Can you imagine using hypnotherapy instead of anesthesia for major surgery? We all know pain is processed through the brain, but how can we use hypnosis to reduce physical suffering? In Herbert and David Speigel’s book, “Trance and Treatment,” he describes a patient who underwent a lung resection while in a hypnotic trance without anesthesia. If you are not a medical person, a lung resection involves cutting skin and muscle, moving ribs, taking out a cancerous portion of the lung, and sewing what is left behind back up. In other words, a potentially painful and distressing experience. The patient only remembered a cool sensation in his throat and the pen (which was the scalpel) across his skin.
How is this possible?
Our brains process the entire experience of the pain. Pain may start with a crushed foot or tooth abscess, but once a nerve-ending realizes the injury, a signal goes to the spinal cord and up to the brain cortex, becoming a personalized experience. Patients who develop chronic pain have an altered relationship with their bodies. We each have experiences that stack up and change how we relate to our bodies and suffering. Our brains turn physical pain into meaning.
What happens in hypnosis is that it alters the experience that your brain has with the pain. It examines the relationship between pain and your sense of self.
There are several different ways that hypnosis can work with the brain and pain.
First, it relaxes the muscles that tense in the areas of pain. Part of the hypnotic induction involves a sensation of floating and progressive relaxation.
Second, this sense of dissociation, in other words, being separate from your body and emotions. Looking from the outside allows you to reform the relationship with your body and talk to your pain. When you accept your body, you can enable it to be its healer. Acceptance under hypnosis is incredibly empowering.
Third, using imagery can be very powerful. When hypnotized, your brain is receptive to imagery. For example, with migraine headaches, it is typical for the head to feel warm and the hands to feel cold. While hypnotized, one can imagine ice melting along your scalp and into your brain with a sense of relief while your hands are inside warming fur-lined mittens. Likewise, with peripheral neuropathy, images of dialing down the vibrations and cooling and fire-like sensations are soothing.
Fourth, when you direct your body to imagine healing itself, imagine the tissue healing at a cellular level. It permits you to be a co-pilot with your health. You are not outsourcing your journey to a medication or a surgeon. I am not suggesting you not see your doctor or stop taking medication but work with your providers as a co-healer. Folks who come into this alternative journey often need to take less medication or even can wean themselves off drugs.