Much of what goes on in our bodies is controlled by the subconscious mind. A simple example is the process of moving from a sitting to a standing position. Infants (and stroke survivors also, for example) have to think consciously of exactly what their muscles need to do while they are learning to stand up, but it soon becomes automatic. Thereafter, when we want to stand up, we simply do it -- from then on, it's a process that's controlled by the subconscious mind.
Having learned how to control the body, the subconscious mind is "conditioned" to experience certain sensations from arms and legs and to expect certain responses from them on "command." When arms or legs are no longer there, however, the subconscious mind continues to experience the old, learned sensations and to expect certain responses -- that is, until the subconscious mind is retrained to understand the new reality of the absent limb and have new expectations of sensation.
Stress is anything that makes you change, adjust or adapt. And it's cumulative. For example, if you have a tense or difficult discussion with a spouse or co-worker, and later spill coffee on your computer, the stress of spilling the coffee doesn't replace the stress of the discussion. It just adds another layer to your stress level that day. Physical and mental damage can result from too much stress, so it's important to learn and to use good coping skills to relax and relieve the pressure. Here are just a few:
Although we don't understand the subconscious completely, the literature is full of documentation of how the subconscious mind can control pain (which I prefer to call "discomfort" - a less emotional term), and even "cure" diseases, such as cancer. For example, the Institute for Noetic Sciences has documented over 3000 cases of such "cures."
Certainly, one can explain phantom sensation and even painful phantoms in neurological and physiological terms, but we know the subconscious plays an important part, also. Surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other medical clinicians are trained to concentrate on the neurological and physiological explanations in recommending therapies to abate the pain. Hypnotherapy, however, concentrates on the subconscious mind for answers, with an impressive degree of success, I might add.
Deep relaxation produces desirable physiological and biochemical responses that are exactly the opposite of those seen during stress. According to stress expert Dr. Edmund Jacobson: "An anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body".
Imagery and visualization are very important tools in hypnotherapy. When working with individuals who suffer chronic phantom pain, I would take them into a deeply relaxed state and ask them to visualize what is going on in their bodies. I might ask them to visualize their body as a blueprint of limbs and organs with the mind as a "control room." I might ask them to journey down through the body from the control room--down an imaginary elevator to an absent leg, for example -- to see what is going on there. I might ask the individual to visualize what is causing the discomfort and then visualize "switches" in the control room that might be able to shut off the pain. What is the residual limb or the phantom trying to say through the discomfort it's transmitting? What can the control room do to stop listening?
I might ask them to change their body blueprint to more accurately reflect the new situation, so there will be no conflict or confusion between what "was," and what "is." I might ask them to rate their discomfort on a scale of one to ten, for example, and then find the "volume control" with which they can "turn it down."
I might also ask the subconscious mind to "negotiate" with the absent part to find out why it's "misbehaving" and reach an "agreement" that will result in new, non-painful, patterns of sensation.
An encouraging thing about these kinds of techniques is that they can be effective in treating all kinds of discomfort. Thus, these methods can help relieve "real" discomfort in residual limbs as well as "phantom" discomfort in absent limbs.
In terms of therapy, I believe in using a feather instead of a hammer. For phantom pain sufferers, neuroma resection, neural blocks, and other surgical therapies are hammers. Hypnotherapy is a feather. But because the subconscious mind is so very powerful, the feather is powerful, too.