Doctors are using the power of the mind like never before.
When Harvard psychiatrist Claire Frederick, M.D., is stuck in a slow lane at the grocery store checkout counter, she doesn't get irritated. She gets relaxed. Very relaxed. Calming and focusing her mind, she slips into a brief trance and concentrates on a knee she injured while skiing. "Lately I've been using hypnosis to ease the pain and encourage healing." Frederick says.
Preposterous? A few years ago, most doctors thought so. Now, even many doubters are convinced that hypnosis is powerful medicine. "I was one of the skeptics," says Frederick, immediate past editor of the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, "until I began to see firsthand what hypnosis could do. Now I'm on something of a crusade."
When most people think of hypnosis, they picture a mysterious figure swinging a pocket watch and repeating, "You're getting very sleepy." In fact, hypnosis is somewhat of a mystery. But solid science is showing it can improve your health in surprising ways: It's powerful enough to help relieve the often excruciation pain associated with serious burns, for instance, and it can make breathing easier for people with respiratory illnesses.
The most astonishing evidence comes from research on healing. In a pilot study published in 1999, Harvard University psychologist Carol Ginandes, Ph.D., showed that hypnosis can help broken bones heal faster. In a follow-up experiment published last year, Ginandes and her research team found that women who'd had breast reduction surgery recovered more quickly after undergoing hypnosis. During the sessions, the women were encouraged to think of pain as "sensations of healing" and to visualize their incisions "knitting together rapidly and becoming strong, smooth, and elastic." An independent team of surgeons and nurses later examined the women and reviewed photographs of the incisions that were taken 1 week and 7 weeks after surgery. The group's judgment: Patients who had received hypnosis were farther along the road to recovery. "We're not just talking about people simply feeling better." Ginandes says. "We're talking about structural tissue healing. Hypnosis, our results suggest, can influence the body to heal itself."
No one understands how - yet. Some researchers speculate that hypnosis alters levels of brain chemicals that influence the nervous system, hormone production, and the immune system Hypnosis may even effect how particular genes in cells express themselves, turning certain functions on and others off. Current studies using brain scans and other imaging technologies may begin to piece together an explanation.
Scientists have no shortage of potential test subjects, because almost anyone can be hypnotized. Only about 5 percent of people are not responsive, and roughly the same percentage are exceptionally so. Most score in the middle of a hypnotiazability scale developed at Stanford University. Studies show that with practice, people can learn to become more responsive, according to Timothy Carmody, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Carmody is conducting a study to see if hypnotherapy can help smokers kick the habit.
Hypnosis can't make people do things they don't want to do. It can't turn people into automatons. But it does make them unusually receptive to suggestions. "A hypnotic trance is really just a form of deep relaxation, which allows people to block out distractions and focus their minds," Carmody says. Patients who suffer from panic attacks, for example, can be encouraged to think of frightening situations in new and less alarming ways. Pain sufferers, meanwhile, can move their perception of pain from the foreground of their minds to the background, says University of Washington psychologist David Patterson, Ph.D.
Hypnotizing someone is surprisingly simple. "Most people can reach a hypnotic trance simply by staring at a spot on the wall and listening to a soothing voice telling them to relax," explains University of Tennessee psychologist Michael R. Nash, Ph.D., a leading expert. In one widely used approach, subjects visualize themselves walking down a staircase, becoming more relaxed with each step. In another variation, people imagine themselves in a relaxing place on a beach, say, or at a cabin in the mountains. Taking slow breaths, the subjects fall into a deeper and deeper state of relaxation.
"To test whether someone has reached a deep trance, we may tell them they're so relaxed and their eyelids are so heavy that they don't want to open them," says psychologist Sally Cernie, "Ph.D., a hypnotherapist in Riverside, California. "When they don't, then we know they're in a deep trance. Therapists then offer carefully phrased suggestions to help solve problems or change behaviors.
It's true that hypnosis remains a hard sell with many doctors because of the ongoing mystery behind it. "There's still a lot of skepticism out there," Harvard's Frederick admits. Yet as more studies are published offering evidence of the benefits, a growing number of psychologists and physicians are embracing it as a healing tool.
If you're interested in giving hypnosis a try, experts recommend finding a therapist or doctor certified by the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, which seeks to ensure that practitioners are appropriately trained. Talk to your doctor first if you plan to use the therapy for a medical purpose, such as controlling pain or anxiety. And remember that hypnosis isn't a panacea. People with acute pain who use hypnosis, for example, typically still need medication, just less of it.
Books and audiotapes offering advice on self-hypnosis may work, Carmody says, although no scientific studies have documented their effectiveness. Self-hypnosis can be used, Frederick says, as a way to relax and reinforce hypnotic suggestions made by a therapist. And once you get the hang of it - it might take 1 session under the guidance of a trained practitioner, or as many as 10 - you can do it almost anywhere: during a break at work, between commercials on TV, even when you're stuck in the checkout line."