Guided Imagery and Meditation with Clients
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by Michael Mesmer, MFT
An important responsibility for therapists working with clients who wish to reduce anger and family violence in their lives is to offer techniques for stopping abuse, whether physical, emotional, sexual, economic, or verbal. Such techniques rely in part on a client’s abilities to self-assess (so that escalating or abusive personal feelings and behavior can be identified) and self-soothe (so that personal distress can be relieved independently).
concerned about such issues often have been under higher than normal levels
of stress or trauma, even if their own behavior has negatively affected
others. Such a client may have been the perpetrator of a violent offense
against a loved one or been subjected to such an offense; have often had
to pay or help a partner pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines,
restitution, legal fees and penalties; may have been jailed or had a partner
jailed; may have had a loss of part- or full-time employment in the family;
may have become separated or divorced from a partner; may have lost some
or all of their child-visitation rights (or been forced by events to assume
greater child-care responsibilities); and have other stressors at this
time in their lives, including addiction and other health concerns. Clients’
belief systems about themselves, their partner, male and female roles,
and how relationships are conducted can be shaken. The consequences of
these events can include anxiety, shock, or depression and lead to increased
anger or aggression towards themselves and others, including suicide and
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As part of a comprehensive program of psychoeducation and therapy, guided imagery and meditation offer immediate relief for stressed or traumatized clients working on anger or violence and can help them develop self-soothing as well as self-assessment skills. They provide short-term, structured opportunities for clients to experience clarity and objectivity, essential in self-assessment, as well as the stress and tension reduction sought in self-soothing. These practices also offer clients alternatives to drug and alcohol abuse or other addictions that may be motivated, in part, by the natural urge to relieve distress and improve one’s mood.
During such activities, clients generally report experiences such as reduced anxiety, a sense of relaxation, and more peaceful thoughts. Occasionally, clients report new awareness of their responsibility for their situation or empathy for others they have affected. When acknowledged and supported, the rare client who finds it difficult or impossible to feel relaxed or rested experiences other benefits, such as increased self-acceptance.
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of Guided Imagery and Meditation
There are several types of guided imagery and meditation that have been used successfully with clients. Generally, this author has used them in 2-hour groups of 4 to 8 men that begin with 10 or so minutes of quiet contemplation. Lights are dimmed during this time but not completely extinguished, according to group preference. The group leader usually provides the particular elements of the evening’s exercise; on occasion, group members have brought in music, recorded meditations or other tools to build a group activity around.
Participation in any such exercise, especially with court-ordered or otherwise resistant clients, should be voluntary and declinable by sitting quietly in the room while others participate or by leaving the room until the group has finished. Clients can be given the option to sit or lie down if space allows and to have their eyes open or closed as they prefer. Reports of their experiences during the exercise, pleasant or unpleasant, should be gently solicited afterwards from those who care to share them.
One type of meditation helpful for clients working on issues of anger and violence are those that enhance self-assessment skills. These can also contribute to increased self-acceptance by encouraging a more neutral or objective “observing consciousness” in clients.
A good example is a guided self-inventory of the contents of a client’s current sensory perceptions. Sitting quietly, clients are invited to calmly and objectively notice and name silently what they are aware of through each of their senses.
Hearing is good to start with, especially since the leader is speaking, albeit quietly. Ambient room noises such as clocks ticking; a neighbor’s breathing; internal sounds such as heartbeat, digestive rumblings or internally verbalized thoughts -- all are noted. Next, whether clients have their eyes closed or not, real-time visual perceptions can usually be identified by each client, even if they are only patterns of light and darkness behind the eyelids. Visual scenes imagined in our thoughts can also be named if present.
Other sensory modalities such as thoughts, emotions, and spiritual perceptions can be explored in sequence. Finally, the client can be invited to “pull back the camera” and notice one’s self as the collection of all such sensory perceptions happening at once – visual, auditory, proprioceptive, and so on; others in the room can be seen as similar collections of all their perceptions. The exercise ends with an invitation to allow all of these perceptions, pleasant or distressing, to “be exactly the way they are”.
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Relaxation exercises can also be helpful in teaching clients about stress reduction. It has been found that, while many meditations involve focusing on one’s breathing or an imagined word or image, clients can also benefit by letting their awareness drift without limitation, from room to memory to imagined scenes to dreaming or trance.
Our groups have often simply put on a piece of music or recording of environmental sounds such as ocean waves or forest noises and sat or lay down for ten or 15 minutes without other direction or constraint besides beginning invitations to get quiet, comfortable and still.
A guided meditation that has helped clients to relax in a few minutes invites clients to visualize a series of colored numbers:
This is done slowly and quietly, giving clients time at each step to imagine whatever variation they prefer. It can be helpful to offer examples of distinct and particular colors (“tangerine or pumpkin orange,” “robin’s egg or sky blue”) as well as numbers (“perhaps it’s a Roman numeral five, or the word five in your own handwriting”). Adding comments such as “Thank you” or “Good” before moving on to the next combination is also helpful in promoting a relaxed experience for clients.
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Exercises that encourage the visualizing of pleasant and soothing experiences can help clients set goals and higher standards in their relationships and living situations. One that has been successful is the invitation to imagine oneself in a “place where you know you’ll feel great.” This is made as general as possible; depending on the level of experience of the group members, examples can be offered, such as “on a beach”, “in a hammock” or “in a cabin by a roaring fireplace.”
After helping clients imagine as much detail as possible (“Is the wind blowing and how hard?” “If it’s nighttime, can you see stars or the moon?” “Are you active or resting?”), we can suggest that they introduce to the scene another person or persons that would “help you feel even better in this place, having these perceptions, doing this activity or resting.” Sometimes clients have something they want to imagine saying to, hearing from or doing with these others; it is important to emphasize that these experiences are to be as pleasant, healing and nonviolent as possible for the client and anyone else.
To support longer term work with a group of clients, they can be encouraged to “save this place and remember it as a place you can return to anytime you want and be alone or with others there.” Over time, structures, technology or landscape features can be added to this scene so that the client’s particular needs and goals can be supported. One example would be a “library where you can read in your imagination any expert reference volume that will help you answer a question or learn something about yourself or the world.”
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Healing and Tolerance
Many clients working on anger and violence may have felt personal and cultural pressures to endure unpleasant situations without resolving them or to tolerate or perpetuate abuse. Such clients can benefit by developing greater capacity to tolerate unpleasant feelings or desires and to be more conscious and present during provocative confrontations with others without acting on them aggressively or violently or literally or figuratively fleeing the situation.
Guided imagery and meditation can help clients work through stressful or painful events in their lives or imagine new encounters that are resolved positively. Strong or distressing emotions and memories can be recalled within a relaxed internal state and more preferred outcomes can be considered.
Besides particular scenes that might involve others, a more general focus can be offered, such as “Anger” or “Violence”, as it is individually meaningful (or not) to each client. Sometimes this is too cognitive or cerebral for a group, so the concept can be linked to something more personal, as in “Childhood Anger” or “Group Violence”. Any of these meditations, whether concrete or abstract, should be linked throughout to real or imagined physical sensations: “Can you feel this in your body anywhere right now as you’re sitting here in the room listening to me?” and “In that scene you are imagining, what can you hear/smell/taste?” are examples of linking questions. These can be particularly helpful with clients who might otherwise too easily or deeply dissociate (see next section).
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It is important to proceed gradually in conjuring stressful or painful scenarios and to give clients full power to monitor their safety level and only proceed to the extent that something is helpful; always allow clients to sit out during such visualizations if they choose. Remember also to offer empowering or healing alternatives to scenarios in which clients may feel humiliated or victimized.
When working with clients on issues or violence, a primary goal is to promote increased responsibility among clients for their own behavior towards others. One possible danger in using guided exercises is that, during them, clients can come to experience less responsibility for their experiences, viewing it all as “something that the group leader does to me.” This effect can be offset by also using open-ended or client-focused exercises that emphasize the client’s role in selecting and managing the visualization and resulting effects; suggestions and invitations to “only go as far as you want,” for example, can relieve clients of the belief that they must comply with a particular prescription.
For clients struggling with extreme cases of depression or dissociation, guided visualizations and meditation, which encourage altered states of consciousness, could be inappropriate or harmful. This can also be true of severely traumatized clients. Offering reminders of the reality of the therapy session itself (“while you are sitting here listening to me” or “notice how much of your body you can feel here in the room while you’re imagining this scene somewhere else”) can help marginal clients make progress in this area.
Heart problems in clients, especially low blood pressure, are other possible counter-indications for using guided imagery or meditation. Encourage clients to consult with their physician should there be any doubt about the safety of exercises that can slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, or require sitting for extended times when there are spine or other health problems.
This article discusses only a small sample of the kinds of guided imagery or mediations that can be explored with clients. It also addresses only a subset of the ways to help clients concerned about anger or violence.
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Guided imagery and meditation, when used appropriately and within the context of a comprehensive treatment plan or program, can be helpful in working with clients, individually and in groups, address their concerns about anger or family violence. Particular exercises can emphasize particular elements of self-assessment and self-soothing, such as observing one’s sensory experiences without judging or evaluating, or can combine several, as in imagining a happy scenario involving others.
Increased self-assessment and self-soothing skills as well as real-time experiences that are healing or illuminating can result. Clients also frequently report greater self-esteem and self-acceptance. These effects can be especially helpful to clients suffering from higher than normal levels of stress or trauma.
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