The Fresh Face of Hypnosis: An Old Practice Finds New Uses
Published in Better Homes & Gardens, February 1, 2004
Last year, Andrea Tickle was pregnant with her first child. To combat the pain of childbirth, she could have chosen an epidural or narcotics but decided, instead, on a drug-free approach. To help her, Andrea contacted a Pennsylvania hypnotherapist named Wendy Goldenthal.
Goldenthal specializes in a hypnosis technique called HypnoBirthing that teaches pregnant women to take advantage of their body’s natural anesthetic abilities in order to make childbirth a less painful, more positive experience. Andrea, 31, was won over.
“I would have to say what HypnoBirthing gave me was a greater sense of my inner strength, and it empowered me through my labor,” says Andrea, who lives near Philadelphia with her husband and I year-old daughter, Siena. If the word “hypnosis” conjures up memories of a high school stage act where some of your classmates ended up ducking like chickens, then you should know that there’s much more to this age old art than merely a paycheck for a parlor magician.
Today, hypnosis–or hypnotherapy–is becoming a respected alternative for an array of conditions. It has long been used to help people quit smoking and overcome fears, such as the fear of public speaking, but now the practice is branching out into new areas.
“For the vast majority of people, hypnosis can be an invaluable tool,” says Dr. Ran D. Anbar, who uses it in his practice as a pediatric pulmonologist at State University of New York’s Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
For example, he helps many children control their allergies and asthma through hypnotherapy. He does so, in part, by training them in self-hypnosis techniques. “One of the beauties of hypnosis is that it’s easy to teach, it can often work quickly and, for most people, it is a positive addition to their treatment,” Anbar says. Other doctors and hypnotherapists use it for such conditions as chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, insomnia, and migraine headaches–afflictions that modern medicine struggles to treat effectively. These types of disorders often have a strong mental component, says Anbar, which plays into the strengths of hypnosis. “It’s exactly the patient who doesn’t respond to medical therapy who is likely to respond to hypnotherapy,” he says.
Hypnotherapy’s effectiveness lies in the complex connection between the mind and the body. It’s well-understood today that illness can affect your emotional state and, conversely, that your emotional state can affect your physical state. Two examples: Stress, an emotional reaction, can make heart disease worse, and heart disease, a physical condition, can cause depression. Hypnosis carries this connection to the next logical step by using the power of the mind to bring about change in the body.
No one is quite sure how hypnosis works, but thanks to more sophisticated imaging techniques, that’s changing. For instance, researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute found that during a hypnotic state aimed at bringing about pain control, the prefrontal cortex of the brain (which controls concentration) directed other areas of the brain to reduce or eliminate their awareness of pain.
That’s important, because if your brain doesn’t pay attention to pain, it doesn’t matter if it’s there or not. It’s similar to the mechanism you use when you tune out the sound of your arguing children. But, as you know, sometimes you can ignore noisy kids and sometimes you can’t–therein also lies the limitations of hypnosis.
Some people see great success with hypnosis and some don’t. And it’s impossible to know who will find relief from it without actually trying it. “It isn’t a magic wand,” cautions hypnotherapist Carol Ginandes, Ph.D., an instructor at Harvard Medical School who also practices in Watertown, Massachusetts. “I’m not saying I can hypnotize every patient to have no pain or have their asthma disappear. But used as an ancillary treatment, it’s been shown to be effective.”
Ginandes is also looking at how hypnotherapy can help people heal faster. In a small study last year, she and a colleague took 18 women who were having breast reduction surgery and put each of them in one of three groups. One group received standard surgery care. Another group got the same care and also received psychological support. The third group underwent hypnosis before and after surgery in addition to standard care. Those who had undergone hypnosis healed faster, felt less discomfort, and had fewer complications. “What’s exciting about this research is that it provides promising evidence of using hypnosis to actually accelerate the physical healing process of the body,” says Ginandes. Despite its usefulness, most physicians know very little about hypnosis and few medical schools teach it–even though the American Medical Association has approved of its use since 1958. In fact, Anbar’s colleagues warned him not to call what he does “hypnosis” because people might think he’s little more than a voodoo doctor. That kind of thinking may be why hypnosis is not used for more patients, he says.
HYPNOSIS AT HOME
Here’s a simple self-hypnosis technique from Dr. Ran Anbar, professor of pediatrics at State University of New York’s Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. It’s a great way to unwind from a stressful day.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a place where you would feel relaxed. Maybe it’s a tropical beach or a quiet forest glade. No matter the scene you choose, pay close attention to what you might see, hear, smell, and taste there. Notice that, as you focus on these sensations, you become more and more relaxed and more content. Allow yourself to be enveloped by your peaceful surroundings. Once you’re successfully in this light trance, stress seems to slip away. You can remain in this state as long as you want in your mind-an hour or a day or a year-all in just a few moments of real time. When you’re ready to leave, give yourself a suggestion, such as, “I’ll feel claim for the rest of the day.” Make sure you phrase your suggestion in the positive rather than the negative. Then slowly bring yourself back and open your eyes. Don’t get discouraged if this doesn’t seem to work right away, says Anbar. “It improves with practice,” he says. Just try again another day.
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