From the November 15, 2002 print edition
Hypnotism gaining respect in medicine as a useful tool
Danek S. Kaus
About a dozen people sit in a dimly lit circle of comfortable chairs. The people are deeply relaxed as they listen to a voice guide them through images designed to promote healthy bodies.
That might sound like a New Age retreat in the mountains, but it’s a classroom at Stanford University. The speaker is Jeanne Fournier, a medical hypnotherapist from Mountain View. She conducts group sessions at Stanford Hospital’s Center for Integrated Medicine as well as at Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Community Breast Health Project.
Once relegated to stage acts and B movies, hypnosis is gaining acceptance as a medical tool that can help the body.
“It is such a gentle, relaxing thing,” Ms. Fournier says. “A lot of the imagery is designed to help people activate the body’s natural resources for health and balance.”
People who have experienced medical hypnosis tend to be able to cope better with their treatment. They often have fewer, milder side effects, such as the nausea caused by chemotherapy and radiation for cancer, according to Ms. Fournier.
In a group setting she gives general suggestions for well-being. “Not everyone is dealing with the same issues,” Ms. Fournier says.
When she works with individuals in her office, she addresses specific health problems and makes a tape of the session that clients can use at home to reinforce the suggestions.
“The feedback I get from people is that they feel hypnosis has played a significant role in their healing,” Ms. Fournier says. “It gives them a sense of control that they are doing something to help the healing. It really improves the effectiveness of the medical treatment, the quality of life and even their mental well-being.”
The Center for Integrative Medicine uses hypnosis, biofeedback and acupuncture in conjunction with regular medical treatment — not as a substitute, says Thomas Nagy, a staff psychologist. He says hypnosis is a natural state, one we all go into many times a day, but without labeling it as such.
“It is not a trance,” Dr. Nagy says. “I would call it a state of absorption and concentration where you suspend your general reality orientation or your normal way of processing information and probably permit access to other ways of problem solving, including suggestion and imagination.”
We can enter this state while intently focusing on a particular task, while daydreaming, listening to music or watching television.
Hypnosis is not a form of mind control. Dr. Nagy calls it a collaborative exercise in which the therapist and individual agree on the goal. One goal is behavior modification, such as to stop smoking or eating sweets. It also can be used to reduce and even eliminate pain, and some dentists now use it in their practice.
It also helps reduce anxiety and stress. According to Dr. Nagy, stress can make illness worse and bring on its own set of symptoms, including stomach aches, muscle pain and various forms of chronic pain.
“There is increasing scientific evidence of the connection between how the mind functions and body operates,” Dr. Nagy says. “The Chinese have known this for 5,000 years and it is now being discovered by Western medicine.”
The results of hypnosis vary with the person. Some need only a few sessions, others may require many. Dr. Nagy teaches patients self-hypnosis so people don’t have to depend on a hypnotherapist.
Dr. Dan Handel uses hypnosis as a member of the Pain and Palliative Care Service at National Institutes of Health and past president of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. About two-thirds of his patients can significantly modify their
perceptions of pain by altering the neurophysiology of the experience. It is believed that this is done by changing how the brain monitors pain. The patient does not have to stay in a hypnotic state to have relief.
“It is like taking medicine, where you get a pronounced effect for a time and then have to do refresher work,” Dr. Handel says.
Like Dr. Nagy, he says teaching people to reduce stress is a key element of health, but not a magic bullet.
“Every moment of the day our mind and body are speaking together,” Dr. Handel says. “I think of wellness as a real balance of the flow of information.”
Danek S. Kaus is a freelance writer based in Los Altos.