Mind & Body

Mind Over Everything

Hypnosis has long been used to treat phobias, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mind Over Everything
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For most of her adult life, Terri Shifrin was crippled by a peculiar kind of agoraphobia--the fear of being trapped. Airplanes and elevators petrified her. She stopped driving  on freeways, worried she'd get caught in a traffic jam and not be able to get out. Over the years Shifrin went to one therapist after another, trying biofeedback, talk therapy, and desensitization therapy. Nothing relieved her anxiety. So she learned to work around it. For 20 years she never traveled more than 10 miles from her Palo Alto, Calif., home. "I wanted to go out and do things, but I just felt stuck," says Shifrin, 51, a former kindergarten teacher.

Two years ago, anticipating her son's graduation from college 400 miles away in Southern California, she decided to try something new: hypnosis. Shifrin went to the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine, where she met with psychiatrist David Spiegel, M.D., co-author with his father, Herbert Spiegel, M.D., of the 1978 book Trance and Treatment (American Psychiatric Publishing, 2004), which remains a standard textbook on the clinical uses of hypnosis. Using a combination of directed hypnosis and self-hypnosis, Spiegel helped Shifrin regain a sense of control. Once she was in a hypnotic state, he would have her imagine a place that made her feel relaxed--she chose a waterfall in Hawaii she had visited as a teenager. Then he would have her imagine a situation that frightened her, such as driving on a congested freeway at rush hour. He directed her to look back and forth between the two scenes as if they were projected side by side on a movie screen. Over time, she came to use the calming waterfall as an emotional touchstone in moments of panic.

After more than a dozen appointments with Spiegel and countless self-hypnosis sessions on her own at home, Shifrin and her parents climbed into her car for the drive to the graduation. The first hour and a half of the ride were tough, her knuckles white as she gripped the steering wheel. But eventually she began to relax. "I got to the point where I could look at the scenery and enjoy the conversation with my parents." The next day, as her son walked across the stage to accept his diploma, Shifrin beamed with pride--in her son and in herself.

How it works
Hypnosis, or hypnotherapy, is becoming more common in medical clinics like the one at Stanford and in hospitals, where doctors are using it to sedate patients before surgery, ease the pain of burn victims, and prepare women for childbirth. Evidence is mounting that hypnosis is useful in treating not only psychological conditions like anxiety, addiction, and phobias but also distinctly physical ailments like broken bones and surgical wounds.

When it works, hypnosis can be surprisingly effective, taking a person from physical agony, for example, to a pain-free state in minutes. But it doesn't work for everyone. "About two-thirds of adults can be hypnotized," Spiegel says. But even those who can't be hypnotized may benefit from hypnosis sessions, which generally induce relaxation and ease stress, if nothing else. Whether hypnosis is successful may depend on the skill and training of the person who is directing it as well as the recipient's motivation, readiness, and rapport with the therapist.