Self Hypnosis For Pain Management

'Hypnosis Is About Much More Than Just Focusing On A Swinging Watch'

By Definition –

Self hypnosis is a form of relaxation that is said to help with pain management by causing the mind to shift it’s focus away from the source of your pain, therefore reducing it’s importance and making your bodies’ pain signals feel weaker.

Our Member Survey Says…

  • Only 5% Of Our Members Surveyed In August 2019 Had thought About Using Hypnosis For Pain Management.

The Short Answer –

The effectiveness of self hypnosis for pain management is a hotly debated topic. Self hypnosis is not straight forward, but if you are prepared to put the time in, there is strong research to suggest it will help your pain management.

 

An Info-Graphic looking at how effective self hypnotherapy can be.

What Is Self-Hypnosis?

Hypnosis itself is simply the process of achieving a more focused, almost dream-like state, in which the subconscious part of your brain is actively in control.

The sub conscious part of our brain is said to determine up to 80% of our feelings/ emotions and by opening ourselves up to a trance-like state, we can alter the pre-sets of our brains’ sub-consciously automated response mechanisms.

In pain management terms, this simply means that the brain processes our feelings of pain and how we focus on those sensations (focusing on them only intensifies pain levels even further).

By altering how our brain thinks about pain, we can alter how our brain processes the pain messages before we feel them as a physical sensation.

If your brain thinks cutting your finger wont hurt, then if you do cut it, any pain signals received will be immediately numbed by your brain and you wont feel the sensation anywhere near as badly as someone who thinks a cut finger will bring intense pain.

Hypnosis is very much a course, rather than just a one-off. In a traditional setting you would visit a hypnotist who would help to get you in to that deep trance-like state and then begin trying to alter your subconscious settings.

It has often been used for things like giving up smoking, getting over irrational fears or losing weight and more recently, is being used for reducing feelings of pain.

Self-Hypnosis then is simply the ability to have some control over your hypnotic state yourself and use it to change your ability to process physical sensations.

A picture of a woman head showing what hypnotherapy comes from the brain

It can be practiced anytime. You do not need a hypnotist to help you. All the evidence appears to suggest that both self-hypnosis and the traditional hypnotist supported hypnosis can be highly effective – but not that one is more or less effective than the other.

Self-hypnosis then can be summed up as the ability to take control when you are in a trance and use it to alter your long-term mindset as well as your natural physical receptiveness and responses to certain stimuli.

Self-hypnosis has been used for generations in some countries to provide both analgesia (absence of pain) and anesthesia (no sensation whatsoever) prior to in some cases, even major amputations of limbs.

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The Myths of Hypnosis.

Hypnosis involves transferring your mind into a state of trance. But this is not difficult or unusual. Being in a ‘trance state’ can happen naturally at any time of the day.

If you drive for any distance and suddenly realise you can’t remember a period of your journey, you will have slipped into a trance state. Sit down watching TV that you’re not really interested in and you can slip in to a trance state – pretty much any repetitive activity could see you slip into a trance.

Even further than this – reading a really good book or doing something that is really engrossing can see you lose track of your environment and slip into a trance state.

Many people will describe it as ‘losing track of time’ whether that be suddenly realising hours have elapsed – or the opposite when you feel as if something that took hours when in fact it took only a few minutes.

Basically a trance is any period during which you lose track of the outside environment.

We can in fact dispel a number of key myths around hypnosis –

1) that it is some mythical state during which you have no control

2) that the only way you can enter a hypnotic state is with the help of some master of magic holding a swinging watch.

3) Deep hypnosis is necessary for good results.

4) Everyone can be hypnotised. (Sadly everyone responds to it differently as they do individually to all pain treatments)

5) You can get stuck in hypnosis and not come out

6) That a hypnotist (or anyone) can make you do things against your own will.

7) That hypnosis can cure everything (let’s be realistic!)

8) That Hypnosis is just an old wives tale, that doesn’t work (that’s not what all the evidence suggests)

How Do You Self Hypnotise?

The irony with learning self-hypnosis is that it is quite likely that you already use some of the techniques without even realising you are doing so, as ways of making you feel more comfortable about different decisions that you have to make.

The most important factor with self-hypnosis is to practice it regularly. At first you are much better off practicing the techniques when your pain is only at a very low level.

This will enable you to focus on the techniques first.

You can then build up in pain severity as your skill level increases (and ironically your overall pain levels decrease).

There are a whole variety of approaches to successful self-hypnosis and unfortunately, because different techniques have different impacts of different people, it is worth trying a few until you settle on one that you are most comfortable with.

Once you settle on a technique for getting into self-hypnosis, you should then aim to practice at least once or twice a day, if not even more.

It is probably unrealistic to aim for a completely pain-free state, but if you get into the habit of rating your pain honestly on a scale of 1 to 20, then you should be able to observe regular declines in your pain levels.

You will also be able to give yourself realistic goals such as reducing your pain in the mornings from a 7 to a 4 and so on.

Why Is Self Hypnosis Used For Pain Management?

Self hypnosis for pain management relies on two key concepts – that you can change how your brain receives messages of pain from your body and that you can change what your brain does with those messages once delivered.

In other words, it is about altering your bodies’ experience of pain and how it perceives that experience to be.

This can however be a bit of a double edged sword, because in some cases, pain is a very useful warning sign that we overdoing things and need to slow down.

In the case of severe back pain for example, pain is designed to stop you twisting or further abusing your injury while it gets a chance to heal. In other, fibromyalgia being a prime one, the pain tends to come after the activities and gets worse during the day, so any form of relief is of great value.

Additional Benefits Of Self Hypnosis For Pain Management.

Perhaps on the greatest benefits of self hypnosis is that, unlike taking severe pain medication, there really are very few downsides. If it doesn’t work for you, then all you’ve lost is the time/ any financial investment in trying to learn.

You wont be left hooked on certain chemicals, with loads of unwanted expensive equipment or fighting a life threatening infection after surgery.

Learning the skills required can be good fun, it’s easy/ convenient to still has many other mental benefits. Various trials have reported a host of other benefits – most commonly much improved sleep and a really positive feeling towards life even if it doesn’t work as well as hoped for your initial pain!

An infographic displaying the benefits of using self hypnosis for pain management

Basic Self Hypnosis Techniques For Pain Relief

The key to successful self-hypnosis (besides regular practice in low pain states, gradually building up) is to talk quietly to yourself. This reinforces your thoughts and effectively gives your body much

1) Changing Your Physical Experience of Pain.

Visualise the pain as being something other than pain itself. You can do this in one of 3 main ways – imagine yourself as a character that doesn’t feel pain.

2) Numbing.

Recall the highs of Extreme Pain Relief. Imagine the benefits of the pain relief surging through your body, making you feel pain free.

You could imagine the exact sensations involved with previously successful pain relief such as using hot/ cold therapy. If you suffer with knee pain for example, then imagine the feeling of ice on your knee and the positive effect it has on pain.

Similarly, you could imagine yourself having a hot bath if that is a normal part of your routine – whatever fits with physical sensations that your body can recall from past experiences.

This can even work well for headaches, if you suggest to yourself that your arms or legs are feeling hot and heavy, your brain is likely to divert blood from the brain to the affected limbs, as if they were indeed hot. This diverting of blood flow can then do wonders for your headache.

3) Envisage yourself in a situation in which the pain is secondary to your overall outcome.

For example, a sportsman competing in the world final, despite carrying an injury because your team is relying on you or a fun runner determined to determined to finish the London marathon with a twisted ankle.

In each case, focus on the fact that your injury is only minor in comparison to the lifetime of glory that awaits and that, either way, you have no choice but to keep going and complete your task.

4) Reframing.

Alter The Language of pain. As you talk to yourself about your pain (or indeed when you describe it to others, with the exception of your doctor), start using softer language. So for example, instead of describing something as ‘stabbing’ use a softer term such as ‘tingling’.

Rather than saying your pain is throbbing, use terms such as you have a ‘vibrating’ (not ‘throbbing’) ‘sensation’ (not ‘pain’). You could actually have some real fun with this and come up with lots of different names or descriptions for your pain.

You might even decide to name the disease you have. I once knew someone who didn’t want to call her Cancer by it’s name because she hated all the conatations of ‘the big C’, so she named it ‘Clive’.

This made it seem more human and slightly less intimidating as a result. It took a little bit of getting used to as on bad days she’d say to me ‘Clive’s been having a bad day today’ and I’d have to double-take, before I remembered – but it worked for her.

This is a recognised technique for making intimidating diseases seem a little less cold and frightening, but would also work for a whole range of pain conditions with the same benefit of reducing the negative image.

An infographic displaying the benefits of using self hypnosis for pain management

5) Seeing Beyond The Event.

Your pain may be sharp and uncomfortable, but it is likely to subside again (even if only to a lower level) and it will help to remain calm and look beyond the current pain spike.

This can even work really well for events like attacks of gout or migraines, where telling yourself in a calm voice “This may be a little uncomfortable for a while (as per point number 5), but it will pass and I’ll be able to relax in a warm bath and unwind very soon”. “I have experienced tingling much worse than this before and I will get through it just like I have done every time before.”

Putting your pain in to context like this, helps you to further relax yourself and reduces both your anxiety/ stress (well known for increasing pain) and how you think about/ rate your pain.

6) Detachment (or Disassociation Theory).

Again, while under your semi-trance state, it can help greatly to separate yourself from your pain.

This does not mean describing it in a factual state (instead continue with the softer terminology and the other techniques as above), but this time analyse your pains as if you are completing a ‘captains log’ on a ship.

So you might say, “today we find tingling in my left knee, which will only last for the next hour until my rest has taken it’s effect, whereupon I shall enjoy the luxury of a hot bath, followed by an ice cold mixed fruit cocktail.

I will be fully relaxed and in control at all times”. You might even decide to compare the feelings in one part of your body with those of another. “While my knees continue to experience a warming sensation (instead of saying burning), my ankles remain cool and fully functional”.

7) Distraction.

Focus on physical sensations that are not connected to your current pain. This may involve recalling a holiday you went on when your pain was not a focus.

The key is to completely engross yourself in the holiday ‘experience’.

Remember the feeling of the warm sun on your face, the noise of your favourite drink being poured over ice, the feeling of the hot sand under your toes, or the cooling feeling of the swimming pool with all the associated splashes and other noises.

Immerse yourself completely in the experience, so that all you can feel is the sensations associated with the pleasure and forget about letting your pain dominate. You can then carry on with your normal activities while still thinking about your experience (albeit with your concentration split between your current task and that good experieince).

If you haven’t know a time without pain or your memories are hazy, then simply focus on something really complicated. You could be trying to solve an emotional problem (such as a lost love) or trying to write new words to a tune that you know well.

The possibilities are endless – in truth the subject matter is much less important than the fact that you can immerse yourself in it totally, taking your mind at least to some extent from focusing on your pain.

More Advanced Self Hypnosis For Pain Relief

Having tried the various ‘basic’ self-hypnotic techniques, you should start to sense the power of self hypnosis for pain management. As you start to realise just how powerful a focused mind can be, then you may be ready to try some of the more advanced techniques.

If the basic techniques haven’t really caught on for you, then try them again – it is not a pass or fail science.

The more you practice the basic techniques, the more skilled you’ll become at immersing yourself in a trance like state – and the more immersed you become, the easier changing your thoughts/ behaviors will be.

The intention is that they teach very basic skills of behaviour modification. These are the building blocks and the better you are at handling them, the more skilled you’ll be at slipping in to a trance-like level of concentration and affecting your brain’s associations.

Given that all pain has to be processed by your brain before you can feel it in a literal sense, by altering the processing chip, it stands that you alter the resulting output.

I wont go in to the advanced techniques in depth here – the possibilities are endless and I’d only be directing straight from the playbooks of some of the experts.

If you do decide to go further with self-hypnosis (and I strongly recommend that you do), then I recommend a book ‘self-hypnosis’ by Lambrou (1992) as a great starting point.

Does Self Hypnosis For Pain Management Actually Work? The Evidence.

Let me give you an answer that no politician has in their answer cabinet – yes. Just… yes.

Self hypnosis for pain management does work. But I still can not guarantee that it will work for everyone. Nothing does that.

We’ve mentioned many times that pain management is subjective and that just a dislocated finger may be a pain score of 10 for one person and just a 7 for someone else, it is also true that exactly the same treatment will have different impacts on different people.

As a pain specialist, I have to offer up a reasoned judgement and in the case of self hypnosis, I will use a number of studies/ reviews to back my assessment.

Firstly, this study conducted in 2017 at the University of Utah concluded that

“Mindfulness training and hypnotic suggestion significantly reduced acute pain experienced by hospital patients”

This was a study across patients admitted to hospital with severe “intolerable pain”. In the group taught hypnosis as a treatment, 29% experienced immediate pain reduction as well as a decreased need for opioid painkillers (see the dangers of severe pain medication).

This is actually quite remarkable if you take in to account that self- hypnotherapy in particular has a build up effect and that better results have typically been observed in numerous studies after at least 3 or 4 sessions.

Furthermore, much of the pain relief delivered by hypnotherapy and self-hypnosis has also been proven to a have much more long-lasting effect than medications.

Taking a painkiller may alleviate the pain for a few hours, when you have to take another dose to keep the therapeutic effect.

A big study in 2015 however looked at specifically at patients suffering with back pain and found that over 50% of the hypnosis group were still experiencing pain relief six months after finishing a course of hypnotherapy sessions.

So it would be reasonable from these two most recent trials to suggest that self hypnosis could play a significant part in both short and long term pain relief, particularly for chronic pain.

But this is a conclusion from just two trials. Thankfully, for a much wider view, we need only look at a review of over 50 studies/ trials (Jensen and Patterson) that concluded that hypnosis had a

“measurable impact on neurophysiological activity and functioning of pain”

In other words, hypnosis really can affect the way your brain works and can alter the way it interprets pain.

I can think of no better endorsement for it’s effectiveness than that.

The Final Word –

Self hypnosis for pain management is one of those strategies that, even though it now has a wealth of evidence behind it, is still considered very much a left-field ‘alternative’ therapy.

It is used regularly when it comes to helping people quit smoking forever, but is rarely considered as a front line therapy for pain by family doctors.

Hypnotherapy and particularly self hypnosis is almost definitely under-utilised in patients, particularly with chronic pain (any pain lasting over 30 days).

There is sufficient evidence for this to be used as a much more widespread treatment than some others that have, at best, very limited evidence behind them.

Whether this will ever be fully recognised remains to be seen, but it is the helprelievepain view that self hypnosis is definitely a viable option for pain relief and very much worth trying.

Frequently Asked Questions

Absolutely. Some of the techniques mentioned above will tackle anxiety just as well.

However, in some cases, if you suffer with very general anxiety then you may find it harder to get in to that relaxed state. It may therefore take longer to learn and practice.

In a few cases, you may even find it easier with a hypnotist in charge, although others may prefer the privacy of their own home, for the same reasons.

But yes – it can definitely work for anxiety if given the chance.

Absolutely – in fact they are very often the easiest way to learn and visualise the required techniques – without having to break a trance to read what to do next. 

I would say self hypnosis CDs are essential to learning the techniques properly and getting the maximum benefit from them.

Many people do, because the trance like state the hypnosis puts them in is very relaxing. So if you are lying down or already tired, then it is likely that you will fall asleep.

However, many people report positive effects after waking because there unconscious mind is still listening.

It’s a bit like falling asleep listening to the radio and then having a dream in which whatever is on the radio is a part of.

I would argue that your hypnosis is likely to be more focused on your painful area if you are awake, but there is currently little evidence to directly say which method (awake or asleep) is more effective.

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References –

1. Eric L. Garland, Anne K. Baker, Paula Larsen, Michael R. Riquino, Sarah E. Priddy, Elizabeth Thomas, Adam W. Hanley, Patricia Galbraith, Nathan Wanner, Yoshio Nakamura. (2017) Randomized Controlled Trial of Brief Mindfulness Training and Hypnotic Suggestion for Acute Pain Relief in the Hospital Setting. Journal of General Internal Medicine.
2. Tan G, Rintala DH, Jensen MP, Fukui T, Smith D, Williams W. (Feb 2015). A randomized controlled trial of hypnosis compared with biofeedback for adults with chronic low back pain. The European Journal Of Pain.
3. Mark P. Jensen and David R. Patterson. (June 2015). Hypnotic Approaches for Chronic Pain Management. American Psychological Association.

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