When I’m asked if self hypnosis really works for pain control, I usually tell the story of Clarice.
Clarice was an “older, non-traditional student.” That’s college-speak for anyone older than, say, 22. Clarice was in her mid-30s at the time of this story. She was taking my self hypnosis course at CCD/Red Rocks campus in Denver. I later learned that one of her main reasons for taking the course was a desire to get over her deathly fear of hypodermic needles.
One of the applications I always taught in that course was self hypnotic pain control. This worked with post-hypnotic suggestions. They in turn were based on information obtained from the subconscious part of the mind. The primary method of getting that information was autoquestioning. More about that in a minute.
About midway through the course Clarice got an unexpected (and unwelcome) opportunity to test her ability to use this method for pain control. One morning she was shoveling snow off her driveway. Not an uncommon activity in Denver. While she was shoveling, the shovel slipped and hit her in the mouth. It broke a tooth.
She was in agony and had no choice but to go straight to her dentist.
The tooth had broken off just below the gum line. That had to really smart. The dentist told Clarice he would have to surgically remove the root. Naturally he would give her an injection of anesthetic for pain control so she wouldn’t feel anything.
In other words, a shot. That involved a hypodermic needle. In her gums. The dentist approached her with the hypodermic syringe in his hand and she responded like any normal, sane trypanophobic would. She panicked.
Clarice grabbed the dentist’s wrist — the one with the syringe in it, of course — to ward off the needle. She asked him to wait, to give her a minute or two to prepare herself.
While the dentist waited, Clarice went through her rapid induction technique, which took about 30 seconds, then told him, “Go ahead, but without the shot.”
“Clarice, this is going to hurt,” he said. “You need something for pain control.”
“No shot. Just do it,” she said, unable even to articulate a more complete sentence.
(Actually, she was probably more belonephobic than trypanophobic. But that’s a hair Clarice probably would not be interested in splitting.)
When she related this story to us in class she said she was terrified of what was about to happen. But there was just no way she was going to let him “poke her” (her words). No needle in the gums for her, thank you very much.
The dentist was reluctant. Clarice was insistent. So we went ahead and did as she asked.
He worked slowly at first, waiting to hear, “Gimmee the shot! Gimmee the shot!” which is what he told her always happened to people who had thought they would be able to generate their own inner pain control.
But there was no squeal of “Gimmee” anything from Clarice. She made it all the way through the procedure without so much as a heavy breath. She walked out of the office when it was over, “Walking on cloud nine,” she said.
“And I never felt any pain,” she said. Then she rose from her seat to emphasize the point. “I FELT NO PAIN!” she repeated.
Clarice was a character. We all just loved her to pieces and always enjoyed anything she related to the class.
Were I belonephobic I think my personal choice would have been to use hypnotic suggestion to reduce the fear of needles. Then take the shot to achieve pain control. But to each his, or her, own.
Pain Control Through Relaxation
I read somewhere that there are 50 million Americans who live with chronic, persistent pain. I distrust numbers like this but there can be no doubt that pain is a huge problem.
Drugs of course come up in any discussion of pain control. Drugs can be tricky business. For instance, a lot of chronic pain sufferers were getting relief from two COX-2 non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications that have since been withdrawn from the market. The American FDA has mandated more stringent warnings on all NSAIDS.
The difference in doing or not doing something to alleviate pain can make the difference between productivity and disability. Yet there will always be risks, or potential risks, involved with taking drugs.
Pain Control Means Stress Control
You cannot feel pain if you are relaxed enough. One of the first recommendations for pain control has been relaxation. That can be tricky. It is hard to get and stay relaxed when you hurt. Consciously telling yourself to relax doesn’t usually work, anyway, so doing it when you are being made miserable by pain is even less likely to be effective.
Deep relaxation, though, is a very effective technique for chronic pain control. Keep in mind, though, that this is not “casual” relaxation. Deep relaxation is generally achieved though specific procedures. They are not difficult, and they can be implemented by just about anyone, but they go far beyond just telling yourself to relax.
Go here for more information on deep relaxation procedures.
Transient vs. Chronic Pain Control
Clarice’s pain was of the transient type, temporary and not expected to be an ongoing thing. This category includes injuries and their treatment. Illnesses that can require painful treatment. And of course headaches and the more excruciating misery of migraines.
But what about chronic pain and those kinds of discomfort that do not go away? Sometimes this kind of pain is bad enough to ruin a life.
Pain is considered chronic if it has lasted six months or longer and most treatment options have been tried. It appears that chronic pain is more likely to occur in women than men. Some of the more common sources are fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome, to name just a few. When it comes to things that can make us hurt, the list is just about endless.
If you are one of the estimated 50 million Americans who suffers from chronic pain, take heart. There are steps you can take to control your pain. In some cases even eliminate it. And, if appropriate, without dangerous surgery, drugs or spending a lot of money on electronic gizmos that may or may not help.
I say “if appropriate” because pharmaceutical and surgical approaches should be considered. It would be shortsighted and foolish to treat yourself without knowing as much as possible about the source of your pain. You want to know all the treatment options possible for your particular case. You should take advantage of any medical treatment protocols that are prudent, reliable and not otherwise objectionable.
Of particular note in the pharmacopeia of pain-killers is the class of drugs known as opiates. They are remarkably effective. Unfortunately they are also addictive and have side effects. Taking them is not always the best choice for pain control.
Endorphins in the brain. The good news is that there are normally occurring opiate-like substances in the brain. These are opioid peptides called enkephalins and endorphins. They are neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that travel along specific nerve pathways in the brain. These pathways process information related to pain, emotional behavior, and other bodily processes known to be affected by opiates.
Your brain can fairly easily produce its own endorphins that kill pain. To get those endorphins working for you through self hypnosis is a four-step process:
- Suggestion formulation
- Hypnotic induction
- Suggestion application
1 – Information
You need two types of information: physical and psychological.
What I’m calling physical information is what you get from medical diagnoses, CAT scans and X-rays, blood tests, and so on. If your pain is chronic you need this information anyway. It can be used to direct your self hypnosis suggestions to where they will do the most good.
If transient, as in a headache — or whatever, just not chronic — medical diagnosis should tell you if it is caused by anything more serious than, say, stress. Bear in mind that pain is a message that something is wrong. The last thing you want to do is make the pain go away and have its source turn out to be something that needs medical attention.
» Psychosomatic Sources of Pain
Some forms of pain or discomfort are caused in the mind. It’s like the mind is making the body hurt. This is generally referred to as psychosomatic pain. It is usually (not always) safe to assume that the pain is psychosomatic if
- you have been through batteries of tests ordered by your healthcare professional and no causes have been found, and
- common sense does not present any other solution to the question of why you hurt.
Be cautious here, though. Always keep in mind that so-called “common sense” is highly suspect. This can push you both ways. We have all heard stories of people whose doctors told them, sometimes after exhaustive testing, that it was “all in your head.” Yet the person persevered and eventually got a correct diagnosis that showed it was not just in their head.
In the other direction it is sometimes comforting to believe that something is indeed all in the head. The thought of a physical cause can be altogether too threatening. A headache caused by stress, for instance, is preferable to one caused by a brain tumor (not that that would necessarily cause a headache). So be cautious and conservative in this direction, too.
If, after all of the above considerations, you are convinced that the source of your pain is all in your head (psychosomatic), do some autoquestioning to get to the root of the cause. Whether you use the Chevreul pendulum or some other method of questioning, pin down the reasons for the pain and what is in it for you subconsciously. This information will be essential to the formulation of effective suggestions which you will apply during self hypnosis.
» Subconscious Imprints Related to Pain
Working on the assumption that your pain is not psychosomatic, it is important to know if there is a subconscious value to the pain. That is, is the pain important to you for some subconscious reason? Even if the source of the pain is not in your mind, there might be a subconscious value to the pain and it will therefore resist any attempt to diminish or do away with it.
In cases like this, pain control can trigger subconscious resistance.
There may not be a subconscious value, but if there is, you must determine that in order to formulate suggestions that work. You need to know not only if there is a subconscious reason to hang onto the pain, but also why it is important.
Conscious beliefs or ideas are of little value here. Due to the differences in the way the subconscious mind works in comparison to the conscious mind, there is little chance that you could accurately guess whether or not there is a subconscious value attached to the pain, and what that value is.
So, using autoquestioning, determine or discover the following:
- Is there subconscious value attached to your pain?
- If so, what is that value?
Once you have determined this information, you are ready to formulate your pain-control suggestions.
(However . . . sometimes it is too difficult to determine what is the value of the pain to the subconscious. That is, the why. If this proves to be the case it is necessary to move on and formulate suggestions without knowing the why of the pain.)
2 – Suggestion Formulation
My first personal, non-professional experience in using suggestion as pain control had to do with burns. When I was about 16 I worked (briefly) at a grocery store. One of my daily tasks was to wrap chickens in plastic wrap and seal the wrapping with a hot iron.
And, being a typical teenager and all, I frequently gave myself second degree burns from the iron. Eventually my pubescent brain conjured up the notion that if that hot iron could burn me, it could also act as an agent of suggestion and “pull the burn back out.”
So when I burned myself I would immediately wave the hot iron back and forth over the burned area. I’d hold it just close enough to feel the discomfort of the heat on my burn.
And it worked. After a few passes of the iron, voilà, the burning sensation would be gone and no blister would develop. The magic of suggestion at work!
At the time I told my younger sister about the technique and she found that it worked the same way for her, too.
How do I know it was suggestion, and only suggestion, at work? Because in fact I was doing exactly the wrong thing to treat a burn. The correct action to take with a second degree burn is to immediately cool it down. Submerge it in cold water or use ice to stop continuing damage to the skin. Do that until the sense of burning has gone abated. This can sometimes take ten minutes or more of submersion.
What I was doing when I passed the hot iron over the burn area was actually burning it more. So not only did the suggestion have to overcome the original burn, it had to combat the additional burning that resulted from my waving the iron over the burn. Idiot!
Years ago I told my sister to stop doing that, to use cold water or ice instead, and why. But I know for a fact that she still uses the hot-wave technique. Ah, well – a profit in his own land hath no glory, et cetera.
(PLEASE BE SURE you understand what I’m saying here. Do NOT apply heat to a burn. APPLY COLD.)
Periodontal Surgery. Please allow me another example from my own experience. When I was in my early 30’s I had to have osseous bone and flap procedure. This is where your teeth are okay but your gums have to come out. It was the result of my not having believed dentists over the years when they told me to floss.
Not in vogue these days like it was back then, periodontal surgeons would remove diseased gum tissue, exposing the roots of the teeth. Post-surgery pain was reputed to be about as bad as pain can get.
But I was pretty cocky. I was a big shot suggestion guy. I knew how effective suggestion could be. Pain control was my bag. I knew how to prepare for the operation and subsequent healing period. So I did my preparations. Had the operation. Everything went as I knew it would and the very next day I was back on campus for all my classes. I had not felt one iota of real pain.
My mouth was packed all around my teeth with post-surgical protective stuff. That was too obvious even for undergraduates to miss. I’d obviously been involved in something. And of course they asked. Some of the students had had the same procedure and they could not believe I was back the next day, working, and had not had any pain. And no, I told them, no drugs. Just some aspirin for pain control.
Now, I have to tell you that I have a very strong subconscious prohibition against boasting. If I boast, I pay.
Evidently I subconsciously interpreted what I told my students as boasting. That night, or rather the next morning, I woke up at 3:15 a.m. with the most horrendous pain I had ever felt. It was in one specific place in my mouth. It was god-awful. The pain was in the gum just above my left incisor and the message was unmistakable.
“Here’s a sample of what you could be feeling in your entire mouth, all the time, asshole! No bragging!”
I suffered like that for 15 minutes. Then bam! I fell immediately back to sleep and when I awoke the next morning I was okay and there were no further episodes of pain. But I had learned my lesson (yet again – I’m slow – this was not the first time my subconscious had punished me for bragging). From that point on I was very careful not to be arrogant or boastful about my good fortune with pain control.
These two stories from my own experience are instructive, cautionary, and, I hope, inspiring. I hope they inspire you at least a little. Because you really can get the upper hand with pain, even of the worst kind. Other people have been sharing their stories with me for years. I’m confident you will have success stories like these of your own once you begin using these techniques.
At this point you should be ready to formulate your suggestions. I recommend you use both
- selfhypnotic suggestions (applied during your self hypnosis practice) and
- post-hypnotic suggestions (to take effect during your normal waking/sleeping state).
It is also a good idea to have a post-hypnotic trigger you can use whenever you need it.
Above all, you must formulate your suggestions based on what you have learned about yourself from autoquestioning. Applying general, one-size-fits-all suggestions seldom works. They can actually make things worse in some cases.
Here is a story to illustrate how that can work. It’s about a guy named Murray who attended one of my training seminars in Seattle. It played out over the course of about a year and involved a lot of back-and-forth between us, but I’ll cut through all that and give you the short version.
Murray was handicapped from having polio when he was a child. One of his ankles had deformed, his foot splayed outward, and that leg was a little shorter. He walked without crutches but with a very serious limp and he was in pain much of the time.
When he contacted me a couple of months after the seminar he had attended he said he not only was not improved, but worse. He had been working with suggestions like this: “Every day my pain is getting better and better.”
There are two major problems with that suggestion. It is very general, not tailored at all, and it could be counterproductive just on the basis of semantics alone: does “better” pain hurt more or less?
I told him to use autoquestioning to tailor his suggestions. (“I started that way but quit because I was in a hurry,” he said.)
As it eventually turned out Murray’s subconscious did need the pain and for a very deep and significant reason, which meant it was a lot of work for him to uncover.
But Murray was a heck of a guy and persevered until he made a breakthrough discovery.
Murray’s brother had been killed in an accident when they were children and, even though Murray had absolutely nothing to do with it, he subconsciously believed he was responsible and the pain was his daily penance for his guilt. Illogical, yes. But hey, that’s the way the subconscious is.
Murray eventually formulated suggestions to the effect that he loved his brother and had nothing to do with his accident and subsequent death.
The suggestions worked. As you can see, suggestions must be tailored to the specific person’s subconscious needs. And in most cases it is nigh unto impossible to consciously know or even guess what those needs might be.
3 – Hypnotic Induction for Pain Control
Hypnosis, self hypnosis . . . it makes no difference what you call it because all hypnosis is self hypnosis. I conclusively demonstrated that with my research.
Which is not to say one cannot be assisted with the induction procedure. There are, for example, literally thousands of hypnosis inductions available out there and the only thing important is that you choose one that works. If you are going to have someone else “talk you down,” that is.
You can also do it entirely yourself. I give instructions on how to do it in my books. Again, there is no shortage of sources of hypnotic induction procedures.
Like I said, the main thing is one that should be obvious — it should work. There are some good induction procedures out there, and some good hypnotists. There are also tons of bad ones (both categories). But don’t waste your time looking for the magic induction. It is the suggestions that count the most.
Did you get that? The suggestions have primacy! And, as I’ll cover below you can apply suggestions without hypnotic states. It is just that developing a light hypnotic trance (no, you won’t be “out”) adds to the effectiveness of suggestions.
4 – Suggestion Application
Suggestions are the formative instructions you give the subconscious part of your mind. They are communication between conscious and subconscious, and this mode of communication has its own logic and dynamic, which in some cases is vastly different from the requirements we normally associate with communication.
There are lots of ways to use suggestion to achieve your ends. Generally they fall into three broad categories: hypnotic suggestion, post-hypnotic suggestions, and waking suggestions. Each of these can be broken down into verbal and image suggestions.
Please keep in mind that suggestions must be based on your own subconscious needs. General, un-tailored suggestions can be worse than useless–sometimes they can spell disaster.
Some Pain Control Examples
(Okay, at the risk of really boring you, I’ll mention this one more time: Be sure you’ve done your autoquestioning and that your suggestions address your needs and meet your own subconscious requirements. Thank you for your kind attention. I won’t mention it again (in this article)).
Pain Control Messengers. Now we come back to the opioid peptides called enkephalins and endorphins I mentioned earlier. For simplicity lets call these neurotransmitters “messengers” because that is what they are, and that is how we want to use them.
Formulate and apply suggestions – image suggestions will probably work best for you here – that anytime you need to control pain your brain will send out messengers to dull and block sensations of pain.
The sophisticated version of this kind of suggestion picture might include the working brain producing a chemical message that is transmitted to the affected area via a network of nerves. (All of this does in fact exist and happen in your body.) You could add a further ingredient to this model if you wish and imagine that the chemical message bathes the cells of the area with a pain-killing liquid.
A less sophisticated version is the switchboard model. (Some people who know only about cell phones may find this model confusing.) Imagine there is a switchboard in your brain. You have a filter on this switchboard that can turn off the messages from any part of your body, especially pain messages. If the messages of pain are not “connected” to your brain, the messages don’t get through and your brain is unaware of the pain. That is, there is no pain.
For a cell-phone version of this kind of suggestion, you could imagine that pain messages are calls from a particular number that has been blocked. Hence the brain’s phone does not ring, so it does not pick up, and there is no message of pain.
The use of ice is another standard approach. It involves the concept of coldness which has a natural pain-dampening effect. Work with verbal and/or image suggestions that feature ice that is applied to the painful area. Imagining mothers or fathers massaging the area with ice works well for a lot of people.
You can modify some of these ideas or blend two or more together. Or come up with something entirely different that will work for you. Let your imagination roam. If you are a neurophysiologist, for example, get as detailed as you like. On the other hand, if you wouldn’t know a neuron from a Quonset Hut, no matter. Just work with any model that feels comfortable to you: ice, glove anaesthesia, switchboard, or something of your own devising.(Just be sure that . . . uh, wait, I promised I wouldn’t mention it again. Sorry.)
For Those Facing Surgery. People who are preparing for surgery can help themselves immensely by applying the proper suggestions, both ahead of time and after. The application of suggestions should begin as soon as it is known that surgery is necessary, and should be continued through the post-operative period of recuperation. Each situation has its own requirements, which can be determined through common sense and autoquestioning, but the following verbal suggestions will give you the basic idea. (Convert them to image suggestions as you wish and be sure to tailor them to, well, you know.)
- I will relax while I am in the hospital and enjoy the attention I receive there.
- I will experience little or no pain or discomfort before, during, and after surgery.
- Bleeding will be minimal.
- Shots and other medical procedures will not hurt or disturb me.
- I have confidence in my doctors and medical staff, and in my own recuperative powers.
- The surgical operation [or other procedure] will not be a shock to my physical system or mental state.
- Each day I will continue to heal with good progress and become healthier.
- I will not heed or be upset by any remarks or comments made during surgery, or made at any other time.
Modify as needed and remember to include the concepts of relaxation, rapid recovery and healing, less or no pain, reduced shock to the system, and reduced bleeding.
It will be normal to feel a little nervous or be somewhat apprehensive as you go into the hospital or care center. But having practiced these methods ahead of time you will be pleasantly surprised at how easily you will sail through and recuperate.
As for pain itself, it is not necessary. With these methods you will prove that for yourself.
One final nag: Pain is not necessary when you know what is going on! You do need pain to alert you to the fact that something is wrong, so don’t try to work with suggestions that you will never feel pain. That would be foolish.
[See all of my self hypnosis training aids here.]Other references:
- Pain Management Health Center
- Pain Management (Wikipedia)
- American Chronic Pain Association
- 11 Chronic Pain Control Techniques
- Treating Chronic Pain with Meditation