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Mindset tools for responding to physical pain

Recent research into pain has revealed an interesting thing. If I bang my knee, the pain does not occur in my knee; it actually occurs closer to the brain. #pain #mindset #NLP #physicalpain #managingpain #resilience

How is that possible?

Richard Bolstad, a former nurse, psychotherapist, and now internatinal NLP trainer (he trained me way back in 1996) points out that there are some nerve cells that act as 'switches' near the spine (1) and they decide whether the pain is serious enough for the message to be sent all the way to the brain or not.

Some nerve endings become more sensitive over time and if damaged themselves, they can misfire resulting in long term chronic pain.

What else affects chronic pain?

Happy, pleasurable experiences can 'reframe' the experience of pain by giving the sensations a different meaning. We might say that yummy food, a massage, watching a comedy, might make the pain seem less serious.

" What this spinal gating process means is that a person who is happy for other reasons may feel no pain at all from stimuli that are apparently quite painful. These stimuli may not even get near the brain!" (2)

So how can mindset tools affect our perception of pain? And wait, what is a mindset tool?

So, in NLP mindset coaching we share a lot of tools that help to 'programme' our thinking. I call these mindset tools. Our first step is usually to ask questions that uncover exactly how your brain is coding information - memories, thoughts, experiences etc. We want to find out about your:

1. Self talk

2. Mental imagery

3. Bodily sensations.

We cross reference what you tell us with other clues such as eye movements, the words you choose and so on to get a picture of how your mind is perceiving the world - and the experience of being in your physical body. In the process you become more conscious of how your mind is perceiving the world, and your body, as well. And that's usually when a few light bulb moments occur and you're able to immediately re-code your own thoughts, with a bit of expert guidance, to get a different overall experience.

The power of your imagination Lets take mental imagery, for example, otherwise known as imagination. In one review of research on how our expectations affect pain, the authors concluded:

"Optimism and pain catastrophizing, in particular, but also hope, trust, worry, and neuroticism have been found to be associated with pain outcomes...". (3)

In the NLP Coaching model, once we know exactly how your mind is picturing the future, we get a clearer idea as to whether you're unconscious mind is focussed on future pain, or future pleasure. Another word for this is anxiety. Imagining or expecting that the pain might be worse for that meeting tomorrow can create a kind of second or third layer to the pain.

Milton Erikson, the famous hypnotherapist who was modelled by the founders of NLP had to deal with chronic pain in his own body every day and he made this point that the initial pain makes up only a third of the experience:

"Pain is a complex, a construct, composed of past remembered pain, of present pain experience, and of anticipated pain of the future... The immediate stimuli are only a central third of the entire experience. Nothing so much intensifies pain as the fear that it will be there on the morrow...Conversely, the realization that the present pain is a single event which will come definitely to a pleasant ending serves greatly to diminish pain. " (Erickson, 1980, Vol 4, p 238). (4)

The pain of a broken back - my story of NLP & pain

When I fell through a roof and broke my back in 2001, I noticed this second and third layer phenomenon and luckily, with my NLP training I was able to cultivate a mindset that helped me make really good use of the pain medication I was given as well as my own self talk and mental imagery to reduce those second and third layers of pain.

I wasn't allowed to even wiggle my toes for 5 days until they could operate to put metal bolts into my spine.

Eight guys would come in to turn me every 4 hours, but by the third hour the pain of my body pressing against the sheets was really intense. I was allowed up to three doses of morphine in any one 15 minute period, spaced 5 minutes apart, and then none for like another hour or so.

Using slow self talk to reduce anxiety-led pain I reduced one third of the pain by slowing my internal self talk right down and imagining a deep, low pitch to the voice. This helped calm me and slow my breathing down and reduced the anxiety that it was going to last forever - that sense of wanting to scream, and the kind of building panic that went with that.

Visualzing your situation as an observer

I also imagined I was outside my body watching myself and encouraging myself. This helped me dissociate from the pain to some degree and trick my brain into believing that it was happening to someone else.

Once I was calmer, I could figure out a strategy

I also figured if I could sleep as much as possible, then it would help me forget about the pain and it would also perhaps help my body heal faster. So once I was calmer, I got the idea to give myself three shots of the morphine in a row. So I forced myself to stay awake for three lots of five minutes so I could push that little button and knock myself out, rather than worrying about if I was using too much - I trusted the doctors had set my upper limit.

Take charge - boss people round because you do need help, you are not a bother, and they need something to do other than worrying about you I also put my friends and family on a 24 hour bedside roster so that whenever I woke, I could get any little need attended to straightaway without having to wait for or bother a nurse. This meant, I could get a sip of water, or they could scratch my foot, adjust my blankets, and I could nod off again.

Pursue Your Real Dreams - have a project that you adore

After the surgery I was given pain killers for a while. But I found that lying in a certain way took pressure off the injury site and using pillows in a certain way also did the same thing. The key was to focus on a project that was about living rather than managing a health condition. So even while in hospital, when I was not sleeping, I continued to type up a play, with my drama school buddy, that we had to perform for graduation in five weeks time! Yes, five weeks!

Your Real Dream helps you visualise your way over & above the pain

So another way to reframe the pain was to visualise myself being well enough to rehearse the play and perform it. We changed my character to be an older man so that me hobbling around the stage with a stiff back suited the role. And so I performed that play and I was able to finish that degree on time.

I didn't care about the grade so I never looked. But when I found it in a box about 7 years later, I opened the envelope and found they'd given me my best grade ever - distinction. The pain actually helped me convey the anxiety of my character, the emotional pain he was in. So, I learnt you can use pain, You can channel it. I learnt from this the importance of pursuing YOUR REAL DREAMS even when faced with a huge number of obstacles.

How might an NLP session affect pain

Because the science seems to suggest at least two thirds of the pain is a result of interpretation, an NLP session will look at the language our unconscious mind is using to describe or 'code' the pain - to interpret it.

This is where metaphors and symbols can be useful. If a client describes pain as short and sharp like little needles, it can be useful to evolve that metaphor, in a trance state, to see how it might feel different if the pain was described a warm piece of coal, or maybe like a warm bread roll.

After evolving the metaphors one client left a session saying "I feel like I've had a massage?". Another important thing to check for is if there is some higher intention that the pain is trying to draw our attention to. We work with the unconscious mind to see if there are other ways it could meet that intention that would increase choice overall. That's where life dreams are crucial.

Help others in pain follow Their Real Dreams too

So when my Mum was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 a friend asked her "If you had more time, what dreams would you like to pursue that you haven't yet?"

Mum had always wanted to be a writer and had started out as a journalist. Then Dad wasn't well so she had to be the breadwinner and went into Real Estate, so her dreams took a back seat. The chemo she had to have was pretty intense and painful. So, we encouraged her to write the book she'd always wanted to.

I typed all her stories out while she scribbled a million miles an hour with her pen. It enabled her to distance herself from the pain and her body, and to get a sense that she was still living. Despite a three month diagnosis, she was able to defy the odds, take more chemo treatments than the doctors thought possible, achieve several remissions, and lasted 8.5 years instead of the usual five maximum for that condition - if it's caught early - and hers was not caught early.

Your Real Dreams Fuel Your Resilience

She outlived my father and lived long enough to experience all the earthquakes in Christchurch and all the drama that came with that. And when it all got too much, she'd write another story or we'd sit down together and re-read the stories or do some editing.

In the end she decided that the process of writing the book was more important than finishing or publishing it. It had given her many happy moments and many more years of life. For someone who always had to finish something, this was a significant reframe, a moment of surrender and letting go which enabled her to see the real gift in her experience.

Your Real Dreams Are Not Fantasies

Finally, she had got to experience time as a real writer. A real writer writes. Even in pain, even in sickness, even when your city is falling down around you and you have to sleep in the lounge because a chimney fell through the roof and you can't manage the stairs anyway. Even when you're husband's died and your dream home is literally broken by the seismic waves of the earth rebuilding itself. Even then, a writer writes. And a dreamer dreams.

All the years of reasons to put off writing. And in the end, it was the pain that helped her put pen to paper, to live her dream. The dream was not the easy, comfortable fantasy of living in a tower by a beach and playing with words all day. The dream encountered real life. It became a real dream.

Let your pain lead you to your real dreams, not away from them. If you can't manage your current dream, dream up a new dream. Creativity, imagination, the capacity to dream is infinite. There's always more than one dream you can make real now!

What's YOUR next REAL DREAM?


Check out 'NLP and Relief of Chronic Pain' by Dr Richard Bostad and Libuska Prochazka by clicking here

If you'd like to book a FREE 30 minute NLP consultation with David to discuss your needs or a FULL session, please email or call +64 (0) 275 11 69 94 or click here to make an online booking


(1) "Prochazka, Libuska & Bolstad, Dr Richard. NLP and Relief of Chronic Pain, January 2003,

(2) ibid

(3) An Integrative Review on the Influence of Expectancies on Pain, Front Psychol. 2016; 7: 1270. Published online 2016 Aug 23. doi:  10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01270

(4) Prochazka & Bolstad, op. cit., Subsection 'Pain and the Brain' last paragraph

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