What is Guided Imagery and Music?
When words are not enough, we turn to images and symbols to tell our stories. And in telling our stories through art, we find pathways to wellness, recovery and transformation.
Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) is a multi-modal, internal and experiential approach to therapy. It involves a guided process of listening to music in a state of deep relaxation to access, activate and connect with feelings, memories and visual, auditory or somatic (body-based) imagery.
GIM offers an alternative to talk-based therapy, where a participant can safely engage with memories, feelings and body sensations.
GIM originated in the early 1970s during the psychedelic trials that were undertaken through funding from the National Institute of Mental Health at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. Helen Bonny, founder of GIM and an accomplished classical musician and music therapist, created playlists of classical music to accompany the psychedelic trials and research that took place at the time.
In these trials, Bonny selected music to support participants to:
- enter into a deep state of relaxation and an altered state of consciousness.
- undergo a 'peak experience' where participants explored a state of flow, deep insight and / or transpersonal experiences.
- return to the present moment.
When the psychedelic trials were discontinued due to legislative changes, Bonny continued to explore how a participant could enter an altered state and peak experience through the guidance of a trained therapist, the relaxation process, and classical music alone.
Bonny found that music listening in deeper, altered states of awareness enabled travellers to access a range of imagery that may include visual, auditory, somatic, sensory and kinesthetic components.
With sufficient safety and support of a skilled therapist, participants were able to:
- connect with this material in a way that helped them to connect with parts of themselves that can be difficult to access.
- understand their experiences from different points of view.
- re-experience dreams, nightmares or memories to find greater understanding, mastery or de-sensitisation.
No trauma therapy is complete without really addressing the brain, mind and body and really connecting all three.
What does the research say?
This process evolved into what is now known as the 'Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music' (BMGIM), a research-based, creative and experiential therapeutic process that can assist in treatment of
- general anxiety and performance anxiety
- work related stress
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): reduced symptoms of PTSD and dissociation see here and here; specific to refugees see here;
- addiction here and here
- grief and loss
- medical conditions, including recovery from cardiothoracic surgery
- mood disorders and interpersonal problems: see here and here
- cancer treatment
What training do GIM therapists have?
In Australia, training is offered to experienced therapists who already hold a recognised qualification. Training must be approved by the Music and imagery Association of Australia (an affiliate of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia) and involves a minimum of three years advanced clinical training.
- a clinical practicum component of over 100 clinical sessions, supervised by a Registered Guided Imagery and Music Therapist
- that trainee therapists undergo their own series of GIM therapy
- a number of written assessments including assignments in music analysis, a 10 session case study and a final project.
Upon completion of training, therapists are eligible to register with the Music and Imagery Association of Australia - to find a therapist see here.
Sam, a therapist in her late 30s, entered her own therapy process exhausted and on the verge of burnout. Following a change in management, her once happy and supportive workplace had a become toxic due to incompetent leadership and a subsequent plummet in team morale. Without adequate support, Sam found herself in the messy crossfire of toxic systems and organisation abuse. She was anxious, had difficulty sleeping and found herself lashing out at her family over small issues.
Sam struggled to stop the racing thoughts and found herself unable to enjoy even small moments of joy. The first couple of GIM sessions involved supporting Sam to find a colour (magenta) that felt supportive for her. With the focus of steady and containing music, Sam was invited to breath this colour into her body and found a huge relief and peace in being absorbed in the music and experience of colour throughout her body. Through the week, Sam found ways to bring more magenta into her life to remind her of this feeling.
As Sam became more familiar with her body and the GIM process, she realised the significant tension and pain she was holding. As she entered a relaxed state, Sam's imagery involved her wandering through the inside of her barren, battered and bruised chest. When invited to describe the scene in more detail, Sam stated that she was in a "war zone", with no hope.
Despite the difficulty of being with this sense of desolation, the music was strong and felt supportive. As Sam listened, she noticed a tiny flower at the tip of her toe. As the music's expression grew, so did the flower: it grew fresh tips of green and blossoms of yellow along Sam's foot, up her leg and and eventually into the war-torn area of her torso.
Sam's breathing became deeper and she experienced a transformative shift into hopefulness as the flowers and vine spread through the torso and wove a living chest of nourishment and strength through the centre of her being: her chest had been transformed from a warzone into a meadow of flowers.
Following a series of 6 sessions, Sam reported that she was:
- able to tap into this sense of nourishment, strength and growth from the flowers when needed
- less irritable and sleeping better
- much more able to cope with the challenges at work
How will I know if this is the sort of therapy for me?
You do not need any particular skills in art or music to participate in GIM.
A GIM therapist will typically offer an initial 'taster session', involving
- an initial discussion to find a supportive imagery focus (such as bringing to mind a safe or favourite place, either real or imagined).
- a brief relaxation induction
- a music and imagery experience with a relatively short (no more than 10 minute) piece of music
- an invitation to draw a mandala (this is guided and you will be supported - it is about the process not the 'artwork').
This process usually helps us to see if this approach is a good fit for you.
What is involved in a typical GIM session?
A series of at least six GIM sesisons are recommended in order for particpants to
- explore the approch and how it might best work for them
- address a particular issue or need.
A typical individual GIM session lasts between 1.5 – 2 hours, with the following components:
An initial conversation between the client and therapist allows the client to share any worries, issues or concerns. Together the client and therapist find a symbolic focus for music and imagery component: this might be an image, a feeling, a sensation, focusing on a memory or part of a dream or just focusing on the music.
The therapist then guides the client into a deep relaxation process. This supportive process is tailored to the needs of the client, and may include progressive muscle relaxation, a focus on the body, colour or the breath, or any other approach to relaxation that may be helpful.
Journey with imagery and music
Music is selected with the needs and preferences of the client in mind. As described by the Music and Imagery Association of Australia’s website, "...the music programs used in GIM have been trialled over many years, and follow an affective contour, or are designed to support specific emotional states. As the music begins, the client is encouraged to describe imagery, memories or feelings as they emerge. The role of the therapist is to be a supportive guide, facilitating the client to explore imagery more deeply".
This part of the process has been described as resembling "an awake dream state" where the client interacts with the characters and experiences in the imagery as they feel. The therapist is there to support the client with this internal process.
Return to conscious awareness
When the music program finishes, the client is supported to return to the present moment with a grounded focus, and invited to connect with and reflect upon their experience through drawing, discussion or other embodied processes. This process supports integration of the experience and a return to awareness in the present moment.
If there has been a significant history of trauma or ongoing chronic stress, a more gradual stepped approach is required.
These may include:
- development of internal resources and supports
- awareness of body sensations through music and breath work, somatic resourcing, music and drawing, embodied music listening and music with an imagery focus
- single imagery focus
- music and drawing
- music and breath work
- music-supported somatic resourcing
- music-assisted sleep support
- postural explorations
- music-assisted relaxation practices
- working with dreams and / or nightmares
Tempo currently has availability for GIM support both face to face in lutruwita / Tasmania and online via zoom.
The modalities of memory that we have to address are those that keep traumatic events alive. If we're talking about processing traumatic memory, let's process those aspects of memory that keep the trauma activated and alive in the client's body.
Header image: Jason Charles Hill