Imagery and Writing for Natural Pain Relief

By: Diane Morrow, M.D., One Year of Writing and Healing

March 27th, 2008 • Mind-Body MedicinePrint Print

I wrote Loolwa a few weeks back, impressed with her post, “Fundamental Principle of Dancing with Pain®,” and she graciously invited me to write a piece on imagery and writing for natural pain relief, specifically, on how I incorporate it into my work as a physician.

After thinking a bit, I realized that (of course) I’ve learned most about this topic from those dealing with chronic pain. Here are some observations and impressions from my review of patient charts.

Please note: I practice mind-body medicine. Thus, by the time people with pain see me, they’ve already had a diagnostic work-up and most have begun medical treatment of some sort. Many also utilize alternative treatments such as acupuncture and bodywork. Imagery and writing are pieces of a larger treatment picture.

1. Pain needs to be heard.

As I see it, that’s the first step: inviting a language by which pain can express itself. In a different situation, I might invite this language through paint or clay or dance. In the work I do, I invite pain to express itself in words: What is the pain like? What does it do?

Pain is a shark biting. An alligator. A gladiator. A serrated knife. A Punjabi sword. Pain is a burning oil well. An instrument of torture. A barbed wire. A downed power line. Pain sizzles. Explodes. Stabs. Screeches. Shrieks. Pain longs to be heard.

2. Pain needs a place in which to be soothed.

This can be an actual place in the world — a soft bed, a perfect chair, a garden. It can also happen that a soothing place is not yet available in one’s world, or it can happen that one may need a more potent place.

Here’s where imagery comes in: One can begin to imagine a more potent place. A place where the pain might be held and healed and soothed.

Sometimes I invite this imagery in the office. A person might imagine with eyes open, or perhaps with eyes closed in a kind of light trance akin to hypnosis — what is sometimes called self-hypnosis.

At times I suggest homework: To imagine a healing place as one is falling asleep. Or I’ll suggesting asking for a healing place in a dream. Or to just hold the question lightly (Where would be a good place to bring this pain?) and notice what happens.

I encourage folks to practice imagining these healing places. And to write down the details as they emerge. Writing the details of a place can be a way to make it more potent and more real.

One woman’s healing place is on a train. A Victorian train car, she tells me, with beautiful red velvet seats. The train carries her through wheat fields. Then into the Tetons. All this time, her grandmother stands at the door of her sleeper car, keeping watch.

The wheels on the train click their rhythm. Inside the sleeper car, she begins to make up her bed — a bed that is big and fluffy and deep, with special powers to draw out the pain.

Another woman’s healing place is underwater. She imagines herself, first, riding out in the boat. Then donning her scuba gear. Dropping down beneath the surface of the water.

The details bring it to life: Light filtering through the aqua blue. Coral like an underwater kingdom. And the fish. Angel fish. Silver fish. Blue tangs. Yellow damsels.

She describes the way her body feels: ultimate freedom of gravity; moving fluid and slow; feeling water moving through her hair; no sense of time. And after visiting this healing place and returning: a sense of quiet, harmony, as if now there is something inside, in reserve, that wasn’t there before.

3. In a healing place, sometimes it’s possible to discover a new medicine for pain.

With practice, imagery can become easier to summon — and richer. Healing images emerge. For instance, the pain imagined as burning oil wells comes to need massive hoses streaming onto the fire. Then a cap on the wells.

Pain imagined as a downed power line — an image of a nerve as a downed power line — responds to a silken thread which spins out and coats the raw nerve, like making a pearl. Or pain is a tangle of seaweed on the beach. Responding to a long, steady process of smoothing and combing the seaweed, pulling it apart. This can be soothing.

It can also take time, and practice. And, sometimes, when it feels like the process is taking too long, a figure in the imagery might speak — like a figure speaking from a dream: “Can’t you see how hard we’re working?”

And sometimes hearing this can itself be soothing. To know that enough is being done. That plenty is being done — even when this work is not apparent to the naked eye. And to begin to feel then a kind of compassion and patience for one’s own body.

4. The process takes time.

The process of healing often takes so much longer than most of us thought it would or should. And the process is never as linear as it seems it might be.

It’s not a straight line rising toward cure or wellness. It’s hills and valleys. It’s a roller coaster. It’s an unexpected reprieve — a string of wondrous hours, or days — and then a recurrence that can feel worse than the original pain because a person has tasted the sweetness of reprieve.

Healing is two steps forward and one step back. And one of the more powerful ways to use writing for healing is to track this process in a journal and begin to learn the curve and shape of one’s own healing.

5. Pain appreciates compassion.

The body appreciates compassion. Which, come to think of it, is what attracted me here, to Dancing with Pain®: A sense that Loolwa has discovered and cultivated a compassion for her own body, and is now extending that compassion toward other bodies, out into the world. Something that strikes me as being much-needed.

Diane Morrow is a physician and writer in North Carolina, with a long-time interest in how the act of writing can benefit healing. She completed a professional training program in Interactive Guided Imagery at the Academy for Guided Imagery, and she teaches an ongoing writing and healing workshop at Cancer Services of Winston-Salem. Learn more about the use of imagery for natural pain relief and about Diane’s use of writing for natural pain relief.


Nickie April 1st, 2008

What an excellent post. I’ve found writing to be one of the best ways to deal with pain. I’ve learned more about myself, and my ain through my blog and book efforts than I would have without them. And because I have an outlet for my pain, I can deal with life’s challenges better.

Jim Place January 13th, 2009

I believe I have regional pain syndrome along with Fibromyalgia. The pain over my entire body has been steadily increasing over time making it unbearable as the day progresses. I would appreciate a referral on Guided Imagery similar to what Cynthia Toussaint pursued with her imaginary dance therapy as noted in the AARP article on drug-free remedies for chronic pain. Pain management doctors don’t really understand the disease and recommend pain meds that make the pain far worse.

Will Fisher January 31st, 2009

Hello, Most interesting, myself I’ve had RSD/CRPS since Feb 1982 though it wasn’t til 1991 that I knew what it was. when it first started in my left Knee I went thru many doctors until finally getting in to see what was supposed to be the “best knee doctor in town”. In 10 miniutes his ‘Recommended Medical Procedure’ was to amputate my left leg at 4″ above the knee!! Devastation to say the least. I decided to refuse the ‘RMP’ to my surprise other doctors simply told me they could not help because I had refused the ‘RMP’?? However I persisted til finally a new young doctor asked me what was the RMP’, apparently the fact that amputation was the procedure was not in the file. By this time approx 7 months I was unable to walk. I sought alternative help, through cortoze injections, acupuncture, and many others. We developed a process we called ‘walking through pain’ propped up with the likes of morphine, crushes, whirlpools, massage, etc I started to be able to get around. We managed to get it to back off still no knowing what we were dealing with. In 1991 it returned with vengance. My doctor at the time was unable to figure it out and came up with the idea of having my case sent to a symposium for unknown disease to be held at Toronto University Hospital, the was done and they came up with RSD, 2 years of tests confirmed. The results are published in some medicial journal. On & on this goes, various MD’s over the years have told me that If I had RSD I wouldn’t be able to walk and should be in a wheelchair. What little they know. Unfortunately in 2007 do to an injury it has got into my right foot as well, do mainly to the MD at the hospital telling me I didn’t have RSD, go home and soak it in epson salts and put polysporin on it. Idoit!! 7 months later and 2 surgeries by a peditrician, too late. I felt like a prisoner, not able to walk again. Found a new doctor who when I suggested that ‘If the reflex nerves could be muted in some way so it would not react so quickly upon an attack, maybe the resulting cycle could be broken, reducing the pain’. He came up with 2 med’s called Bachlophen & Gabapentin, designed to reduce the response of the reflex nerves and the contractions of the veins and muscles, that was about 1 ago, walking again with a cane. Have bought a skooter, to help get out and around, so far so much better. Attacks still come but have not developed into repeat cycle, YES, progress. Comes with a price, muting the reflex nervous system causes things to happen in slow motion, however without the resulting pain, I take the slowmo over pain. Still developing this theory. Now for the next step, One step at a time. I still have both my legs.

Will Fisher, Jan 2009

cindy February 5th, 2009

thankyou, I plan on directing other people here. Especially my leader in our writing workshop at the mental health drop in center.

In the past I viewed self as humming bird, but then with med change and hormones and vitals cycling, mostly very fast. I did not want to be buzzing/ pacing eating all the time as I was.

I recently viewed self as snapping turtle. people would keep respectful distance from me.(RSD arm) I could bite into a steak or chew nuts(severe TMJ- no condyles necrosis with lg cell granuloma)front teeth also do not meet. only 8 teeth touch and when do chew severe pain in head neck shoulders and gut from inadequate chewing follows. If water is cool or cold (which is painful to my RSD/Arthritis. I could hybernate on the bottom of the pond in suspension(medicine makes me a zombie knocking me out for 13-16hrs minimal pain.) All sounds are soft and muttled not like the severe ringing and stabbing head pains. Don’t have to worry about pain from talking or dealing with muscle spasms from expressing emotions, or having to try concentrating on conversations through the ringingand pain. On a warm sunny day, while sitting on a smooth rock , I would stretch out my neck(In the long run I know I feel better when I do all my stretches (cervical arthritis myfacial trigger points) Of course have to stay mostly in the water due to medicine reactions in sun. but being a snapping turtle I wouldn’t take or need medicine good night. cl

sandrar September 10th, 2009

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

Nathan B November 25th, 2013

With a difficult pain condition, I can personally vouch for the importance of imagery in controlling pain.  It takes a lot of practice and a lot of upkeep, but ultimately it’s worth the effort.

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