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Self-Hypnosis: Better Than Another Pill?

Network - Winter 2008

By Asma Siddiqi

Imagine reading a book so interesting you’re completely unaware of your surroundings. You’re so involved that you don’t even realize when someone taps you on the shoulder or calls your name. Believe it or not, this is a form of self-hypnosis.

Christina Meyers, Ph.D., a professor in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Neuro-Oncology, defines self-hypnosis as a state of focused absorption, which is exactly what can happen when you’re reading a good book. It’s quite different from what stage hypnotists perform during their shows. While the hypnotist tries to control a person’s actions, an impossible feat, the individual involved controls the self-hypnosis.

Contrary to myth, self-hypnosis is not an altered state of mind. It is a state of concentration. The individual utilizes skills that are already there. Using these techniques, patients may be able to have a positive effect on adverse symptoms related to cancer and cancer treatment, Meyers says.

In the class she teaches at M. D. Anderson, Meyers, a neuro-psychologist, starts with relaxation techniques. Then, she uses imagery, coupled with environmental sounds such as ocean surf, and gives specific suggestions for reducing stress or achieving a positive effect on other symptoms such as fatigue or pain.

During one class session, a patient was shocked to learn that the hypnosis lasted only 15 minutes. He was in such a deep state of concentration that it seemed like an hour to him.

Not another pill

Although side effects such as anxiety, stress, sleep problems and pain can be effectively dealt with through medication, strong drugs may or may not be the best option. Self-hypnosis has no side effects and often can help with these symptoms, in some cases allowing the medications to work better or allowing the patient to use lower doses, Meyers says.

Eventually, self-hypnosis becomes automatic, similar to driving a car. In the beginning both activities seem difficult to handle, but with time and the right training a person doesn’t have to think about doing it. The relaxation tools become unnecessary because the individual has mastered the technique.

“At some point, you can just say ‘relax’ to yourself and you’re there,” she says.

A valuable therapy for cancer patients

Aida Molano, a supervisor in the Department of Social Work at M. D. Anderson, began using self-hypnosis about 17 years ago when she was a social worker in the Bone Marrow Transplant Center (Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy) and quickly noticed its positive effect on patients.

“They began to cope better and respond well to the therapeutic treatment. It helped reduce the pain as well as the anxiety and nervousness before the [transplant] procedure,” Molano says.

Through this discovery, Molano was motivated to start a self-hypnosis class at the institution to teach patients and caregivers how to practice on themselves. This enables them to make use of it whenever the need arises.

At the beginning of class, Molano assesses the students. This allows her to determine what the most common concern is at the time. Although everyone is different, Molano addresses the most frequent problems. Because self-hypnosis is so encompassing, it can be taught to a class of students with varying concerns while working differently for each person.

Recent studies on self-hypnosis

The growing interest in complementary therapies, like self-hypnosis, has caused doctors to take a closer look at its results. A literature review by Gary Deng, M.D., and Barrie Cassileth, Ph.D., at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center mentions a clinical trial at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom that studied the effects of self-hypnosis on cancer patients.

This study enrolled 30 pediatric patients undergoing bone marrow aspiration and was conducted to test the effectiveness of self-hypnosis on procedural pain, a heightened perception of pain due to anxiety and fear before a medical procedure.

The researchers divided patients into three groups: one using self-hypnosis, another using cognitive behavioral skills and the last, using nothing at all. At the end of the study, it was reported that the patients who underwent self-hypnosis experienced more pain relief than the others.

Another study* published in the Wiley InterScience online journal tested the use of self-hypnosis in breast cancer patients suffering from hot flashes, a result of chemotherapy-induced menopause. Of the 16 women enrolled in the study, 72% experienced hot flashes that often impacted their mood, daily activities and sleep.

Researchers found that after four weekly sessions of hypnosis, participants experienced a 59% decrease in the daily number of hot flashes and a 70% decrease in their frequency and severity. The study concluded that self-hypnosis can be used as an effective tool in treating hot flashes in breast cancer patients with better or equal results to non-hormonal treatment drugs.

Although these studies show encouraging results, Molano reminds her students that self-hypnosis is a complement to the medical therapies they are receiving, not an alternative. If a patient has any kind of pain, it is important to seek out medical attention before turning to self-hypnosis to alleviate it.

Still, Molano feels optimistic about the use of self-hypnosis in the future. “I think we are just opening the doors for a new beginning in the use of self-hypnosis. I want to empower people so they can use it in different aspects of their lives.”

*The study was conducted by Gary Elkins, Ph.D., at Baylor University (Waco, Texas), Joel Marcus, Psy.D., and M. Hasan Rajab, Ph.D., at the Mind-Body Cancer Research Program at Scott and White Memorial Hospital (Temple, Texas), and Vered Stearns, M.D., at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Md.).

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center