The Pink Elephant Secret to Avoiding Chinese Water Torture

This is an old form of torture. It works like this – someone is held immobile in the dark – unable to move their body or head at all. And a slow drip of water strikes their forehead.

That’s it?

That’s it.

Now – why is this so terrible?

Because of sensitisation.

Imagine – someone being held immobile is already in a fearful state. That fear, combined with stress and a lack of other inputs for their senses amplifies the sensation of the water drop.

After a few hours of this the drop of water striking your forehead is experienced as agony.

The creators of the popular program Mythbusters thought this sounded all a bit unlikely, and decided to test it out.

The result? They had to stop the experiment within 2 hours the first time and within 3 hours because it was so distressing. And this was in a friendly environment when the subjects knew they could stop it at any time. Here’s film clip of what happened

However this process of sensitisation is similar to what can happen with chronic pain. The body becomes sensitised to a particular sensation. It amplifies pain from a particular area.

We can all agree that a drop of water falling on your head is not harmful. Yet – under the right circumstances – it can produce exquisite pain. And similarly – and old injury may have physically healed. But when that area is sensitised, a light brush against it can be agony. So what can you do if you suspect you may have pain sensitisation?

Well, the problem is that pain sensitisation is a mind-body thing. That is – it’s created from the interface between body and mind. So you need to address it using your body – and your mind.

Pink_ElephantHere’s one exercise to try.

Think of a pink elephant. Now think of a green rhinocerus. Now think of a beautiful beach scene at sunset. Now think of a lovely red rose.

Question – where did the pink elephant go? As soon as you pictured a green rhinoceros – the elephant was gone.

That’s how our minds and attention works.

One thing and one thing only can fill it at one time – if you’re present. By now it’s fairly well known that ‘multitasking’ is a myth. In reality multitasking is actually rapid task switching – and ensures that you do nothing well.

But when you’re awake and the present moment – that’s how mindfulness based pain reduction works. You attention is one place at a time. If it’s on what you’re doing – your sore back fades into the background. If you are wholely and solely absorbed in a movie – you may not notice that one leg has gone numb until your concentration gets broken by a less riveting part of the movie. Before then – it was as if your leg didn’t exist.

So this weekend – if you do have pain – try fixing your attention on something completely different. Give it your whole attention. Let it fill your consciousness 100% – as if you only had one minute left to live and this was the most important thing in the world. And then see how your pain system reacts.

Because in chronic conditions, a lot of pain is caused by the process of sensitisation. And when you train yourself to pay attention to things other than your pain you are actually retraining your pain system. You are desensitising it – and de-amplifying the pain message.

And that’s how an area that was extremely sensitive and painful can become less so. It’s how you can begin to return to normal activities again. It’s how you can use the mind body connection to turn down your pain response. And that’s how you get back in control of your life.

I’d like to invite you all to do one simple thing – right now. Breathe in, breathe out , and as you breathe out, feel all your muscles relax – just a little bit. Do this once more. Savour the feeling of relaxation. And when you get up and start to do other things – remember that at any time you can come back to this simple exercise – inhale, exhale, relax.

Click here for more on the mind body connection…

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(5) comments

Linda November 7, 2014

Very interesting. Hoping this will help with my chronic pain. Just one question, You can do this for a moment of less pain, but how can you make it go away completely? Back, Hips, legs, and feet.


Thank you Dr. Kuttner!

Jaz Benson November 8, 2014

WOW… Tried this out and it really can help. I am hoping to get my husband who has Parkinsons to try it out for his pain. Thank you

Gordon Cort November 10, 2014

This is an exciting concept that I wish I can get some of my injured workers to take to heart and practice. Some of them seem to have become friends with their pain and miss it when it is not around. Will keep trying.

Rhoda Sarvida Webb November 14, 2014

very well said thank u very much Dr. Kuttner

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