When I lived in New York my Writing Mentor suggested I tried Hypnotherapy. Not because of my migraines, I must admit, but because she said "Us neurotic people need something to help us unwind." I rolled my eyes, as obviously I'm totally calm and collected at all times, but went along as I'd heard that it can be useful for pain; specifically for those suffering with migraine. It was not at all what I was expecting. The fabulous Fiona Russell, who can be seen here talking about the impact migraine has had on her life, also decided to give it a go. Below she recounts her experiences.....
The word hypnotherapy tends to conjure up images of people in a trance, suddenly dancing around the stage pretending to be chickens as soon as the hypnotist clicks his all powerful fingers. And for those familiar to this blog, us migraine sufferers are willing to try anything that may ease our pain, even if we are made to look silly. However, the fact that it was the trusted National Migraine Centre offering these hypnotherapy classes and the word ended in ‘therapy’ and not ‘tism’ led me to believe that chickens would hopefully not be involved.
I was having 5 group hypnotherapy sessions with Patrick Browning (www.browning-hypnosis.co.uk) and we were being taught different self-hypnosis techniques. I think the word hypnosis may scare some people but you should think of them as relaxation or de-stress techniques. During the first session, Patrick put us into trance. I sat there, listening to Patrick’s voice, feeling a little skeptical, but the music and his tone of voice were so soothing and calming that I couldn’t help but unwind. Very soon I was feeling like I was about to fall asleep. My limbs felt very heavy and when Patrick made a suggestion that we lift our arms, I was unable to. This is apparently called ‘limb catalepsy’ and if you’ve reached this state you know you are in trance. I felt extremely relaxed at this point and it was definitely a very pleasant feeling. I had come into the session with a migraine ‘hangover’ and after we’d been brought out of trance (by simply counting backwards from 10) I felt slightly better. Patrick then taught us how to take ourselves into this trance. Fortunately, he gave us CDs to help because listening to his super relaxing voice did make self hypnosis far easier, though I have just about mastered it by myself now. When you are in trance you can imagine yourself in a special place and give yourself positive suggestions. Though to be honest, I’ve just been using it as a helpful way to fall asleep at night after a migraine has wrecked my sleep pattern.
Patrick was also teaching us various other self-help techniques, with the hope that we would find at least one that would benefit us, as everyone has slightly different needs and everyone’s migraines are different. Some of the techniques were focused on how to reduce stress and worry, common migraine triggers. I don’t think I’m a particularly stressful person but I do get excited easily, normally when I have the chance to go out and socialize with people that aren’t my parents, what with being in my 30s and living at home. Unfortunately, I feel over excitement can trigger a migraine but Patrick said that some of the techniques for reducing stress can also work the same for excitement. Bit depressing that I have to lower my excitement levels but hey, if it stops a migraine, I guess it’s worth it.
We learnt the dissociation technique so we could dissociate from our body and the pain we were feeling. Hell, yeah, this would be super useful. Bye, bye migraine. I’ll just float above my head for 24 hours. During the session with Patrick, I didn’t believe anything would actually happen. Suddenly, I then had the strangest feeling where even though I knew I was sitting in a chair, I could not tell if I was upright or horizontal. I kid you not. My ‘awareness’ was floating about 2 foot away from my body but I could not work out where in space my actual body was. It was as if my spatial compass had gone awry and it was a bit scary and weird, so rather than just ‘go with it’ I did try and get back inside my own head. But now I know what it feels like I probably would be more relaxed next time. Unfortunately since then I’ve not managed to dissociate by myself, but all these techniques do need lots of practice.
In our last session we learnt the Symptom Imagery technique. Patrick took us into trance and then asked us to envisage that our migraine symptoms were an actual entity. He told us to just focus on the first thing that popped into our consciousness. I was starting to get a migraine at this point so my head was feeling very heavy. Thus, the first thing that I thought of that illustrated my migraine was the character, Kenny from South Park. Yes, the kid in the huge orange parka that gets killed off every episode. I’m not even a South Park fan, I can’t even remember the last time I saw an episode. I think it was just because his head looks huge, out of proportion and heavy which is what mine felt like at the time. Patrick then said in his lovely dreamy voice, words to the effect of,
‘now you can see your symptom, start a conversation with them and negotiate possible changes to make things better in the future’
Ah, hmmm this could be tricky. Kenny has a parka hood covering his mouth making his speech so muffled that it is incomprehensible. Any dialogue, let alone some sort of beneficial bargaining tête-à-tête, was just not going to work. As I’m writing this, it has come to me plain as day that what I should have imagined, is to have killed off Kenny i.e my migraine and exclaimed loudly
‘oh my God! They killed Kenny…the bastards’ and that would have stopped my migraine in its tracks. Unfortunately, my migraine was clouding my thinking so all I did for the rest of the trance was just look helplessly at Kenny. We had a pleasant time, it was quite relaxing, but it didn’t really help me feel better. Hmmmm I think I need to work on my symptom imagery.
Overall, I would recommend trying hypnotherapy. It may not be to everyone’s taste and obviously, as with all these treatments it is no instant migraine cure. However, with a bit of practice, most members of the group I was in found self hypnosis helped them to relax. This can only be a good thing. The more techniques we have at our disposal to ease our pain or distract us during the bad times, the better, I say.
Fiona is a Research Scientist specialising in Pain. How is that for irony? But her research focuses more on arthritic joint pain than migraines. She's about to start part-time research work in January at King's College London. She has had migraines for 8 years.
For more information about the National Migraine Centre check out their website or even better, give them a call and make an appointment!