Anyone who has ever endured the misery of a migraine or the agony of an infected tooth can easily relate to the images of a pounding hammer or a merciless drill. It’s as if the pain itself assumes a shape or an active image separate from the intensity of physical suffering that it engenders.
Chronic pain elevates our distress to a whole other level — an experience both physical and psychological. Functioning under duress continuously over an extended time can even produce a strong visual component with sufferers frequently reporting specific imagery that they associate with their ongoing distress.
The Research Digest Blog of the British Psychological Society featured a recent study conducted in British Columbia and supervised by Dr. Debbie Samson, a clinical psychologist with an expertise in chronic pain, that suggests that the physical and psychological manifestations of pain can be mitigated by re-imagining the image most closely aligned with the occurrence of pain.
Change the mental picture of your pain, and you change the experience — or so the thinking goes.
Patients were interviewed about their personal pain levels and questioned as to the physical effects as well as the emotional implications of coping with constant discomfort — in the latter category, increased anxiety, depression and feelings of futility were among the most commonly cited responses.
Participants were asked to identify an image that they typically associated with their pain — one patient, for example, saw himself as a dog on all fours effectively chained to his discomfort. Researchers discovered that when the patient focused exclusively on that mental image, his distress levels soared.
Sufferers were then encouraged to re-imagine the way they saw their pain, visualizing it in a more positive, less passive light. By manipulating their inner eyes, participants were able to dramatically reduce their pain levels — almost half reported experiencing no pain at all. Researchers also noted that with the re-imagining came improved feelings of emotional well-being.
The process was repeated in several ways over time to help dispel the role of novelty as a contributing element. The initial conclusion? Thoughts can be real. The way we think can significantly alter how we feel both physically and emotionally.
The practical applications of these finding are endless. Next time your husband is being a pain, try re-imaging him as Ryan Gosling. Can’t hurt, right?