Did you know that the use of hypnosis for pain relief has been carried out for hundreds, if not thousands, of years? On the battlefields and during operations (before the use of anaesthetics) hypnosis was one of the main methods employed to help manage pain. But how does hypnosis work?
In this article we’ll explore how hypnosis can have an incredibly powerful effect on the mind-body system and the many ways you can learn to use hypnosis for pain relief.
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The history of using hypnosis for pain relief
Before we talk about how you can use hypnosis to alleviate pain and suffering, it’s worth knowing a bit about its history…
Before the days of chemical anaesthetics, hypnosis was often used to treat a variety of painful physical conditions. In operating theatres, hypnosis was used as a natural anaesthetic, even in major operations such as amputations. (1) Can you imagine having your leg removed with no anaesthesia other than hypnosis?
Shell-shocked soldiers, coming in wounded from the battlefields were given hypnotic suggestions to help alleviate their physical and mental suffering. (Shell-shock is what we now call PTSD).
And today, as hypnosis has become more accepted in the medical community, it is sometimes offered as an alternative for people who can’t have chemical anaesthetics. Indeed, it is routinely used in some European countries for operations and in dentistry. (2) And ‘hypnobirthing’ has become well known as a natural way to control pain in childbirth. (3)
I recall one of my therapy teachers – Ivan Tyrrell at the Human Givens Institute – share his first experience of hypnosis for pain relief. At 15 years of age, following an accident in the gym a doctor used hypnosis instead of anaesthetics to fix his dislocated elbow. He experienced no pain as the elbow was put back into its right place.
Pain – the great hypnotiser!
So, despite many misconceptions about hypnosis (in part because of its long history as a type of entertainment) a growing body of research supports the use of hypnosis as an effective method to control pain.
However, pain is not only a physical phenomenon. It always involves your psychology: your thought processes, your imagination, perception, and emotions. And it will no doubt have an impact on the way you relate to yourself and other people.
When it comes to the mental aspects of pain, what we can say is that pain is an immediate attention-grabber. As soon as you notice it, your attention mechanism is locked. And locked attention is one of the definitions of hypnosis. Thus, we could say that acute pain is one of the great hypnotizers of the world (alongside TV, the internet, and a whole host of other things that steal your attention).
But the thing is this…
Pain is an important signal that something in your body needs attention. This ‘body communication’ occurs from the stimulation of pain receptors or nerve endings located in your body’s tissues. It is your body’s way of speaking to you, indicating that something needs addressing.
The mind-body response to pain
So, instead of pain being a purely physical phenomenon, the intensity of it is highly subjective, influenced by the way you evaluate and then respond to it. And it’s difficult to evaluate pain accurately if your emotions are involved.
There’s no doubt that both acute and chronic pain will affect the way you feel. Not only is your attention locked by the pain, but your emotions also hijack your ability to stay calm and rational. It’s like a two-fold form of hypnosis; attention locked both physically and mentally.
You may inadvertently increase the intensity of pain by catastrophising about it or by viewing it as never ending. Pain is further influenced by how much attention you pay to it or by how much you resist feeling it. (You probably know that when you’re absorbed in an interesting activity the pain is forgotten or becomes more remote).
The fact is that people respond to pain in different ways. Some of us cope with an injury or illness in a detached way and experience the discomfort as being ‘over there’. What one person calls excruciating, another might label as bothersome. In other words, your mind-set plays a huge part in the intensity and duration of pain.
This is why using hypnosis for pain relief should be an integral part of any pain management programme. Not only can hypnosis have a direct influence on the physical pain, but it can also equip you with mental skills to change your psychological response to pain.
How does hypnosis alleviate pain?
Therapeutic hypnosis is a powerful way to induce a state of calm in both body and mind. Tension, tightness, and pressure melt away as you are guided into the hypnotic state. Deep relaxation is very healing for the mind-body system. It increases the amount of feel good hormones in your blood stream, such as serotonin and oxytocin.
During hypnosis – where your attention is absorbed in a daydream like state – you may forget all about the pain, even intense pain. And this serves to remind you that pain is subjective; you can alter your perceptions to such a degree that pain recedes right into the background of your awareness – or disappears entirely.
As this channel 4 TV program shows, people can undergo major surgery using only hypnosis as the main pain relief.
And to help deal with the psychological aspects of pain, hypnotherapy can help you take control of your attention mechanism. Instead of being hypnotised by the sensation of pain, you’re able to access your Observing Self – the part of you that can stand back and calmly watch the experience, without getting embroiled in it.
It’s as if the pain is happening ‘somewhere over there’. What we’re talking about here is dissociation, an important aspect of hypnosis. You start to separate the pain from your core identity; it is not who you are.
What is hypno-healing?
But we can go further than that…
With a technique called hypno-healing, you use your imagination in a special way to increase healing and speed up recovery from illness, injuries and operations.
Back in the 1970s, the Simonton’s pioneered the use of hypnotic visualisation techniques with patients suffering from terminal cancer. (4) Many patients reported significant decreases in their level of physical pain and emotional suffering. Several lived much longer than they were expected to and it is thought that the visualisation methods played a part in this.
The fact is that the imagination is one of our most powerful resources. With hypnosis, as we access the REM state, we are literally programming our mind-body system with new, healing information. One of the key findings in recent years is the way in which hypnosis boosts the immune system. (5)
Using hypnosis for pain relief: summary
In conclusion, with its long history in the use of pain relief, hypnosis should be an integral part of your pain management program. This is because hypnosis works on an instinctive level where you have more influence on both mind and body.
Hypnosis and guided imagery/visualisation can have a direct impact on physical pain as well as helping you to experience deep relaxation. Not only that, but therapeutic hypnosis can provide you with a variety of psychological techniques to help you manage the emotional affects of physical suffering.
Just imagine your life no longer dominated by pain…
For the scientific research into using hypnosis for pain relief check out the notes section below. Or if you’d like to ask me questions direct, book a Free Discovery Session to find out more about how hypnosis can help you alleviate your pain