Friday, March 16, 2007

The Goldfish Guide to Self-Hypnosis for Pain Management

My single experience of hypnosis proper was a disaster. It was one of the last therapies I allowed myself to be coerced into doing, but I turned up, determined to make the best of it and keep an open mind. This wasn’t some bizarre attempt to hypnotise me well, I hasten to add, but to help me cope better. And it was true to say that I wasn’t coping at all well at the time. It was the summer of the long sleeves.

Unfortunately, despite my good intentions, I spent half an hour lying still, trying to suppress the most horrendous fit of giggles. It all started when the chap who was hypnotised before me emerged into the waiting room and declared

“Everyday, in every way, I’m getting better and better!”

Really. I couldn’t take anything seriously after that. The hypnotist played a weird tuneless soundtrack, like someone was aimlessly fiddling with all the knobs on an early synthesiser. He told me, in a low slow voice, that I felt perfectly free of pain – when of course, I didn’t and wouldn’t have done even if I hadn’t been tensing almost every muscle in my body in my attempts to suppress laughter.

Self-hypnosis is something different entirely. This is something I do which helps a lot. It seems very personal to me, and it strikes me that not having my body and my mind, I’m not sure whether this information could be useful to anybody. However, clearly some folks who read this are in pain (physically, not just cringing at my prose) and on the off-chance it might be useful to somebody, somewhere, in some way, I am taking the rather brave step of writing a bit about it.

Self-Deceit and Honest

It took me ages to realise this was possible. I felt that if I could not make my body relax just by trying to relax because I was so unwell and uncomfortable, then it simply wasn't possible. However, we know that the brain is capable of a great degree of self-deceit; books, films and plays would not be entertaining if we were not able to suspend our disbelief, music would not be able to move us, excite or relax us if we were not able to get lost in it.

It is just a matter of playing little tricks with one's own imagination. Finding one's own psychological buttons and pressing them. Of course I don't know how easy or hard that is for other people because we all have varying imaginative capacities, but still.

It is very important to point out that despite all the wonderful mind over matter stories one reads about walking on hot coals and enduring surgery without anaesthetic, one must be reasonable with oneself. If you live with chronic pain, then it seems extremely unlikely that you are going to be able to convince yourself that you are not in pain any more. One cannot lie to oneself. In fact, attempting to do so is likely to break the spell and stop you getting any benefit from th exercise.

This is why conventional hypnosis, relaxation tapes and the like often fail for people with chronic pain and illness; if a voice is telling you something which contradicts your physical experience, you lose your faith in anything else it says.

Although with practice this can be a really useful technique, it can be jolly hard to get the hang of at first. The thing is to play with it, experiment and not have too high expectations - nor to imagine that if you don't feel wonderful the first time, it's never going to help.

Winding Down

The first thing you need to do is to begin enter a state of relaxation. There are lots of different ways of doing this. Personally, I have significant problems with concentration and prefer to go through several routines rather quickly than doing one really slowly - which is probably what others would suggest you do. I can't; my mind wanders.

I'm going to give some examples of what I do, I'm sure there are many variations that can be invented (or read about elsewhere).

Knackering the eyes. Forgive the word knackering, but I feel very silly writing about any of this and can't think of the word I mean. Thing is about the eyes and relaxation is that if you simply close them, your brain is likely to compensate for the sudden absence of visual stimulation. So I sometimes
  • Focus on one place on the ceiling and very slowly close my eyes counting from ten down to one. If it is dark, I look at a luminous star (I presume everyone has luminous stars on their ceiling, as pretty much I have all my life).
  • I turn my eyeballs to face upwards, then close my eyes without moving the gaze of my eyeballs. I then turn my eyeballs downwards, then open my eyes wide without moving the gaze of my eyeballs. You may need to read that twice to understand what I mean; it's actually quite tricky; your eyes want to follow your eyelids as you close or open them, and to resist this wears them out to a point where your comfortable keeping them closed pretty quickly.
Relaxing the body. The point about this is that it is not going to be 100% if bits of you are hurting - they are still going to hurt, and they are not going to magically relax. The idea is to get yourself as comfortable as possible. For example,
  • Starting at the tips of your toes, imagine a big thick heavy blanket being slowly laid over you; first your toes warm up, then your foot, your heel, your ankle etc., each getting warm and thus relaxing as the blanket falls onto them.
  • Starting at your scalp, concentrate on the various surfaces on your body working downwards. Think about how they feel, the fact they are still and relaxed etc. - this works quite well when you hurt on the inside. Not so well if you've got an itch.
  • Imagine a warm golden energy coming up your body as your breath in, and then a cool white energy going out your body as you breath out - yes, I know, I'm beginning to sound a bit flaky, but these are just examples, and relate to my own buttons, not necessarily yours.
Going down into a deep dark place. This is where the imaginary exercise begins in earnst. Some people may find it more relaxing to go up into a bright light place, where they get lighter as they go, but not this Morlock. I prefer heading downwards, and the further down I go, the darker and warmer it gets, the heavier I feel and the more relaxed I am. It is important to think about all the sensory stuff; to merely visualise isn't nearly enough. I do this in a number of ways, for example, imagining that I am
  • Taking a long and winding staircase downwards. Counting the stairs backwards helps, although from not too high a number (I like twenty-four myself). There might be doorways off to the side which one may chose to go through, but I'm going right to the bottom.
  • Taking a lift. The lift has a big comfy sofa for when standing hurts even in my imagination. I watch the lights indicate the floors as the lift descends, and again, it gets darker and I feel heavier as it goes down.
  • Gliding down into the darkness, sometimes in the basket of a hot air balloon, sometimes wearing a parachute, sometimes using a hand-glider. This is a very gentle, but inevitable descent and there is always a very soft welcoming landing.
Disposing of Troubles

My favourite way of disposing of niggling thoughts is probably very personal to me, and is going to sound rather silly. The niggling thoughts are represented by white mice which scurry around my feet. I can't move on whilst they are there because I am afraid of standing on them.

After I've gone to the deep dark place, I'm standing in a stairwell where there is a lampost. Attached to the lamppost is a bunch of red helium-filled balloons. One by one I take a balloon, tie the tail of a white mouse to the end of its string and release it into the stairwell. I then watch as the white mouse floats up and eventually completely out of sight.

Yes, yes, this is a little odd but that works very well for me, and I am a terrific worrier.

For more troublesome stuff, I tend to produce some object to represent them which I put in boxes and put the boxes in cupboards, and padlock the cupboards and so on. But for the Lurgy, which is the big one, I have to be more careful. Thing is, my niggles are just niggles, just white mice. And almost everything I worry about is pointless - even when some crisis is going on, worrying about it never did any good. So it is relatively easy to make that stuff disappear. Not so the Lurgy, which is a big part of my life.

The Lurgy is represented by the same physical object which I just cannot share right now for fear of freaking you out completely. However it is quite a fragile object which I must treat with care. I lay it down in a box with cushioned lining, carefully close and lock the box. The box is very ornately decorated for some reason, I guess because the Lurgy is precious - well not precious, but alas, must be treated with the utmost of respect. Then I lower it into a hole in the ground which has conveniently been dug. I then shovel earth on top and finish burying the box.

However, when I finish the session, I always dig the box up, take out my Lurgy and take it with me back up to the surface. Just so I know I haven't been fooling myself.

The Happy Place

He he he. Sorry, this is all very silly, isn't it? No wonder you haven't ever done this yourself; you have too much self-respect to conceive of such things in your mind. I have so little self-respect I'm prepared to write about them to the whole world (well, you, at least).

I go through a door and find myself somewhere which is very beautiful and comfortable. My own paradise is a woodland where the birds are singing, sun beams through the leaves and branches, the ground is carpetted in velvetty moss and gravity doesn't really exist - I can swim up above the treetops where it is sunny and warm and I can swim down into the Earth where it is cool and dark. I frequently find somewhere to lie down and simply fall asleep, in which case I will fall asleep for real.

If I don't fall asleep, I have a nice time here for a while, until I think I want to get on and do something else. At this point, I always collect my Lurgy and go back whichever way I came - up stairs or whatever, even if I go up much quicker than I came down. I feel I have to do this in order to wake up properly, or else I tend to feel disorientated.

And when this is all over, I always feel better. It feels like I have had some respite, a break. And usually the mere fact of having had my body properly relaxed for a period of time, I usually feel physically more comfortable.


Mary said...

Don't think it's silly at all - I do something very similar.

A few years ago, my mum was given a relaxation tape by the Pain Clinic which took you through most of the steps you've described above - the eyes closing, the heaviness, the breathing, all that - I tried it myself and it worked nicely.

Only problem was that being a tape, you only had about a minute and a half of wonderful relaxation before there was an almighty SNAP! of the tape finishing and the button popping, which rather reversed the effects... luckily I learned to take myself through it without the tape :)

seahorse said...

I do the same cd every day for up to an hour and it helps, just out of sheer association with rest and feeling better. I find visualisation hard as my imagination feels blunted by medication but i do frequently pop balloons carrying worrying thoughts or images. Thanks for sharing this. Fear and pain are a bad combo. Ease the fear and your body responds :-)

Wheelchair Dancer said...

not silly at all. I have a very similar routine which I learned from my shrink. Involves sending heat or coolness, depending on which I think the pain needs into the areas of pain .. doing the eye thing and allowing the pain to take a colour....

I have mine on my ipod and it just runs endlessly.... I usually just go to sleep afterwards.


Anonymous said...

Goldfish-Thank You for writing this. It isn't silly at all. I'm really grateful because I have a horrible time with my mind wandering if I try meditation, or muscle relaxation, etc. I think this might work for me. :D

Sage said...

The first guy reminds me of Stuart Smalley - the self-affirmation guy from Saturday Night Live (can't find him on YouTube, but you're not missing much if you haven't heard of him).

I love the mice imagery. I usually think of my thoughts as bits of filmstrip getting blown away by the wind one by one.

Whatever works!

Anonymous said...

'“Everyday, in every way, I’m getting better and better!”'

I feel giggly just thinking about it. Some of these professionals must think we're all so down in the dumps that we're ready to grasp at straws.

Anonymous said...

Cheryline here from - I think self hypnosis is a great tool to get the most out of your full potential. It can be used for so many things in your life experiences, but it does not seem to be embraced by many people

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, it's not as silly as you might think :)
i actually do the spiral staircase thing myself, i always thought i was quite weird for that but maybe not!
Anyway, i like the elevator idea, i might try that tomorrow as i'm getting my first tattoo and am far from relaxed...
Thanks for this:)

pain management emr said...

Great post! I think I need to try this one too. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing.