“We suffer a lot the few things we lack and we enjoy too little the many things we have.”
– William Shakespeare
I never seem to appreciate not being in pain. But it’s great to be grateful,1,2 and it’s all too easy to take being pain-free for granted. There are millions right now who would give anything to have some respite from their agony.
Intense, excruciating, burning and grinding pain, while we suffer it, becomes the whole world to us – or, more accurately, an all-consuming hell. So not being in pain is to be appreciated.
But there are psychological methods that can help us to help clients in pain.
Hypnosis and pain relief
Hypnosis has been used for centuries to control pain.3 From major amputations to the resetting of broken limbs, hypnosis has been applied to achieve both analgesia (the absence of pain) and anaesthesia (the absence of any sensation).
In the latter part of the 20th century, surgeon and master hypnotist Jack Gibson performed over 2,000 operations using hypnosis while working on an emergency ward in Southern Ireland. And he is but one example. Every day, hypnotherapists all over the world use the power of hypnosis to help reduce people’s pain levels.
We never, of course, want to imply that “pain is all in your head!” Pain is all too real – but it is true that pain is felt with the brain. First and foremost, we need to take heed of pain and listen to it. Pain is a signal that something may need attending to, perhaps urgently.
I once hypnotized a friend who had begged me to help him diminish the searing pain of a tooth abscess. He achieved all-over numbness and felt calmer, but the pain in the tooth didn’t stop completely. Why? Well, perhaps because he needed the pain to get him to attend to a dental emergency.
So pain is a signal. But once we can say to ourselves, “Okay, we get it, the body needs to heal”, or get medical attention, then we can work to diminish pain that is serving little purpose as far as signalling to us to get help.
So we need to know what pain may be signalling, but also what it means to your client.
What does the pain mean to your client?
How your client views their pain can affect the way they experience it.
When helping clients overcome pain, we need to consider whether the pain is acute, that is to say that there is an expectation that it will recede at some point (a stubbed toe hurts like hell but you know the pain won’t be everlasting) or chronic, meaning the person expects it to last indefinitely or even worsen.
So the first thing to check out is your client’s understanding of their pain. Do they feel it is temporary? Does it cause fear or anger in them? One person’s perception of the pain of healing after life-saving surgery may be worlds away from another’s feelings about the pain suffered after a senseless assault such as a random street mugging. And for someone whose pain is a sign of deteriorating health, pain may be terrifying.
One way to deal with pain, even diminish it to vanishing point, is to reframe it. But before we do that, we can ask the client to describe their pain further.
The pitiful poetry of pain
Pain is really entrancing. It captures and narrows our focus of attention, just like an effective hypnotist.
If you have a raging toothache, it will get you focused internally no matter what’s on TV or how interesting your friend’s conversation is. So how do we begin to alter the experience of pain?
The first step to reframing pain is to ascertain what metaphors your client uses for it. I’m constantly amazed how descriptive people are when they talk about their pain. You hear words like burning, tender, sharp, dull, hot, boiling, searing, nagging, ripping, pulsating, screaming, shooting, violent…
Pain, it seems, makes poets of us all. How does your client describe their pain? Once we understand how they are framing it now, we can start to think about how to reframe it.
Technique one: Reframe the pain
A burning pain can be ‘cooled’. The pulse of a pulsating pain can be slowed (and eventually stopped altogether). When we use these kinds of terms, we are building rapport with the pain sufferer by inhabiting their pain metaphor and using that metaphor to modify their experience of the pain.
One man who had been badly injured in a motorbike pileup had excruciating pain in his back and the soles of his feet as a result of an almost completely severed spinal nerve. I visited him at home and asked him to describe the pain. He said it was “burning”. When I asked how hot it was, he said “boiling!”
I taught him self-hypnosis to imagine cooling that heat to a point where it was comfortably warm, with a resultant relief from the constant pain. Whenever the pain got too much, he would apply this hypnotic reframing technique.
We can also ask our clients to grade the pain on a scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (the worst pain imaginable). We can ask them how it would feel to be at a 7 instead of a 9 – what the differences would be, and so on. Here we are breaking down the all-or-nothing thinking that often accompanies pain and helping to reframe it.
We could ask them what colour and shape their pain might be, then have them hypnotically watch the colour alter, the shape change, and the size shrink as the numbers go down.
Now, at first glance, the next technique may seem… err… painfully ineffectual. But bear with me!
Technique two: Distract from the pain
Distraction is enormously powerful. Soldiers distracted by the drama of an intense battle may not realize they’ve been critically injured until later. They were so distracted by the intensity of the situation that focus on the self and the body was all but lost. Likewise, a boxer may not realize his jaw is broken until after the final bell.
You only have so much attention to give to your pain.
Say you’ve hurt your right arm. If you squeeze your left arm, then some of your brain’s attention will be taken up with nerve impulses from the uninjured arm, diluting your experience of pain from the injured one.
Likewise, if I stub my toe, I will feel more pain if I just stand still, close my eyes, and focus my attention on the injured toe. What I tend to do instead is shout, jump up and down, and possibly swear.
In fact, a study conducted at Keele University found that those who cursed in reaction to a painful event tolerated the pain almost 50% better than those who didn’t!4 I’m not suggesting you get your clients to swear, but it shows how distraction may help.A study conducted at Keele University found that those who cursed in reaction to a painful event tolerated the pain almost 50% better than those who didn't!Click To Tweet
So how can you use distraction hypnotically with your pain clients?
We can ask our clients to focus on non-afflicted areas of their body – or of their life. For example, we might regress them to a time before the pain was present – a form of ‘remembered wellness’.5 This also crosses over with dissociation, which I’ll cover below.
We can distract people with ideas, images, expectation, and physical touch, such as massage, which can dilute the pain as the brain deals with sensory impulses unconnected with the pain itself.
People sometimes talk of needing to ‘escape’ their pain, and we can help them do that hypnotically.
Technique three: Disassociate from the pain
When someone is in trance, we can begin to direct their attention to other areas of their body, or other times and places when they were free from discomfort. This is a distraction technique, but also utilizes our natural capacity to disassociate from one kind of attentional focus and switch to another.
We all disassociate deeply when we dream during sleep. Physically, we are in bed. Psychologically, we may be riding on the back of a camel, exploring some alien landscape, or flying through the air. We have forgotten the body lying in bed and become associated instead to the apparent reality of our imaginations.
So hypnosis is naturally disassociative, just as dreaming or any other use of the imagination is. And the suggestions we make during hypnosis can deepen the benefits of pain relief for our clients.
For example, I worked with a 15-year-old girl who was extremely allergic to chemical anaesthesia but needed a series of quite complex facial surgeries to correct a cleft palate. Now this girl loved to ride horses, and she also proved to be a wonderfully talented hypnosis subject.
I suggested she could “be somewhere else entirely during the operation” – that she could rise up above the operating theatre and see it from high above, then go ride her horse until the operation had finished. This proved to be highly effective, much to the amazement of her surgeon.
The groundbreaking psychiatrist Dr Milton Erickson relates a case in which he helped a woman with intractable cancer pain hypnotically leave her pain-racked body in one room while she experienced going into another room to watch TV. This hypnotic ‘out of body’ experience meant that she could take regular breaks from the relentless, intractable pain she’d been experiencing.
Even our language can be disassociative. I will sometimes talk not of “your pain” but rather “that pain”.
Use dissociation to help distance your clients from the pain. The results can be amazing. Okay, finally, we have the hypnotic art of numbing.
Technique four: Use hypnotic anaesthesia
It’s important to understand that cataleptic numbness is a natural part of hypnosis for many people, whether the hypnotist suggests it or not. This is because hypnotic trance is akin to the rapid eye movement (REM) state we all enter when we dream. During this natural state of hypnosis, you become psychologically dissociated from the body lying on the bed.
And because nature doesn’t want you actually acting out your dreams, you experience the temporary paralysis and loss of feeling known as catalepsy. So simply by inducing hypnotic trance you may be halfway there as far as pain diminishment is concerned.
But we can make further suggestions for numbness.
Evocation and revivification
I will often use evocative language and talk about how “some people” have had the experience of playing in snow as a child and having forgotten to put gloves on. We can simply describe what this experience might be like with “those hands” freezing to numbness and so forth.
I might ask someone to imagine what it might feel like to try to tie shoelaces with numb hands, or even just put a key in a door. I might evoke times when we have sat for such a long time that a leg goes numb, or slept on an arm and woken up with it numb. Once we feel the client is responding, we can suggest that this numbness spread into afflicted areas.
Hypnosis can be used to calm people pre-surgery and also to help them post-surgery.
If you are helping a client for acute pain after surgery, which is of course part of the healing process, you can make hypnotic suggestions for greater comfort and faster healing after surgery. Orthopaedic hand surgery is notoriously painful, yet in one study, conversational hypnosis reduced post-surgical pain and was associated with fewer complications generally.6
The scientific pedigree of hypnotic analgesia (diminishment of pain without actual anaesthetic numbness) is strong.7 Hypnosis may also be an effective adjunct to the treatment of cancer pain and the nausea that cancer treatments such as chemo often produce,8 though more research is needed in this area.
You can do more for people than you may currently realize, so I urge you to help your pain clients through a blend of the hypnotic principles I’ve described here.
From childbirth to injury and disease, we hypnotherapists have the ability – maybe even the responsibility – to help unburden people from their pain.
As Charles Dickens wrote:
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
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- See: http://www.apaininthemind.co.uk/a-brief-history-of-using-hypnosis-for-pain-management/
- See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3642764.stm
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