Quick and easy pain control techniques from psychology and elsewhere
The taxi driver loved to talk. On dropping me outside my hotel in Glasgow, he graciously opened the door for me. One second, comfort; the next, the sort of all-encompassing pain that, in my opinion, should not directly follow an exchange of cash. He'd slammed my hand in his door (1).
I squealed like a teenage girl on hearing her best friend has stolen her prom date. The driver disappeared faster than Usain Bolt from Olympic starting blocks. Now what?
My entire universe focussed down onto my right hand. I strolled through reception as if nothing had happened, the agony of the car door's steel bite around my knuckles growing more intense. I smiled a little too manically at reception staff and raced to my room, which was now doubling as an admissions ward.
I hardly dared look at my surely flattened hand. When I did, I noticed it was still there, though it was swelling fast and had a beautiful new indented car door print design. Then I remembered what I do for a living.
Hypnosis for pain control is not rocket science. You can use the same approaches I did when seeking to manage your own pain or others'.
1) How to change the pain
First I decided to reframe the sensation of my pain. I closed my eyes and focussed on the agony. I decided to tag that pain with a colour - the first to come to mind was red. Next I gave it a texture - it was jagged, and in my mind's eye, its shape was like forked lightening.
There are other ways to reframe 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 asked him what kind of temperature the pain would be if it were a heat and he said, "Boiling." He used hypnosis to imagine cooling that heat to a point at which it was comfortably warm, with a resultant relief from constant pain.
Next I graded the pain as a number: If the worst possible pain is 10, this pain was around an 8, I decided. Then I visualized the pain gradually turning from a bright red to a dull pink, then into a dark blue, and finally into a pale blue. I saw its jagged edges begin to soften and its texture become more rounded, less sharp. I noticed that the pain had gone from an 8 to a 6. I was no longer thinking in terms of 'pain' or 'agony', but of numbers, shapes, and colours.
Okay, so I was down to a 6. But what about that swelling?
2) Would you like ice with that?
Still with eyes closed, I pictured snow - from long ago, a time drifted into mind when, as a boy, I'd been playing in the snow without gloves. Inevitably, my hands had become numb. I couldn't even tie my shoelaces or lift a door key from my pocket. As I strongly recalled this time, I noticed both my hands getting number and actually feeling colder. I then visualized what a whole barrel of ice might look like and hypnotically plunged my injured hand deep into it. Now, for the first time since the slamming (what a painful word 'slamming' is!), I began to feel comfortable.
3) Manage pain through recall
Re-evoking times when you've been chemically or naturally anaesthetized is a great way of bringing those numb feelings back again. Recalling being at the dentist and having a gum injection where suddenly your gums feel like cardboard as the anaesthesia takes effect, and then having that numbness spread to wherever it's needed can work wonders. One young woman I worked with - being allergic to chemical anaesthetic - was able to have major facial surgery purely via hypnotic anaesthesia.
4) Leave the pain behind
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. Strong disassociation sometimes happens quite naturally when we go into shock and is perhaps nature's way of making it more psychologically manageable.
I imagined floating out of and above my own body and seeing my hand looking fine, with the swelling having disappeared. As I imagined detaching from my own body, I noticed how the pain in the hand began to recede further. This disassociation exercise works excellently for pain, but also for anxiety or any strong unpleasant experience.
5) How to use your mind to speed your own recovery
Hypnosis is a great way to get your own mind to accelerate healing. Orthopaedic hand surgery is notoriously painful; yet in one study, the benefits of using hypnosis included much less post-surgery discomfort or pain and fewer complications generally (2).
I had to drive hundreds of miles the next day, not easy with a painful hand. I pictured the hand being pumped full of 'healing energy' and 'told' it to heal faster than any healing has ever happened before. I saw it in my mind in a week's time, two weeks' time, a year's time, completely fine.
The next day I awoke to find my hand felt perfect. The indentation from the door was still firmly in place, but there was no swelling and no pain. It just looked as if I'd had a rather squiggly faint design drawn on by a novice, slightly inebriated, tattooist.
I later spoke to my doctor, who couldn't believe I drove the next day. Fortunately he didn't think anything was broken, but he was surprised that it hadn't been.
Pain is physical, there's no denying. But there is always a psychological element to the experience of pain. And once you change the perception of pain, you also change the experience of it. For example, the pain someone feels when they are healing up after a life-saving operation will have very different associations than the pain felt after a senseless street mugging. The pain of labour and birth (3), cancer treatment (4), and accident (5) can all be greatly alleviated though applied hypnosis.
This doesn't mean that medical interventions should be avoided. You should always get any pain properly checked out. But it does mean we can all have more control of pain than we might have imagined.
And my advice to you? If you ever find yourself in Glasgow with a certain talkative English cab driver, insist on opening and closing your own door. It's much less painful in the long run.