Hypnotic Effects

Studies show how hypnosis can help patients deal with pain, fatigue, and anxiety.

After reconstructive breast cancer surgery, Joni Holland, 58, of Tarzana, California, was left in unbearable pain for days. When she learned she’d need another operation, she was petrified about having all that pain again. So when a mutual friend referred her to Janet Montgomery, a certified hypnotherapist in Woodland Hills, California, she was all ears. 

During their single session, Montgomery hypnotized Holland, who described the session as very relaxing. Holland left with a 30-minute CD of their interaction and used it for the month leading up to her next surgery.

“Listening to the CD, I’d go back to that same comfortable place in my mind. Because of Janet, I went into surgery feeling much calmer,” Holland says. “It went well, and I had no pain afterwards. I really believe a better attitude helped.”

Hypnosis can be traced back to ancient Egypt, as well as Greek mythology. Now modern medicine is adapting the approach to help cancer patients through surgery, biopsy, radiation and chemotherapy.

Recognized as a valid medical procedure for patients since 1958 by both the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, hypnotherapy also gained credibility when the National Institutes of Health recommended it for chronic pain relief in 1995.

Since then, dozens of studies have suggested that medical hypnosis can decrease cancer-related anxiety, fatigue, pain, and depression. And new research is exploring other potential benefits, such as possible reduction of radiation-induced skin redness or itching.

Despite its legitimacy, hypnotherapy remains mysterious to some, but to psychiatrist David Spiegel, MD, medical director of Stanford University’s Center for Integrative Medicine, hypnotherapy is “a genuine mental state, in which the mind, like a telephoto lens, zooms in on a single, specific subject, and perception itself can change.” 

“It’s not a treatment–it’s a level of concentration,” says the medical hypnosis pioneer. “Under hypnosis, the brain can learn to alter what it sees and feels.”

Hypnotic intervention begins with therapist and patient agreeing to participate in “talking therapy,” a psychotherapeutic technique, explains psychologist Guy Montgomery, PhD, director of the Integrative Behavioral Medicine in the Department of Oncological Sciences at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. The hypnotist makes suggestions for changes in perception, sensation, cognition, affect, mood, or behavior; the patient’s willingness allows acceptance of these suggestions.

“Hypnosis is one of the most effective tools available to help people cope with cancer and its treatment,” says Montgomery.

Since the late 1970s, when Spiegel theorized that “strain and pain lie mainly in the brain,” he has treated thousands of cancer patients with medical hypnosis. He says it works because, “pain hijacks our attention. Two-thirds of metastatic patients have some kind of pain, often substantial during chemotherapy.” By teaching the brain to transform or change its awareness, hypnosis treatment frequently reduces even drug-resistant pain, he says.

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