It's quite a ways from a nightclub stage where a hypnotist induces people to cluck like chickens, to the halls of the National Institutes of Health's Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md. But the basics of hypnosis -- being put, or putting oneself, in a relaxed, hyperaware mental state open to suggestion -- pertain in both venues.
"There is strong scientific evidence of the efficacy of hypnosis for control of pain, anxiety, sleep problems, and nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy," says Daniel L. Handel, MD, a staff clinician in the pain and palliative care service at NIH.
At NIH, in fact, patients who need a bone marrow transplant must be seen before the procedure and offered choices of ways to control their symptoms. Hypnosis is one of the options. "Often they will say, 'I have been having trouble sleeping, so I might as well try this and it might work for my nausea after the transplant, too,'" Handel says.
What Hypnosis Is, and Isn't
According to the American Psychological Association's official position on the subject, hypnosis is a procedure in which a health professional or researcher suggests that a client, patient, or subject experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or behavior.
Subjects are "induced" in many ways, usually by concentrating on an object or point and then by hearing suggestions that they are calm, focused. In time, the therapist can teach you to induce your own trance state and give yourself helpful suggestions when necessary.
Despite the bad rep hypnosis has for getting people to do things they might not otherwise do, this is a myth. "I tell my patients that if the fire alarm rings while they are under, they may beat me to the door," Handel says. "There is always a part of yourself that is looking after your welfare."
Most people (90%) are hypnotizable to some extent (this can be measured on a scientific scale). Interestingly, your level of hypnotizability stays constant throughout your life and does not depend on the skills of the hypnotist (good-bye, Svengali theory), according to Michael R. Nash, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and editor of the prestigious Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.
At NIH, Handel looks for people who are able to concentrate and are not demented ("You use the cognitive part of your brain under hypnosis," he explains). He also steers away from hypnosis if a person is severely depressed (it's not recommended for that). If you have the ability to engage in imaginative processes (such as daydreaming) or you can sit at the computer for an hour and it seems like five minutes, you will probably be a good subject.
It's very important to remember, Nash says, that hypnosis is not a treatment in itself -- it's a supplement to other treatments. Handel could not have hypnotized away his tooth problems -- dental surgery was needed for that. If you are trying to quit smoking, the patch or other clinical approach may be needed along with hypnotism. "I am always thinking of what drugs my patients may need in addition," Handel says.
What Can Hypnosis Do for You?
Jason Collins is a webmaster and jack-of-all-trades, including hypnotist, at a small college for Native Americans called D.Q. University in Davis, Calif. Native Americans, he says, use chanting and other complementary means of mind direction in their culture and take to hypnosis well. "About 80% of our students have chemical dependency problems or are afraid to take tests or [have some other problem]," he says. He works on their self-esteem issues with hypnotism. "There is no greater reward than seeing someone benefit from what you have done for them."
One of the pioneers of research in this field, David Spiegel, MD, professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, tells the story of a 7-year-old who had to undergo a painful procedure without anesthesia. "It was a terrible thing for a young girl," he wrote. The first time she had it, it took her father and three nurses to hold her down. The second time, Spiegel hypnotized her, had her concentrate on a store full of Beanie Babies and she got through with a few tears, but no struggling.
Handel himself decided to try hypnosis, since he was suggesting his patients do so. His first wisdom tooth extraction had been so painful, with so much swelling, he put off the last two for 10 years. This time, after hypnotizing himself and pushing away the Novocain, he experienced no pain and no swelling. (Nash also spurns Novocain in favor of self-hypnosis.)
Mary Curro, a hypnotherapist in Portsmouth, Va., says she has helped people with sexual dysfunction, smoking, weight loss, fear of flying, fear of elevators, even fear of urinating in a public restroom. "It can't cure cancer, medically," she says, "but I am here to tell you it can be a tremendous help in receiving medicine with more ease and comfort. It can help anything, really, because thoughts and emotional response affect everything else and that's what hypnotism deals with."
Nash urges patients to find a hypnotherapist who is also qualified to treat the condition being addressed. "If you have chronic pain," he says, "you don't go to some storefront Hypnotist-Volkswagen Repair Shop."
To learn more and obtain referrals to reputable practitioners, consult the Society of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (https://www.sunsite.utk.edu/IJCEH/) or American Society for Clinical Hypnosis (www.asch.net).