The Healing Power of Hypnosis

by Jean Callahan

Hypnosis: Hocus Pocus it’s Not For starters, how about surgery without anesthesia? There was nothing remarkable about Victor Rausch’s gallbladder operation. Nothing at all except that he underwent the surgery without so much as swallowing an aspirin.

Rausch, then a young dentist from Waterloo, Ontario, wanted
to see if he could skip the anesthetic and rely on hypnosis to keep himself relaxed and free of pain while his gallbladder was removed.

AS THE SURGEON sliced into his abdomen, Rausch entered into a hypnotic trance, focusing on Chopin’s lush Nocturne in E-flat as it was played in the film The Eddy Duchin Story. He visualized scenes in the movie, enlisting sight and sound to swaddle his mind in a virtual reality infinitely more appealing than the one he was living at the moment.

Throughout the 75 minute operation, Rausch maintained steady blood pressure and pulse rate; he even talked and joked with the surgical team. And implausible as it may seem, he swears he felt no pain—only a little tugging. After the surgery was over he stood up, walked down the hall and rode the elevator to his hospital room.

SOUND LIKE a medical parlor trick? Yes, surgery without anesthesia is a bit of a mind-bender. But the truth is, even in its less startling applications, hypnosis still evokes the image of its sideshow past. Just murmur, You are getting sleepy, very sleepy, and some people envision one of those 1950’s mad-doc movies in which creepy old men hypnotize lovely young women to do all sorts of things.

NEVERTHELESS, as researchers learn more about the mind-body connection, hypnosis is ever so quietly becoming part of mainstream medicine. Doctors and therapists often use hypnosis to help people quit smoking, lose weight, manage stress, diminish pain and overcome phobias—some of the more typical uses of the method. Health maintenance organizations and major insurers are generally willing to pay. In addition, patients are also being taught self-hypnosis to ward off asthma attacks and epileptic seizures; hemophiliacs are using it to stop their own bleeding; and last summer, after reviewing the medical literature, the National Institutes of Health concluded that the technique is effective for easing several kinds of discomfort, including headaches and pain associated with cancer.

It’s easy to imagine the advantages. Once you become proficient at hypnotizing yourself, you can do it anywhere and anytime. There are no side effects. And it doesn’t cost a dime. Such control is a powerful tonic for many patients, even when hypnosis is used as an adjunct to conventional remedies.

So how does this healing method work? How do you know if it will work for you?

Except for lack of props, current techniques aren’t all that different from those of early practitioners. Whether through counting backwards from 100 or asking the patient to concentrate on a peaceful setting, the goal is to relax the body while creating a state of mental awareness that makes it easy to assimilate therapeutic suggestions. An addicted smoker might be told to imagine h/herself as a nonsmoker, going through daily activities without a cigarette; a frustrated dieter might be encouraged to imagine h/herself thin and trim in a new swimsuit, eating only foods that are healthy.

ACCORDING TO electronic tracings of brain waves of people undergoing hypnosis, there is a surge of theta waves, which are associated with enhanced attention. That may explain why suggestions introduced during this state are particularly effective: The mind has tuned out everything else and is focusing exclusively on the new idea.

OF COURSE, HELPING people kick bad habits is one thing; if they are not trained in self hypnosis, getting them to take a surgical incision without anesthesia is quite another. However, Helen Crawford, a psychology professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, says the sensation of pain is like any other mental process that can be controlled to some degree. Indeed her tests of people experiencing hypnosis—she’s been mapping brain waves and measuring cerebral blood flow—have shown increased activity in the brain’s frontal region, which is known to inhibit sensory information. Pain still registers in other areas of the brain, but the hyped-up frontal cortex blocks its ascent into consciousness.

Brain maps or no, it’s precisely this squishy, is-it-or-isn’t-it proposition that keeps some people from taking hypnosis seriously. Think hard and you, too, can learn to ignore excruciating pain. Or more troubling: If it continues to hurt, perhaps you’re not tough-minded enough. These suggestive statements are giving the wrong message to thebrain and therefore produce more PAIN. When the methods are properly used they work. Proponents insist, it doesn’t really matter whether the pain no longer occurs or the mind just shields you from it. Either way, you don’t feel it!

Some people do feel it, however, because they are not as receptive as other individuals. Artists and writers often make good subjects because they are comfortable with fantasy and learning new things, says Herbert Spiegel, a psychiatrist and one of the foremost experts on the medical uses of hypnosis. Yet many practitioners believe motivation is as important as innate capacity. Anyone can be conditioned to use hypnosis effectively, if they have normal intelligence.

There was nothing remarkable about Victor Rausch’s gallbladder operation. Nothing at all except that he underwent the surgery without so much as swallowing an aspirin.

Rausch, then a young dentist from Waterloo, Ontario, wanted to see if he could skip the anesthetic and rely on hypnosis to keep himself relaxed and free of pain while his gallbladder was removed.

PERHAPS THAT’S why people in acute medical crises are particularly responsive to hypnotic suggestion. This is where the miracles happen, says Marcia Greenleaf, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Over the years, Greenleaf has seen many patients in the cardiac intensive care unit with heart rates as high as 190 beats per minute. With hypnosis, they are often able to stabilize their condition within minutes, without using medications.

Burn recovery can be another of those wondrous turnabouts, says Dabney Ewin, a clinical professor of surgery and psychiatry at Tulane Medical School. His most startling case involved a 28-year-old factory worker whose leg had slipped into a vat of molten aluminum heated to approximately 1,750 degrees F.

EWIN, THEN THE PLANT PHYSICIAN, hypnotized him almost immediately. He told him that his leg felt “cool and comfortable,” and the man said that indeed that was how it felt. What’s more, after additional treatment in the emergency room, the burned skin healed much faster and better than physicians had anticipated, without infection and without forming any scar tissue.

The desire for long term results also can serve as motivation, and experts say that with training and practice almost anyone can use hypnosis for simple healing purposes. In a study sponsored by the government’s Office of Alternative Medicine, Crawford taught 17 people to use the technique to ease backache. In the laboratory, subjects reduced pain sensation by more than 80 percent. At home they felt significantly less depressed and were able to sleep better at night.

For Robert Jackson, a retired jet engine mechanic in Ft. Worth, Texas, hypnosis ended two years of torturous pain. As a consequence of radiation treatments he had undergone in 1993, Jackson’s esophagus was so badly scarred that eating had become almost unbearable. He ended up on a feeding tube, which left him feeling hungry all the time.

HE WAS CURIOUS ABOUT HYPNOTHERAPY, but the first physician he approached scoffed at the idea. Eventually Jackson wound up at the Center for Pain Management in Fort Worth. There, he says a doctor showed him the ropes. I learned to put my mind someplace else, he says, so the pain, though still real, wouldn’t dominate his experience. It took a while, but he is now so adept at hypnotizing himself that he goes into a trance almost instantly.

I have three children, and I’m relatively a young man at 50, he says. But two years ago all I could do is sit around and cry. I still have pain, and I still take drugs every once and a while, but my suffering is greatly reduced. Best of all, I can actually eat real food now. Sometimes, I even feel full.