Behind my house is a large patch of blackberries. Himalayan Blackberries, big and sweet, but with thorns and stalks that are big and stiff, too. Hacking them back is a chore, but there are sweet rewards, too. The last time I trimmed them back I really went to town. I jumped in and hacked and picked, hack-hack-hack, pick-pick-pick, hack-pick, hack-pick. You get the idea. When I came inside afterwards and washed the grit, grime and blackberry juice from my arms, I noticed how many scratches, cuts, scrapes I’d collected. And they even started to hurt! Surely, you’ve experienced something similar at some point.
Now, it wasn’t as if I had lost and suddenly regained the sense of feeling in my arms. I hadn’t applied a topical anesthetic that instantly wore off. What probably happened was that I was just so focused on the work (and the occasional berry-break) that I was able to unthinkingly ignore the scratches and snags. It also probably helped that I knew that the thorns weren’t really threatening, and that scratches and pricks were nothing to be concerned about and were even to be expected. I didn’t even notice them consciously - my subconscious mind was able to filter them out as unimportant, not worth noting - and I was able to focus on the more interesting, more engaging, more important (and more fun) task at hand. So, in a way, I did experience a kind of anesthetic, only one produced by my own mind rather than medicated from outside me.
It is like trying to have a conversation in a loud room. You focus on the other person - their body language, facial expressions, the particular sound of their voice, and your subconscious mind is able to filter out a lot of the other sounds and conversations around you. And then you notice how loud the room is, perhaps someone comments on how many other loud conversations there are, and suddenly you have to concentrate really hard, work a lot, to understand the conversation or focus on the other voice. If you can manage to get back into a state of fascination, then your subconscious can take over the filtering out of other sensory data, allowing you to do what is more interesting, what you want or need to do.
These are examples of and ways of understanding what is possible with managing chronic pain. We are able to train our minds, sometimes just encourage them, to focus on more interesting things than that old, useless sensation.
One difference between most forms of chronic pain and short-term pain is that chronic pain offers no useful information. Pain itself is like any other sensation or feeling, it isn’t good or bad, it gives us information, data, so we can more successfully meet our needs, wants or desires. The pain we feel from fire tells us not to touch the hot stove, saving ourselves from the injury of a burn and possible infection. The pain we feel when stretching muscles tells us where the learning edge is, the growth horizon (and not to stretch too far). “Pain” isn’t good or bad by itself. It is just information, and it is often the emotional association that goes along with it that has as much as anything to do with how we “feel” about it.
When the discomfort reminds us of our limitations or perceived inabilities or failures, the emotional meaning magnifies the discomfort, focusing our attention on it.
But chronic pain often doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know all too well already. It just persists. It doesn’t help, it just gets in the way. It doesn’t inform us, it distracts us from what we want to do, what we want out of life. We don’t need it. For whatever reason, though, our mind fixates on it, focuses on it, makes it stronger, gives it meaning and emotion and significance. And more and more it inches its way across our lives and takes more away from us, takes over.
If only there were a way to short-circuit that process, to keep the sensation or discomfort or emotion from taking over. But there is....
Hypnosis is one way to help our subconscious mind understand that the neuro-electrical signal our brain interprets as “pain” isn’t worth paying much attention to at the present time. We don’t lose our ability to feel or sense. We’re just selective and intentional about what we pay attention to.
A couple years ago, I planted an ornamental tobacco plant in my garden. The scent the blossoms gave off in the evening was intoxicating. And apparently some bees thought so, too. When I was clearing away some old leaves, a bee who was hanging out stung me. Believe it or not, that was the first time I was ever stung by a bee. I didn’t know what to expect - was I allergic? Would my hand swell up? Would the pain increase or spread?! So I sat down on the stoop and waited. As it turned out, fortunately, I wasn’t allergic, the sting didn’t swell, and the pain didn’t increase much at all. After a few minutes, I was bored waiting to go into anaphylactic shock, and just went back to gardening. About a month or so later it happened again! Same plant, same trimming, same bee for all I know! This time, however, I knew the sting didn’t pose a threat to me, other than annoyance, so I was more curious about the experience. About a month later, it happened again (clearly I hadn’t learned to check the leaves before trimming them). This time, though, I had the confidence of familiarity. The sting was virtually un-noteworthy. Except for a passing frustration at that bee and then at myself, I didn’t even slow my gardening. The pain had become nonchalant, boring, useless, and not worth paying attention to. I would much rather be gardening.
At a light level, I was hypnotizing myself - helping my subconscious choose from among possible experiences or points of focus.
Formal hypnosis in a clinical or therapeutic setting implements this natural strategy at a deeper level. Oftentimes, chronic pain has become a part of who we are, even when we don’t like it or would rather not experience it. At an unconscious level, the pain has worked itself into the way we think of ourselves, or our brains have trained themselves that the pain is important, dangerous, and limiting. Hypnosis works with the sub/unconscious to re-write those underlying understandings, those programs running in the background of our operating system, so to speak. Sometimes, if the source of the discomfort is emotionally based, we can dissolve that feeling away altogether. Often, we can train the brain to focus more on other, more interesting or helpful things.
Hypnosis has been used for more than 200 years by doctors to create anesthesia, and that is a powerful tool. But most often, we don’t need to be entirely anesthetized - simply bringing the pain down to a manageable level is our goal, so we can do what we want to do, not limited by our experience or fear of pain. For all of this, hypnosis is gold. It is a natural way to help our own brains and bodies do what we are naturally able to do, so we can enjoy our days, be more productive, and lead more satisfying lives.
Talk to a qualified hypnotist in your area who has received advanced training and certification in pain management. Talk to your doctor about using hypnosis. See if hypnosis might be right for you. Then, enjoy life, no longer held back by old programs or expectations. There’s always more interesting things to do than be in pain.