this using several types of imagery therapy.

Types of Imagery Therapy for Addiction

Over the years research psychologists developed several techniques using imagery. Therapists combine these techniques with other forms of therapy to help an addict deal with their addiction. A few of the most common types of imagery in therapy are:

  • Guided imagery or guided visualization – By far the most practiced form of imagery therapy, this involves a therapist suggesting images or scenarios to help an addict relax or work through specific issues. A typical guided imagery session begins with relaxation and relaxing imagery and progresses gradually to the primary issue or problem.
  • Imagery rehearsal therapy – This type is mainly effective for addicts with situational issues who cannot remove themselves from their primary triggers. A therapist walks the addict through past scenarios that ended in the addict using a drug. The therapist then suggests changes that result in a more positive outcome. The addict visualizes these changes and later puts them into practice when the situation presents itself.
  • Virtual reality therapy – VR therapy uses complex computer systems to display images and scenarios to an addict. This allows addicts to see and interact with images and people without putting themselves in danger. VR is primarily used in behavior modification and relaxation techniques. Another form of VR uses light and color displays to calm or relax the addict in times of stress. This technique is still in its infancy but some researchers suggest that it shows promise for difficult cases.
  • Imagery rescripting – In rescripting the addict visualizes painful or distressing incidents and then changes them by imagining how the event would go with a positive outcome instead of the negative one. This sometimes involves role playing aspects.
  • Image exposure therapy – this is a controversial therapy where the addict is exposed to negative or positive images are associated with different forms of drug use. Therapists sometimes use image exposure therapy combined with VR therapy. It is only recommended in extreme cases.
  • Desensitization and flooding – Similar to image exposure therapy this type of imagery therapy uses negative or positive images usually of something that the addict is fearful about. The repeated exposure desensitizes the addict and helps them to control the fear. This is particularly good for those with specific phobias.
  • Aversion imagery therapy – this is a type of aversion therapy that associates unpleasant images sometimes not related to the addiction with cravings and other positive aspects of drug use. Aversion therapy in general is one of the types of therapy that is extremely controversial because of ethical issues and potential relapse rates.

There are many variations on each of these therapies According to the National Library of Medicine’s article, “Imagery and craving in alcohol dependent persons,” imagery instruction produces changes in dependence and cravings for alcohol. It makes sense that imagery techniques work for other addictions as well.

Types of Addiction that Imagery Can Help

Although imagery may help in all types of addiction, there are several addictions that imagery therapy is proven to be particularly effective in treating. These addictions are:

  • Alcohol,
  • Methamphetamine,
  • Cocaine,
  • Tobacco,
  • Heroin,
  • Opiates including prescription painkillers and methadone,
  • Sex,
  • Pornography, and
  • Internet addictions.

How helpful imagery therapy is depends on the individual addict and therapist. According to the American Psychological Association, it is highly effective in people who can produce fantasy images and vivid memory.

Why Use Imagery in Addiction Treatment?

There are two main reasons why therapists use imagery therapy to treat addiction. The first is to help with the symptoms of withdrawal and cravings. Most of these involve relaxation, stress management, and guided visualization techniques. A therapist may use imagery to calm an addict suffering from anxiety, which is a common symptom of withdrawal. Guided imagery is often used to help addicts with insomnia fall asleep faster.

The second reason that therapists use imagery during addiction therapy is to correct the behaviors that caused the drug use. This is the more intensive of the two reasons. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s article, “DrugFacts: Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction,” therapists and treatment professionals need to treat the causes of addiction to effectively prevent relapse. Without identifying the roots of addiction, a patient will relapse. Once the cause is identified, the addict and therapist can start working on a solution. Imagery therapy helps to both identify and correct the causes of addiction.

Benefits of Using Imagery to Treat Addiction

Many of the benefits of using imagery to treat addiction depend on the individual undergoing the treatment. Some of the common benefits are that it:

  • helps with relaxation,
  • increases the ability to manage pain without medications,
  • helps addicts overcome phobias – This is particularly effective for benzodiazepine addiction,
  • retrains specific habits such as drug use,
  • lets the addict cope with their behavior,
  • helps to treat conditions such as depression, obsessive compulsive behavior, and panic disorders,
  • changes undesirable behaviors,
  • helps to manage cravings, and
  • lets addicts experiment with different coping strategies.

Another benefit of imagery that should not be overlooked is that an addict can use many techniques anytime and anywhere. Most imagery exercises do not require specific tools or equipment. When an addict experiences a stressful situation or a trigger, they can refer back to the guided session in their mind and use the rehearsed techniques.

Drawbacks of Using Imagery in Addiction Therapy

Like all therapies, there are some drawbacks to using imagery to help addicts. One of the main drawbacks is the work that the addict has to do in order for it to be successful. Most types of image related therapy require some imagination and the ability to visualize different scenarios. Not all people have this ability. Some people need a visual reminder or cue to help them imagine the suggested scenario.

Imagery therapy also has a high relapse rate when not combined with other therapies. It appears to work well when the addict is actively participating in therapy. Once the addict stops the therapy, they tend to lose the skills they learned. Either they do not use the skills they learn or they are not capable of reproducing the effect without a therapist to guide them.

Another drawback is the fact that many types of image therapy are controversial. There are ethical issues involved especially when negative or aversion therapy is involved. These ethical considerations make imagery therapy less than desirable to some therapists.

Risks of Using Imagery to Treat Addiction

As with almost all forms of addiction therapy, there are risks to using any type of imagery therapy. These risks are generally associated with negative reactions to either images presented to the addict or mental issues that come up during visualization. Some of these negative reactions include:

  • panic attacks triggered by stressful images or visualizations,
  • hysterical behavior,
  • depression and risk of suicide due to past trauma or present images,

These negative reactions are extremely rare and are normally associated with underlying and undisclosed psychiatric illnesses. Reliving traumatic events may trigger a stressful episode or a panic attack. It is import for the therapist to be informed of all psychiatric issues before using imagery therapy on a patient. Certain types of imagery are wrong for specific patients. Patients who have a condition that might be exacerbated by an emotional response should not use intense imagery.

Other Therapies Often Combined with Imagery Therapy

Like many holistic and alternative treatments imagery works best when combined with other therapies. It is important for a therapist to be well versed in both the use of imagery and both cognitive and behavioral therapies. The therapies that work best with imagery are:

  • cognitive processing therapy,
  • rational emotive therapy,
  • hypnotherapy,
  • multimodal therapy, and
  • behavior modification.

When combined with other therapies, imagery is used to:

  • relax an addict using pleasant scenes and scenarios,
  • track unpleasant experiences and find their cause,
  • exaggerate a phobia and plan a response,
  • rehearse outcomes, goals, and problems,
  • eliminate unwanted behaviors, and
  • prepare an addict for an unpleasant or fearful experience.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, combing therapies is far more effective than using a single therapy alone. Therapists can use imagery with almost any type of therapy as long as the addict is receptive to it. One of the best uses of imagery is when a single visualization technique is spread across multiple types of therapy and therapy sessions.

Imagery is one of many tools that therapists have at their disposal. When used correctly imagery produces a positive result. When using imagery to treat addiction there are many techniques that involve both images in the addicts mind as well as visual stimulation provided by the therapist. Although sometimes controversial, imagery therapy produces positive results when trying to relax the mind and body and modify the behaviors that lead to drug addiction and relapse. When other treatments do not work alone imagery can boost their effectiveness and help addicts to succeed in their recovery.

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