Do you include visualization in your mind-body cool-downs? Visualizing comforting images reduces stress levels—that much has been known for some time. Now scientists have verified that individuals who are skilled at “seeing” mental imagery reduce their stress levels more than those who are less adept at the task. The study, published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine (2006; 12 [2], 60–66), also discovered more about the physiological mechanism underlying the imagery process.

Investigators at Kyoto University in Japan studied 148 people with a mean age of approximately 40 years. Subjects participated in two guided-imagery sessions. The scientists tested the subjects’ saliva three times—before and after the first session and after the second session—and recorded their levels of cortisol, a hormone secreted in response to stress. Each subject’s ability to use mental imagery was also assessed. Evaluation of the data revealed that salivary cortisol levels were lower after each imagery session and that subjects with the best imagery skills achieved the biggest reduction in stress.

A growing body of research shows that mind-body interventions such as relaxation training and guided imagery enhance immune function and significantly improve health and well-being. The authors of a review of such studies, published in Stress (2002; 5 [2], 147–63), recommend that further research be done, not only to highlight the mechanisms involved, but also to evaluate specific clinical-intervention strategies to determine what type of imagery, what length of practice and what other parameters produce the best outcomes.