Wishing yourself a speedy recovery - the value of the mind in body healing
Adam Vile explains how hypnosis can help accelerate the healing process.
It is a fact of sports, competitive or not, that sportspeople get injured. Traditional medicine recommends relaxation with gentle exercise during the recovery process, and this is sometimes a difficult regime to stick with (often there are disastrous consequences in not sticking to it). It is vital to speed the recovery process as much as possible, and the evidence drawn above suggests that hypnosis may be utilised as a part of treatment during a recovery period.
Underlying Psychological Causes
Sports injuries are physical; most do not have an underlying psychological cause. Hypnosis is of value in the treatment of asthmatics (Liggett 2000) and is often employed in dealing with so-called psychosomatic illness. Physical symptoms of illness and injury sometimes have an underlying psychological cause. This underlying issue usually has a positive intention, known as secondary gain. This can be seen, for example, in cases in which pain recurs predictably before a competition or in stressful situations. The mind has a way of protecting us from things that it thinks may not be beneficial, and often the pain is a positive message of warning from our unconscious.
Liggett (2000) describes a case study of a football player who often has painful calf muscles during practice and in games. Physiologically the pain seemed to be caused when exercise caused the muscle to expand beyond the capacity of the muscle compartment. However, the pain did not occur every time he exercised the leg. This pointed to an underlying psychological cause. Under hypnosis, the athlete revealed that there was an event in their past (not being selected for a senior-level college team) that seeded times when there was an onset of the pain. Specifically, the pain seemed to occur when he believed that someone was outperforming him. The secondary gain here is that the pain gives the athlete an excuse for not performing as well as his competitor.
There are several ways of resolving problems with secondary gain. It is essential first of all to recognise the intention as valuable and positive, and then to look for other ways of achieving the same result without the symptom of pain. Liggett (2000), in this case, installed a post-hypnotic suggestion that the athlete would make comparisons with his past performances, rather than with other peoples, in future. This reduced the psychological element of his pain, and although the physiological aspect was still present the intensity of the pain reduced to a level that no longer impeded his performance.
As well as addressing the psychological aspects of injury, the power of the mind can be brought in to play in the healing process itself. The body has a remarkable capacity to heal itself, as it demonstrates in the rapid healing of a deep cut, a broken bone or a torn ligament. The role of the mind in this process is still very much debated.
Conceptualising the Body-Mind
When we learn a skill and perform it correctly, is it our body or is it our mind that is responsible for this perfect performance? Our body is competent; it can jump, sprint, run, swim; our mind is also skilful; it can read, learn, absorb. When you are driving a car, and you get a while down the road. You cannot remember how you got there, or when you are pole vaulting or making a perfect pass, and you are not focussing on every little detail, is it your mind or your body that is taking control of your automatic processes? Our fascination with distinctions between mind and body stems back at least as far as the philosopher Descartes who showed quite convincingly that since he thought, he must exist (cogito ergo sum) and from there defined himself as a mind with a body (or was it a body with a mind) who knows? Since then, philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists and others, in the western world at least, have been obsessed with charting the functions of the mind and the body as separate entities.
Doing this creates a few problems. For example, how do you explain how the mind and the body communicate? The eyes take in light reflected off of an object, the rods and cones at the back of the eye translate this into electrochemical signals which activate a part of the brain, and this makes us think of the colour red. How? How are the mind and body connected?
Explaining this is not an issue in cultures with beliefs outside of the western medical tradition. People who have strong beliefs in the power of Shamanism, Tai Chi, Acupressure, Yoga etc. talk of the body-mind as one entity, and they have no problems in modelling how the body-mind functions, heals, evolves. Chopra (1990) posits that it is through the endocrine system and neuropeptides that the body and the mind meet and shows compellingly how appropriate channelling can lead to spontaneous cures for desires such as cancer and diabetes. Similarly, King (1991), a psychologist by training, discusses several case studies in which he describes both body healing taking place mediated by the mind, and mind healing mediated by the body.
We do not necessarily have to turn to Aruyvedic meditation or Chi Gung to explore ways of mind-body healing. A fascinating study (Ginandes & Rosenthal 1999) demonstrated the benefit of hypnosis in bone healing. In a group of people with fractures, they showed a significant increase in the speed of both anatomical and functional fracture healing over a control group with similar injuries. Sunnen (2003) gives an outline of how hypnosis can be used in both the physical and mental aspects of cancer care. It is clear then that there is a good deal of evidence that the body-mind can heal itself. There are several models of how it does this, and a variety of approaches, self and hetero-hypnosis is one method of accessing the body-mind directly and accelerating the healing process.
Accelerating the physical healing process
Remarkably Hunter (1987) has shown that it is possible to control the flow of blood in a trance. It is not clear how this can happen, but it is clear that it does. In many cases it seems to be sufficient to have a positive attitude, it has often been noted that those most likely to recover from serious injury need first to feel that they can (King 1991). Gordon and Gruzelier (2003) describe a case study with a ballet dancer who recovers from debilitating muscular exhaustion using positive affirmation and self-hypnosis alongside a therapeutic and physical training plan. Not only did this dancer recover but improved and reached a high standard, such that a one-act ballet was created with him in mind as the principal ballerina. Research, anecdote and experience point to a few key things that can be done to speed up the healing process:
A powerful metaphor that I have used successfully in dealing with injuries is to visualise the affected part and associate it with a colour. Usually, things in the body come in pairs (left and right knee, for example) visualising the healthy part would usually give a different colour, the colour of "healthy and healed". The final part of this self-healing process is to enter a meditative or hypnotic state and to visualise some mechanism of re-colouring the injured part with a healthy colour. This could be through imagining a spray gun or a paintbrush, for example.
For other ideas on how to seed healing through visualisation, I would recommend King (1991). Repeating the healing metaphor over time, and having a positive attitude, will, in my experience, speed up the recovery process. I do not know how it works, but I do think the body-mind model has a degree of explanatory power. Whatever the mechanism, it is clear that hypnosis is a powerful addition to the more traditional approaches to healing and deserves to be explored and utilised much more.
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About the Author
Dr Adam Vile is a Hypnotherapist and NLP master practitioner. He has a PhD in education and has been a teacher, lecturer, computer scientist and manager. He is a martial artist and has been teaching and coaching both competitive and traditional martial arts for over fifteen years.