How your brain can affect your pain
I have experienced chronic pain since childhood, from earache to spine pain it seems I have carried this heavy load with me for decades. A silent burden that no one can understand, quantify or explain. All through my 20’s I searched for answers to find the cause of my mysterious illusive affliction. I was shepherded through the health care system and eventually after multiple procedures and endless medication I found myself in St Vincent’s hospital on a 3-week multidisciplinary pain management course, the first of two over a period of years. This marked the beginning of a new phase in my relationship with pain, I needed to accept my prognosis, and my torture and torment wasn’t going away!
Chronic unexplained pain is a prevalent disorder and yet pain sufferers are under serviced, despite all the cutting-edge research being done, (for example, we now know that stress has a large effect on how intensely you feel pain) the subjective nature of pain is so frustrating not only for the patients but for the highly trained health care professionals who are trying to find a cure!
I wanted to become my own cure. My mindset changed after my diagnosis of ‘Chiari Malformation 1’ in December 2012. I had never heard of the condition, in simple terms it is a neurological disorder where part of the brain, the cerebellum (or more specifically the cerebellar tonsils), descends out of the skull into the spinal area. This results in compression of parts of the brain and spinal cord, and disrupts the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid. Could this rare malformation be the underlying cause of my life long companion pain? Because Chiari involves the nervous system, symptoms can be numerous and varied. While it can be asymptomatic in some people, the hallmark for the condition is chronic head and neck pain however a myriad of other symptoms can accompany that too.
The notion of having anything wrong with my brain seemed very scary, more serious than unexplained aches and persistent pains. I felt I needed to do something drastic to address this diagnosis, so what began as a three month sabbatical from work to ‘heal’ turned into a voyage of wellness that lead me to explore many alternative ways of managing my pain. It wasn’t all plan sailing, however, by navigating my journey I have been transformed into an empowered patient, and I am now living (in my mind) pain free.
The first thing I started to really explore was my brain! If I have something wrong with my brain, maybe I should start there, instead of looking at invasive surgery or additional drugs as my first option.
I was inspired by stories of spontaneous remission and “miraculous” healing; I researched the phenomenon of the Placebo effect, could our brain be so powerful that we can convince our self to recover from illness from taking a harmless, inert substance like a sugar pill? Could the answer to my pain relief be somehow within my own mind?
The phrase ‘being of two minds’ summerises the mental battle that lay ahead. My conscious ‘day to day’ mind was screaming at me ‘you have been given your medical diagnosis you have chronic pain that isn’t going away’
Which in itself is a hurdle to overcome, so I had to remind myself my conscious mind is actually only 10% of my total mind power, merely the captain of the ship trying to shout the orders.
The real work and 90% of all the action is taking place deep down in the engine room below deck (the subconscious and the deeper unconscious). Captain Conscious may be in charge of the ship and gives the orders but it’s the crew that actually guides my ship. So I needed to simply give them a new map, begin a new path of exploration.
I spent days writing out and repeating affirmations about my ability to heal, I relaxed my mind, body and spirit in meditation and visualized myself pain – free. I was doing well, but the rough seas of the mind were a lot harder to harness than I had expected I needed help, I couldn’t do it alone. I sought advice from an expert hypnotherapist and began weekly hypnosis sessions. Over time I travelled into the deep dark underbelly of my unconscious.
It really surprised me to learn our subconscious mind (90%) is not limited in any way and the core function is to attract to us conditions and circumstances according to the predominant thought patterns, our subconscious mind will act upon any request or instruction we give it. Any thought that is repeated over and over again will take an imprint within the subconscious, which cannot distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. That’s why when you watch a scary movie, for a few seconds while the conscious mind is chilling out in the movie ‘zone’ the subconscious can kick in and truly believe that blood is running down the walls of a house in the quant town of Amityville. We’ve all been there, we get a momentary fright watching a movie before the conscious takes over to reassure that it is all just make-believe!
Hypnosis is the perfect vehicle to get into that trance like state when captain conscious can rest and allow the sub crew to take over and truly believe the new suggestions and beliefs we are trying to anchor down.
This is why visualizations, affirmations and repeated images can have such a powerful effect in our life. By doing these exercises we are creating images within ourselves, which the subconscious then acts upon.
For me hypnosis was a great success, and after months of being the client I decided to study to become the master, with no other motivation other than my own healing. I started a course on clinical hypnotherapy with a wonderful teacher (Niamh Flynn at the Galway Clinic) and at the end of 2014; I passed my exams and became a certified clinical hypnotherapist.
Written for Slainte Magazine, published April 2016