Mind Over Everything

Mind Over Everything
Comfort and control
Spiegel and other experts are quick to point out that hypnosis is not about therapists exerting power over their clients; it's about people taking control of their own minds and bodies. Practitioners achieve this by putting you into a hypnotic trance, which Spiegel describes as a state of focused concentration. "This helps put other concerns out of your consciousness." Practitioners have several ways to induce hypnosis. Most begin by making you comfortable, often in a plush recliner, and directing you to close your eyes and relax. The hypnotherapist will then guide you into a trance, usually by counting backwards and directing you to feel parts of your body become heavy. Once you're in a hypnotic state, the therapist may offer gentle suggestions ("imagine your body floating somewhere safe and comfortable, like a warm bath") or visualization techniques that help you imagine malfunctioning organs working properly or pained areas going numb. Practitioners typically teach these skills to you and sometimes provide audiotapes or CDs so directed sessions can be reinforced with self-hypnosis.

Numbing the pain
Not long after David Patterson, Ph.D., started working as a psychologist at the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, he met with a 60-year-old burn patient who complained of excruciating pain. "He was taking morphine, Valium, and laughing gas and still said he'd rather die than go through his next dressing change," Patterson recalls. The doctor consulted a colleague, who suggested hypnosis.

Patterson had studied hypnosis in school and was familiar with the basic technique. After hypnotizing the patient, he suggested that when a nurse touched him on the shoulder he would become relaxed and free of pain. The doctor left the ward for a couple of hours. When he returned, the floor was abuzz: A nurse, he learned, had come to change the man's dressing; when she touched his shoulder, he instantly fell asleep.

Hypnosis seldom works that dramatically, admits Patterson. And yet for many sufferers, it offers significant relief from both chronic and acute pain. In a 2003 review of clinical trials on hypnosis for pain, Patterson and colleague Mark Jensen, Ph.D., found that hypnosis was associated with significant reductions in ratings of pain, the need for painkillers or sedation, nausea and vomiting, and length of stay in hospitals.

A handful of hospitals are even using hypnosis as an alternative or adjunct to anesthesia for medical procedures. The most notable example is Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, where radiologist Elvira Lang, M.D., offers hypnosis to patients before invasive procedures. In a study published in The Lancet in 2000, Lang and colleagues studied 241 people who underwent interventional radiology procedures to open clogged arteries and veins, relieve blockages in the kidney drainage system, or block blood vessels feeding tumors. The patients who had hypnosis had more stable vital signs during the operation, left the operating room sooner, and needed less pain medication than patients who received standard medical care.