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Pain Control

By Steve Andreas, MA

A year ago, while on vacation on Kauai, I picked up a hitchhiker—a young man in his mid-20s who had a full arm cast (palm to shoulder) on his left arm. As we drove along it seemed natural to ask how he was injured. He explained that he worked in construction, and a couple of weeks prior, had fallen toward a window. He broke through the glass, and glass shards badly sliced his arm. When he pulled his arm out of the window, the triangles of glass that were still stuck in the frame sliced his arm even more. After telling me this, he glanced down at his arm and said, “It still hurts a lot.”

One of the many things I learned from Milton Erickson was that physical pain can have three components, only one of which is the actual pain in the moment. There can also be components of remembered pain and anticipated pain.

The next time you have pain, try to get a sense of how the past contributes to the present pain by asking yourself, “If I knew this pain started only five seconds ago, how would that change my experience?” You can also get a sense of how anticipated pain contributes to present pain by asking yourself, “If I knew this pain would be gone in five seconds, how would that change my experience?”

Erickson taught that even severe present pain is often ignored in the context of great danger – when all attention is focused on other urgent tasks, such as pulling a loved one from a burning car. Seeing yourself at a distance can also eliminate feelings of pain. As an outside observer, your body will be “over there,” and although you may see grimaces and other expressions of pain, you will not experience pain. This was the basis for Erickson’s “crystal ball technique,” in which he would suggest that a client imagine seeing a “rainbow arc” of images of different times in his/her life in separate crystal balls, to review his/her past life dispassionately, or to envision steps to a better future. Erickson used this method most often in trance, but with sufficient rapport, it can be just as effective without a formal trance induction. “Rainbow arc” implies something beautiful and pleasant, and the crystal balls could be seen at the same distance that you would see a rainbow.

I thought that the hitchhiker’s pain was primarily due to his memory of the accident and that if he could learn how to distance himself from that memory, his experience of pain would be significantly reduced.

Since he had glanced down at his arm when saying that it still hurt, I was certain that he was remembering the accident from his own perspective…as if it were happening to him again, which is common for people who are still suffering from past horrors, such as in PTSD “flashbacks.” But to be sure about my theory, I asked him, “When you remember falling into that window, what is your point of view?” Again, he glanced down at his arm, and said, “I see my arm going through the window.”

Then, as I gestured beyond the car to his right, I asked: “What would it be like if you viewed that accident from 30 feet away — off to your right?” Besides the overt suggestion, there are covert elements that supported my question. Saying “that accident” (in contrast to “this accident”) implies seeing it at some distance. And, gesturing to his right was a nonverbal instruction to look to his right, which is where most people creatively visualize.

The hitchhiker briefly glanced to his right out the car window, and then, with a surprised look, said, “The pain is gone!”

He was understandably puzzled and curious about what had happened, so I offered my understanding of how it worked, and that it could be used for emotions, as well as for physical pain. I also pointed out that he had discovered he had a skill he hadn’t realized, and that from now on he could choose to use this for other painful memories. Throughout this discussion, his eyes were mostly defocused, indicating that he was actively processing the information internally—what could be described as a spontaneous trance.

When I dropped him off at his destination, he thanked me, and followed up with, “My arm still feels fine,” his face still expressing a bit of puzzled amazement at the change, which for me was better compensation than if he had been a paying client.


By Eric Greenleaf, PhD

Milton Erickson once so thoroughly pleased a difficult patient with a rapid solution to a problem that she called the other attending doctors, saying, “People, this man really knows what he’s doing.”

So it’s a pleasure to watch Steve Andreas work, as he crisply observes, succinctly helps, and educates his traveling companion — extending the trance and encouraging the young man to take it further in his own life.

In an introduction to one of the first NLP texts, Erickson wrote that the authors “…have understood some part of what I do.” In integrating the development of NLP with Erickson’s teaching and example, Andreas not only understands all aspects of what the patient needs to heal but provides a natural, conversational trance in which the patient can learn.

People, this man really knows what he’s doing.

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