When most people hear the word hypnotist, they immediately think of a sketchy stage performer swinging a pocket watch back and forth while chanting, “You are getting very sleepy…”
The reality of hypnosis is nothing like that stereotype. Hypnosis is nothing more than a harmless, altered state of mind. You’ve likely experienced this altered state while driving, for example going home on a route you’ve taken thousands of times where your thoughts are elsewhere and you don’t remember navigating. That’s because you were driving in an altered, hypnotic state, where you’re aware but unfocused.
Strange as it sounds, that altered state can help combat cancer symptoms. Read on for the fascinating story.
Hypnosis, in its professional form as hypnotherapy, has been around for over 200 years. Mental health professionals use it to treat addiction, emotional trauma, and anxiety. Recently, researchers found new medical benefits for hypnotherapy in the treatment of cancer.
Hypnotherapy relieves pain for cancer patients
A study published in the Journal of Cancer Integrative Medicine found that four weekly hypnosis sessions significantly decreased overall pain in patients fighting malignant bone cancer.
MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, has been putting hypnotherapy to the test over the last several years, using it to treat breast cancer patients who undergo surgery. Instead of full anesthesia, patients who are having a lumpectomy, and want the alternative treatment, receive local pain medication and hypnosis. As a result, those patients report faster recovery times and less overall anxiety.
In a similar vein, a study conducted by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School offered hypnosis to women prior to a needle core breast biopsy; those who received hypnosis reported less pain than those who didn’t.
Hypnosis has also been used in the palliative care of cancer patients to reduce symptoms associated with radiation and chemotherapy such as pain, hot flashes, and sleep dysfunction. Dozens of other clinical trials have confirmed these results showing hypnosis to be effective at managing the nausea and pain often associated with chemotherapy, as well as the anxiety that’s often caused from a cancer diagnosis.
What’s it like to undergo hypnotherapy?
A typical session starts with a discussion between a patient and therapist about what’s going on in that patient’s life – their treatment, worries, and stresses. Then, the therapist guides the patient into a state of hypnosis and offers suggestions to help reduce that stress or to relieve any symptoms. Oftentimes following a session, the patient is given a recording to use at home.
During hypnosis patients experience a very deep sense of relaxation, often with highly focused attention and an extreme openness to suggestions. But don’t worry, you’re still in complete control of your body.
The stories of people who quack like ducks or get up on stage and dance like Elvis come from hypnosis situations where those individuals secretly wanted to do those things. (That’s the trick of a stage hypnotist, after all – to only pick volunteers who look like they want to get in on the act, and not the guy with his arms crossed in the back of the auditorium with a disapproving glare.)
It’s this openness to suggestion that can bring about positive therapeutic changes, and that’s where the practice of hypnotherapy comes into play. Because—and here’s the catch—simply being in a hypnotic trance is not therapeutic on its own.
Much like poking needles anywhere in your skin does not equate to acupuncture, if you want to use hypnosis for a specialized purpose, it takes a licensed mental health practitioner to incorporate the technique into a treatment approach.
Hypnosis vs. meditation
Hypnosis is not the same as meditation, either. Here’s how you differentiate: meditation is the act of intense focus on something small, like your breath. Hypnosis is a different state of consciousness altogether. They’re both effective, but they work in different ways.
As one practitioner describes it, meditation can teach you to be mindful of pain and to accept it. Hypnosis can be used to reduce that pain. Both are important approaches to dealing with the effects of cancer and cancer treatment.
If you do it, do it right
Despite all the evidence, hypnosis remains far outside the standard of care at most treatment facilities. MD Anderson and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, where hypnosis is also used for oncology patients, are exceptions.
But part of this has to do with access and cost. At Mount Sinai, for instance, mental health services are considered part of overall care and are covered by insurance. But hypnosis on its own is generally not covered, or reimbursement is limited.
Officially, hypnosis is unregulated, so to find a reputable therapist outside of a medical center I recommend going to the two professional organizations that provide certification — the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists and the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. They both list qualified practitioners on their websites.
There are also several free YouTube videos by hypnotherapy professionals where you can listen and get a feel for hypnosis. I think these resources are helpful, but they shouldn’t replace working with a qualified practitioner who can tailor a hypnosis session to treat your specific needs.
An alternate option is to seek out a practitioner willing to record one or multiple sessions tailored to you. Then you can learn and practice self-hypnosis therapy as often as you need, but without additional expense.
Treatment ranges from a single session to multiple sessions, depending on the patient and nature of the problem.
- “Clinical Hypnosis for the Palliative Care of Cancer Patients.” By Gary Elkins, et al. August 28, 2012. https://www.cancernetwork.com/oncology-nursing/clinical-hypnosis-palliative-care-cancer-patients
- “Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy: What’s the Difference?” By Ann Marie Sochia, MS, LPCA, CHT, NLP, 9 June 2014. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/hypnosis-and-hypnotherapy-whats-the-difference-0609144
- “Hypnotherapy.” Cancer Research UK. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-in-general/treatment/complementary-alternative-therapies/individual-therapies/hypnotherapy
- “Using Hypnosis to Treat Cancer’s Side Effects,” By Katherine Malmo, for the Cure. October 28, 2017. https://www.curetoday.com/publications/cure/2017/fall-2017/using-hypnosis-to-treat-cancers-side-effects