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Reach new heights of relaxation with guided imagery for stress

August 15, 2022 - 15 min read


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What is guided imagery?

How does guided imagery reduce stress?

How to do guided imagery meditation

Extra tips for beginners

The pros and cons of guided imagery

How does it compare to other stress-reduction methods?

Guided imagery for workplace stress

Building your de-stressing toolbox

You might think stress relief comes only from action. You tell yourself that an extra hour of work will help you relax in the evenings, or that working on the weekend will help you feel less anxious about your task list. If you just get a little bit more done, you’ll be calm. More often than not, the tasks keep coming — whether you worked on the weekend or not. 

But your mileage will vary depending on the nature of your work. Sometimes, no matter how much work you do, your stress levels will stay the same. So you’ll probably need to find other relaxation techniques. 

There are many ways to relieve stress, but guided imagery can be particularly helpful. You can use this method almost anywhere at any time. And doing so can calm your mind when it would otherwise be filled with worry.

It can provide a much-needed reprieve from chronic stressors like financial stress or a toxic boss.

But what is guided imagery for stress? Here’s everything you need to know about this relaxation method.

What is guided imagery?

Guided imagery is a stress-reduction technique that involves focusing on a peaceful setting, sound, or object. The goal is to intentionally think of something comforting, which in turn calms the mind and body.

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How does guided imagery reduce stress?

Guided imagery is similar to other types of meditation that aim to clear your mind. It involves directing your focus away from harmful thoughts and feeling to find relief.

Here are some of the health benefits of guided imagery:

  • Relaxes the body quickly and efficiently. When you’re stressed, your body tenses up in response to a real or perceived danger. But by imagining something peaceful, you remind your body that it’s safe — thus calming it down.
  • Improves sleep. By focusing on something calming before bed, you rid your mind of unwanted pre-sleep thoughts. This gives you the mental space needed to doze off peacefully.


  • Helps you commit to positive habits. You can use guided imagery to imagine the positive outcomes of your actions. If you believe in the benefits of a habit, you’ll be more likely to follow through with it.

Not everyone will respond to the same stress management techniques. BetterUp’s coaches can help you find something that works for you. Through confidential one-on-one sessions, we can identify your stress triggers and make a plan to address them.

How to do guided imagery meditation

If you’ve practiced guided meditation before, guided imagery techniques will seem familiar. It involves conscious control of your “mind’s eye,” where you direct your attention with intention.

Here’s what you need to get started:

  1. A quiet location. Find a spot where others won’t interrupt you. It’s also good to set your devices to “do not disturb” mode so a ping won’t pull you out of your relaxed state. Your email can wait.
  2. A comfortable place to sit or lay down. Whether it’s a couch, bed, chair, or yoga mat, make sure you can sit or lay down comfortably.
  3. Optional: a guided imagery audio recording. In these recordings, a guide takes you through the guided imagery process. There are many available on YouTube or through smartphone apps. If you’re new to guided imagery, this might help you grow comfortable with the practice.
  4. Optional: headphones. If you’re using a recording, headphones can help immerse you in the imagery. Alternatively, you can put on gentle music to prevent distractions from the outside world.

Now, here’s the basic process for performing guided imagery:

  1. In a quiet area, make yourself comfortable. You can sit or lie down.
  2. Close your eyes. Take several long and slow deep breaths. Maintain this slow breathing through the rest of the meditation.
  3. Try performing progressive muscle relaxation before beginning your visualization.
  4. Create a mental image of nature that makes you feel relaxed. For example, picture a lush forest, majestic mountain range, or a tropical beach. Your favorite place is a great option.
  5. Focus on the details of the scene. Pay attention to the sounds, scents, and sensations of being in this peaceful place. Immerse yourself in it.
  6. Explore the scene. Imagine yourself walking down a path. Focus on your surroundings as you make your way.
  7. For several minutes, relax in your scene. Continue your deep breathing.
  8. After 15 minutes, count to three and gently open your eyes.


Extra tips for beginners

It might be tough to get through your first session if you're unfamiliar with guided imagery. And that’s okay! It’ll become easier with practice.

Here are some tips that might be helpful for you:

  1. If you’re worried about losing track of time, set an alarm on your phone. It will be easier to lose yourself in the meditation if you’re not worried about waking up on time. Use a gentle alarm sound; you don’t want to scare yourself awake.
  2. Wear comfortable, loose clothing. This might be more difficult to do at work if you have a strict dress code. But you can always meditate after going to the gym or before sleep — times when you’re wearing comfortable clothes anyway.
  3. If you’re using an audio recording, take a few deep breaths before clicking “play.” This will help put you in the right mindset for visual meditation.
  4. Don’t worry about how well you’re doing. There’s no “right” way to do guided imagery. If your thoughts wander, gently bring them back to the scene in your imagination.
  5. Set goals for yourself. Start with five minutes per day, then slowly increase your meditation time.
  6. Track how you feel after the guided imagery. You can use an app or a journal. Over time, you’ll see whether your stress levels have improved.


The pros and cons of guided imagery

There’s no reason not to give guided imagery exercises a try. Here’s a summary of the pros and cons to help you decide whether it’s right for you.

What are the pros?

  • It can provide a state of relaxation, insight, and wisdom
  • With practice, you can do it just about anywhere
  • There are many free resources online to help you try it out
  • There are no health side-effects to mental imagery
  • It can help you let go of tension in your body
  • It’s a good distraction from psychological stressors
  • It can increase your tolerance to chronic pain

What are the cons?

  • It takes time to master
  • If you choose to work with a therapist, it can be costly (but worth it)
  • Even though there are many free online resources, some cost money
  • You might simply prefer other stress-reduction methods

How does it compare to other stress-reduction methods?

If guided imagery isn’t for you, there are thankfully many other ways you can reduce your stress. Let’s look at a few and see how they compare.


Yoga combines mindful breathing with body movement and stretching. It requires you to have a certain degree of mobility and, therefore, might not be suitable for everyone.

If you have mobility problems, guided imagery could be a better option for you.


Journaling involves processing your thoughts and feelings through writing. This can make your stress more manageable. But on the flip side, writing often takes time. You also need to have your writing equipment, like a pen and notebook.

Guided imagery doesn’t require any equipment (unless you’re using an audio recording), is quick to do, and can be done anywhere.


Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is very similar to guided imagery. It involves closing your eyes and focusing only on deep breaths for a certain amount of time.

But the goal here is different. Mindful breathing asks you to clear your mind, whereas guided imagery asks you to fill it with a pleasant scene. 

Both are effective relaxation methods, though mindful breathing may be more accessible to beginners. You can use breathing as a stepping stone toward guided imagery.

Guided imagery for workplace stress

The long and short of it is this: guided imagery is a good tool for reducing stress at work. It offers an easy escape from stressful situations without sacrificing too much time.

Anyone with 15 minutes, a chair, and quiet space can use this stress-reduction tool. You can try it right now if you’re so inclined.

Building your de-stressing toolbox

Let’s revisit our initial question: What is guided imagery for stress? Well, it’s a useful tool for reducing the weight of stress on your shoulders and improving your mental health.

It’s also complementary to other self-care tools. You should continue eating healthy foods, staying hydrated, making time for exercise, and sleeping well at night. 

You should also check in with yourself frequently. Work can easily force you into an unhealthy balance if you let it. Take a moment to evaluate whether you’re happy with your current work-life balance and take steps to correct it if you’re not.

For some, work provides good stress and makes life worth living. Others may prioritize time with their family, friends, or hobbies. BetterUp can help you find the right balance and make a plan to achieve it. 

Through confidential one-on-one sessions, our coaches will ask you tough questions so you can be honest about what you need to be happy. In the long run, your well-being is about treating your Whole Self — and we want to help you achieve that.

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Published August 15, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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