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Guided Imagery to Help Manage Fibromyalgia

Originally posted April 17, 2018.

Sharon was experiencing feelings of lack of self-worth and hopelessness and helplessness. Sharon felt like she was once a vibrant young woman, with a journalistic career and a family. Now all she like was that she trapped in a failing body. She was tired of being tired. She had been feeling run down for a few months and also had body aches and foggy brain. Sharon was used to being able to travel on assignment around her home state for special features for the newspaper for which she wrote.

But for the past year, she had been finding it harder and harder to keep up. It was hard to keep up with normal life and also manage the nausea, pain and fogginess. The medical stuff was taking over her life as she made appointment after appointment with various doctors. Her primary care physician urged her a few times to see a specialist. But she resisted seeing a rheumatologist, as it was too scary. Auto-immune? Wot? After feeling oddly sick for eighteen months, Sharon finally faced it and made an appointment to see a rheumatologist. Note that the first appointment for the rheumatology group at a major medical center near her was 3 months out!

After thorough testing, Sharon was traumatized to receive the diagnosis of fibromyalgia. While there was some relief about finally getting a diagnosis, she was convinced her life was over and she couldn’t believe this plague of a chronic, major illness was being assigned to HER! HER! She had run a marathon in her twenties. She had a good husband, three children, a good job, and a supportive family.

Sharon felt alot of self-blame and started to wonder about things over which she just didn’t have any control. What had gone wrong? Did she eat too many strawberries which were in the Top Ten of the Dirty Dozen? Could she blame Monsanto? What about all the antibiotics in the meat? Did she abuse her body when she was young by smoking weed to relax in college? Did she put herself under too much stress in her deadline-ridden job? Why was her central nervous system so jangled that her pain thresholds were so low?

As she went about trying to sort through the treatment options, the medications and lifestyle recommendations, Sharon felt like a burden to her family and was not used to not being able to do all the things she wanted to do. Even on the medication, she wasn’t the way she used to be. She lacked the energy to work all day, fit in an exercise class 2 times a week and also be present for her family. She was subject to unexpected bouts of body pain. Sharon was left depressed and feeling alone whenever these pain bouts would occur. She felt like the only person on Planet Earth. She withdrew from her husband and especially her friends, trying to conserve all her energy so that she could get herself to work and take care of her daughters.

In one of her follow-up visits at the rheumatologist’s office, she learned that major depression is often a paired with fibromyalgia, due to physical and psychosocial factors. The nurse administered the Beck Depression Inventory. Her doctor told Sharon the results showed she registered as depressed and strongly suggested she see both a psychiatrist and a therapist. The office gave her a referral to a psychiatrist and a short list of therapists familiar with the life changing consequences of managing a chronic disease such as fibromyalgia.

Sharon knew she wanted to be able to talk her therapist about her emotional issues but also do some guided imagery and emotional management exercises. She had heard on some online fibromyalgia forums that a form of mindfulness and guided imagery seemed to help others manage their symptoms. She had heard about the books Rituals of Healing: Using Imagery for Health and Wellness and Guided Imagery for Self-Healing.

Sharon followed up with the psychiatrist. Then, she narrowed the list of therapists to three by looking on Psychology Today at their biographies and seeing who had further training in Guided Imagery. She then called three people on the list and asked them questions and chose one from her interviews.

Sharon and her therapist worked together on relaxation practices and interactive guided imagery. Together they developed a peaceful and calming place where she could mentally go when she was feeling stressed. While it was easy to get to the peaceful place while in the therapy room, it was more difficult to do so when Sharon was out at work or at home. The therapist assigned her homework where she had to choose a particular time very day to do her relaxation practice. Her therapist told her it took at least 30 days to create a habit. Current neuroscience theory was behind the need for repetition! A new habit was dependent on creating new neuronal pathways in the brain to use instead of the old well-worn worry pathways. So repetition was critical! For a longer relaxation practice, she suggested Sharon use Journey Through the Chakras, recorded by someone with a trained voice and beautiful music.

After Sharon was familiar with her calming place, they developed a journey through her mind and body. Sharon located the places of pain and developed a way to let her body talk to her. Sometimes a large, colorful shape would arise out of her painful places and Sharon could then give her body a way to express its pain and the surrounding feelings. While this, of course, did not change her diagnosis, these practices helped her understand herself better and gave her the tools to help her manage her situation.

Sharon’s therapist also encouraged her to realize that she needed to respect limits on her body and time and to still love herself, even though she wasn’t perfect (who is?). A modern day fable she used for Sharon to understand her situation is called The Spoon Theory. According to the Spoon Theory, we only have a limited amount of spoons to use everyday and we don’t get to get more, so conserve your energy and use your spoons carefully.

After a year of medical and psychological treatment, Sharon was doing better. She was able to remember to use her mindful relaxation practices in the moment when she needed it (which takes practice!). She joined a Restorative Yoga class where the people in the class were older and had physical challenges. She maintains her relaxation practices and has learned to mindfully befriend her body, rather than automatically hating on herself, which exacerbates the physical and emotional pain.

Life is not perfect, but Sharon, through determination and with support, found a way to make her life work a bit better.

(*Not a real client; this is an example of what a person might look like who seeks help for their mental health.)


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