I know it’s trivial but on a harmless everyday level this illustrates one of the fundamental drivers of pain. All pain.
We have a coffee pot. One of those old fashioned / retro metal espresso makers that you sit on the hob. You know, where you put the water in the bottom, the coffee in the middle and then when it boils, the steam forces the water under pressure through the coffee and into the pourer-jug thing at the top.
It’s absolutely not a percolator. Despite the cleverness of some of the ads in the ’70s and ’80s (yes, I am that old), it is my considered opinion that percolators murder good coffee. This is not one of them. Coffee is too important to treat badly.
Anyway, with this one, the espresso maker, the top and bottom screw together so it’s pressure-sealed and doesn’t leak steam and boiling water all over the place. I know they’re a bit low-tech compared to the modern electric capsule-coffee machines that look like futuristic robots and Mr Clooney advertises them all over the place but it has one big advantage. It makes great coffee. That is, if you like espresso-based coffee. Which as you might have guessed, I do.
So here’s the interesting thing I noticed about pain.
To save time, I boil the kettle and use boiling water in it instead of heating it up from cold on the hob. I’m usually making other drinks at the same time, so it makes sense to use the water that’s already hot, don’t you think?
What that means of course, is that when you screw the top onto the bottom, the bottom is literally boiling-hot and being metal, it has a high heat-transfer coefficient. (I’m pretty sure this is the first time that heat-transfer coefficients have made it into this blog, going back to my chemical engineering heritage).
Now whilst this is very sensible from a water-heating point of view, it also means that it’s bloody hot when you grab it to tighten the top onto the base. Hot enough to be too painful to hold. I use a tea-towel to hold it so that I don’t burn my fingers.
Now this is the thing. On occasion, when there was no tea-towel to hand, I’d tighten it bare fingered. Carefully, a bit at a time, blowing my fingers in between turns as you do. There’s a small steam safety valve you can use so you don’t have to hold it fully and still get a good grip with just two fingers. Even so, it was still too hot to hold and I’m too lazy to go get another tea towel…
Just recently, I’ve noticed that I’ve stopped using the tea-towel technique altogether and no longer burn my hand. I seem to have developed ‘asbestos fingers’ as my mother calls it whenever someone can hold something hot, with echoes of ‘you’re-just-like-your-Dad’ in the air. The traditional explanation about being able to do things that other people find painful is that because you’ve done it so often, your nerve-ends have become desensitised to the temperature/chemical/pressure stimulus. You just don’t feel the heat.
It’s wrong. That’s not how it works.
If I pick up other hot things, boiling hot things that are obviously just as hot because water always boils at the same temperature, (that recently resurrected chemical engineer is now shouting what-about-pressure-effects?), it hurts just as much as before.
It’s only the coffee pot that no longer hurts me. Weird?
Not really. It does make sense. In essence, what’s happened is that over time, my unconscious mind has discovered that when I screw the coffee pot together, even though it is boiling hot, I never get injured. It simply doesn’t take long enough for my fingers to actually burn. There’s not enough time for tissue damage.
This means that at a very deep level, I know that making coffee this way is not going to damage my fingers, so I don’t need pain to warn me about the danger because there isn’t any danger.
My unconscious has turned off the pain alarm. Not for heat, because other hot things still hurt. Just whilst I make coffee. Interestingly, if the base slips when I’m screwing it together the pain flicks back on instantly. Which hurts. Damn.
One of the keys to not feeling pain, depends on your unconscious mind believing that you are not threatened with tissue damaging danger. So if your environment is perceived as safe and no further tissue damage is likely, (as in normal coffee pot dynamics), a pain alarm is not needed. But if the environment is perceived as being threatening, (the coffee pot slips), then the pain alarm is flicked back on again.
As I said at the beginning, this may be trivial but it’s a real-life everyday example of a correctly functioning, complex pain alarm. It explains how something that used to hurt, doesn’t. It’s isn’t that practice teaches you how to ignore it, it’s that practice teaches your unconscious mind that this particular activity is not going to damage you.
As it turns out, it’s also a fundamental principle behind hypnotic pain management. At their core, most hypnotic pain management techniques tell you that you are safe.
Some help you to perceive that you are in an increasingly safe state both physically and emotionally and that your tissues are not undergoing increasing damage (useful to combat chronic conditions).
Some help you to feel distance or disconnection from the tissue damage itself, (sensory distortions or dissociations). If the unconscious perceives that the damage is not happening to its body, then pain alarm is not needed and isn’t fired.
Still others modulate the sensory input so that the unconscious is convinced that the nerve messages are wrong. For example experiencing numbness means that the nerves which send messages of damage are countermanded, (after all if the area is numb, there can’t be any nerve messages can there?), so the actual tissue damage goes unreported. No danger. No pain.
So, coffee pots aside, if you find yourself with pain management issues, I’d urge you to seriously consider the benefits of hypnotherapy as part of your strategy, especially if you have long term pain or a chronic pain condition (fibro, lupus, CRPS, migraines and so on). And if you do consider it – I’d be happy to help and advise.
As always, if you ask I’ll answer your questions. If you like, I can offer direct therapeutic help either face to face (if you’re local to Peterborough) or via Skype if you’re not. And if you can only afford 10 minutes at a time, there I’ve created some carefully crafted pain management mp3s which are waiting just for you on my website.
So if you hurt – let’s talk.
Tony Burkinshaw Cognitive Hypnotherapy: tonyburkinshaw.co.uk
Pain Management mp3s: tonyburkinshaw.co.uk/shop
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© Tony Burkinshaw 2013