How to Use Imagery to Control Pain

Mind-body medicine is based around the idea that there is an influential connection between body and mind. The connection is strong enough to effect physical and mental health. Modern science and modern medicine long ago separated mind and body (initially for valid reasons) and perpetuated a rift that has lead to fragmented treatments of them. Bodily problems got physical treatments and mental problems received psychological treatments. Gradually, we are learning through research of the powerful influence they have on each other and the importance of treating both together for physical or mental problems.

You know from experience the way your mood often depends on how your body is feeling and even what it is doing. You have probably also experienced the way some thoughts change how you feel physically. Try this little mental experiment to further experience this connection. Start by remembering a time you were very disappointed in yourself, perhaps it was something you did, or neglected to do, but you ended up feeling bad. Perhaps your confidence plummeted and you may even have felt guilty or ashamed. As you fill in the details of this memory, the time, place, whom you were with, what you were wearing, and so on, notice the feelings that come over you. How does your body feel? Let it sink in for a moment.

Now let go of that memory and recall an incident when you did something of which you were quite proud. Perhaps others noticed your accomplishment and even praised you for it. It was a time you surpassed the expectations of everyone, including your own. Bring back the details of this moment, remembering what you had done, seeing happen again, seeing the others who appreciated it and praised you, and let the feelings of this flow through your body again. Bask in it for a moment, feel a very different kind of energy. Confident, proud, expanded.

You may not want to let go of this since it embodies such a positive and expansive sense of your self. So go ahead and hang on to it. As you compare those two rather different experiences you may be struck by their power. What makes these types of thoughts so strong is that your memories most likely contained vivid images of what happened. Those images contain enough information to create whole realities for you as you relive your experiences. The power of imagery can create experiences so vivid that they become your reality of the moment, and your body and mind react accordingly. For this reason, imagery is a useful tool for your mind-body medicine chest.

Imagery can be used to effectively reduce the experience of pain. In the rest of this presentation I will explain how to construct an image to control your own pain and then discuss how to use that image to greatest effect. The most effective imagery contains personal meaning which allows you to engage it more fully. There is an art to creating an effective image. Here are some things to consider as you put together your images.

Know your Pain
What is your pain like? Is it “stabbing,” “burning,” or “aching?” Describe your experience of your pain as best you can. Is it constant or intermittent? Where is it in your body? Central (as in your trunk), peripheral (limbs) or head? Does it stay put or move around? Do you get any sense of the cause of your pain?

An awareness of your experience of pain provides clues for images to counter it. If your pain is burning, for instance, you may want to extinguish or cool it. What kind of burn extinguisher can you imagine? Can you ice it? If your burning pain is intermittent you will want to extinguish it completely, if it is constant, you may need to build a barrier between you and the burning, some sort of firewall. A stabbing pain may respond to the removal of the blade doing the stabbing. Imagine removing it and soothing and repairing the wound.

With any pain, think of the ways you have gotten relief. Imagine repeating that relief can be very effective. Some find relief by imagining they can inject a powerful medication directly into the area. But your images don’t have to make sense to anyone except you. Imagine shrinking, soothing, isolating, erasing, obliterating, disconnecting or doing anything else to your pain to lessen its presence in your awareness.

Know your reaction to pain
What is your usual reaction to pain? Do you try to ignore or minimize the pain when it occurs, sticking to business as usual? Do you avoid pain as much as possible, seeking medication at the first sign of pain, or progressively limiting your life to eliminate possible pain evoking activities? Or do you tend to dwell on it? You might bear your discomfort quietly, or seek attention by letting others know you are in pain.

If you generally seek to avoid or ignore pain you might do better with images of your self and your life without pain. See the pain-free you doing things you love with people you love. Or create a barrier between you and your pain. Keep it locked away, or have it in some way removed from your sight and mind.

If you tend to focus on the pain, you might want to deal with it more directly. Get right into your image of the pain, perhap imagine it’s cause, and counter it with the appropriate soothing image.

Know yourself
What activities are comforting to you? What are some things in which you can lose yourself? By this I mean an activity where you forget about time, forget about even a sense of self, where you become inseparable from the activity. Something you love to do has the effect of absorbing your attention completely. When you incorporate these activities into your imagery, they can enhance the vividness and increase your involvement. For example, if you love to knit, imagine being able to knit a healing, soothing web around and through your pain. Stitch by stitch. The process of knitting is a relaxing and meditative one, so let yourself relax into the process as you gradually envelop the entire pain in a healing comforter.

What places are calming for you? Do you have a special place you go to rejuvenate or find yourself when things become overwhelming? Perhaps you can only imagine such a place. What would your ideal place of peace look like? You can increase the effect of your image by using your special setting to set the tone. The tone you want is complete relaxation. Relaxation sets the stage for vivid imagery and the best baseline for healing. Spend some time filling in the details of your place, exploring it as a full sensory experience. Fill in as many senses as feel comfortable to you. What to you see? Hear? Feel? Smell? Taste? Your sense memories will help you reexperience the peace and comfort this place holds for you.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you find yourself looking for the downside of most situations, carefully predicting all the things that might go wrong? Or are you the type that always finds the “silver lining” or looks for the hidden message behind every problem. If you are a seeker of problems, then don’t ignore them in your imagery. Be sure to address each problem that comes to mind with specific imaged solutions. It will take longer to develop your images, but you will feel more confident about them in the end. Don’t let your tendency to find new problems de-rail you from doing this technique.

The optimistic perspective is a good one for imagery. It helps to image things happening as best they could. When you can see things happening exactly as you want them to, you increase the likelihood of it happening that way. Your body begins to respond to those optimistic images by feeling the way it would if they occurred. Simply seeing yourself free of pain can be quite powerful. Observe yourself smiling, moving in a pain-free manner, loose and relaxed, enjoying life fully.

You may also want to imagine a powerful helper. Having a guide or guardian angel or inner librarian or doctor who resides in your special place is a way of trusting the wisdom of your own unconscious mind. You can trust that some where in your own reservoir of experience and knowledge that you already know what you need to do. Throwing questions out to your inner helper is a way of tapping that resource.

Using your imagery
Once you have answered these questions you can begin to plan your imagery. It does not have to be elaborate. A simple, single powerful image of a pain-free you may be all you need. You may do better putting together a storyline that invites you into it. You need to put your personal elements in some kind of order. It is good to begin by getting as relaxed as possible. Imagining a tripto your setting can trigger this. Once you feel comfortable you might explore your pain, imaging it and opening yourself up to nurturing this troubled part of yourself. Here you can use your special intervention to transform the pain. See the change happening. Feel the alterations in energy in different parts of your body as the pain is released. You may want to give yourself an added injection of well-being by seeing yourself engage in some joyful activity, such as, dancing, without pain.

Not every imagery session needs to contain every element we have discussed. It often depends on how much time you have available. It does take some time to do this and you will need to make that time for yourself. In addition to time you will need a place where you will have as few distractions as possible. You may want to find a very quiet spot or you may choose to use a musical background. Music not only covers ambient noise, it can help to relax and put you into a meditative or hypnotic state. The music you choose should be calming.

(I have worked with composer Hugh Fraser to create music specifically for this purpose. Five CDs of his soothing music are available on this web site)

Imagery is more absorbing and, therefore, more effective with deep relaxation. Being able to go into a relaxed trance greatly enhances its vividness. There is no mystery to trance, it occurs whenever we daydream and sometimes while doing any habitual activity like driving. Staring at an object blankly can bring on a nice trance. Or you may want to start with a brief relaxation exercise to get in the proper state. You can find a number of these on my CD “Relaxing on the Run” ( also available on this web site). Once you feel ready, start your image. For optimal results you need to practice it repeatedly, changing your images as you go. Remember you are working to reprogram your mind and body into believing and responding to the positive realities you are creating for it.

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