Dealing With Pain Through Hypnosis
An understanding of the causes of pain helps guide its therapy.
Posted June 4, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Acute pain can be useful as it can cause us to move away from the source of the pain.
- Nerve damage may be the source of chronic pain. In that case, it serves little useful purpose.
- Therapy with hypnosis can help address both physical and emotional aspects of pain.
We are built to experience pain to become aware that something is amiss. Pain can be triggered by either a physical abnormality, an emotional state, or both.
In the case of physical pain, the nerves from the affected site send a signal to the brain that is interpreted as being painful.
On the other hand, an emotional trigger may lead the brain to cause a disruption in the body, which is painful, or may cause the brain to interpret common body sensations as painful.
Sometimes, the physical manifestations of pain can serve to express the nature of the emotional distress. For example, when we deal with disruptive people in our lives, some of us develop a “pain in the neck,” a “killer headache,” or feel as if we are being “punched in the gut.”
When Pain Is Useful
Pain that occurs right after an injury or contact with something that might cause injury is useful as it causes us to protect ourselves by moving away from the source of the pain. Sometimes, we even move away from the cause of pain before we become consciously aware of it, such as when we pull back our hand from contact with a very hot surface.
Such acute pain can also help by reminding us to keep an injured part of the body still, so no further injury ensues. Also, the pain teaches us to avoid behaviors that might cause us to develop such pain again. Pain can also make us aware of an illness that requires attention, such as appendicitis.
By definition, chronic pain lasts more than three months, might be caused by nerve damage, and serves little useful purpose. That being said, some philosophers have benefited by deriving meaning from learning how to deal with chronic pain.
Aside from the pain trigger, many other factors affect how pain is perceived. For example, athletes who focus on their competitive sport may not even recognize they have been injured during a game. Patients who are very depressed may experience pain more intensely because they may feel that everything is going wrong or deserve to be punished. Religious individuals may welcome pain as a way of helping direct their thoughts toward God or repenting from sin.
Pain treatment can involve both medications and complementary therapies, including hypnosis. When pain is addressed with hypnosis (Milling, 2021), therapy can be provided for its physical nature as well as emotional components, which frequently complicate its management.
By teaching patients to process the pain signal differently, with hypnosis, the experience of pain can change, and sometimes even dramatically. For example, a gifted patient in hypnosis may be able to tune it out sufficiently that typically painful medical procedures (such as blood draws, dental work, or even surgery) can be performed without chemical anesthesia. Therapy with hypnosis can even help childbirth become much more tolerable (Babbar & Oyarzabal, 2021).
Hypnotic imagery to help change the physical experience of pain can include imagining changing its color, size, shape, loudness, and temperature, or imagined manipulation of a pain control center in the brain, such as by turning off imaginary pain switches.
To address the emotional aspects of pain, hypnosis can be useful in helping patients identify the nature of their emotional state and how to shift that frame of mind, e.g., through visualization of a peaceful experience. Further, the hypnotic state can promote insight, e.g., through consultation with their subconscious, which can serve as a foundation for counseling patients to deal better with their emotions. This can lead to an associated improvement of their pain.
Hypnosis can be very effective in treating discomfort when it is directed at both the physical and emotional aspects of the pain experience.
Copyright Ran D. Anbar
Babbar, Shipla, & Alejandro J. Oyarzabal. 2021. “Application of Hypnosis in Obstetrics.” Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology. 64:635-647.
Milling, Leonard S., et al. 2021. "Hypnosis and the Alleviation of Clinical Pain: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis." International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. 69: 297-322.
More information about hypnosis and how it can be used to help with pain is available in the 2021 book, "Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center," by Ran D. Anbar, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.