Altered states: Using hypnosis to ease stress

July 29, 1993|By Karen Vanderveen | Karen Vanderveen,Knight-Ridder News Service

Read these words very closely. Closer. Closer. You can feel yourself getting tired. Tired. Tired of all the Hollywood-hooey that surrounds hypnosis.

Many people think of hypnosis as something that is done to you, like in the movies, with frumpy old Viennese psychiatrists swinging pocket watches.

A lot of people are afraid that if they undergo hypnosis, they'll come out of the trance quacking like a duck or tearing off their clothes whenever they hear the number nine.

The truth of the matter is that hypnosis is something you can learn to do for yourself, to help yourself. Dr. Chris Lartigue, a Tallahassee, Fla., psychiatrist, defines it this way: an altered state of consciousness, achieved by an intense focusing of attention.

Self-hypnosis is used to help with fear of flying or with stress or weight control or asthma or migraine or -- as in Charles Evans' case -- chronic pain.

Mr. Evans broke his back in 1978 when he was stacking and unpacking boxes in the grocery store he managed.

"I was standing with my feet about 3 feet apart," Mr. Evans remembers. "I reached around behind me, grabbed a case of dog food, started to stand up, started to turn -- and it hurt like all get-out."

Since then his back has been operated on six times. Mr. Evans, 49, has seen neurologists, neurosurgeons, chiropractors, and osteopathic and orthopedic physicians, but the pain has never stopped.

After his last surgery in March, his neurosurgeon, Dr. Allen Dukes, suggested he try hypnosis to manage his chronic pain.

When the pain becomes too much to bear, Mr. Evans lies down and takes several slow, deep breaths. Then he turns on the tape that takes him back to his favorite time -- a time when he could still go out in a boat and fish for bass.

On the tape and in his mind, Mr. Evans climbs in the boat, starts the motor and heads off to the best spot for bass. Then he turns off the tape.

For the next hour or so, he drifts in his boat, bobbing up and down on the waves.

When it's time to come back in to shore, Mr. Evans turns on the tape.

On the tape and in his mind, he starts the boat motor and heads back across the lake. He docks the boat, ties it up, and eases himself out of the boat and out of the self-imposed altered state that is hypnosis.

Then he turns the tape off again and returns to his real-time life, without the pain and spasm he has lived with for 15 years.

As odd as it may sound, you have probably hypnotized yourself many times. Remember the last time you were driving in the car, lost in a reverie? Suddenly you took stock of where you were, and realized that you didn't remember any of the road you had just traveled. You were in a self-induced trance.

Once you have learned how to deliberately apply the relaxation techniques, you can use that intensely focused attention in many ways.

As a medical adjunct, hypnosis can allow a person with asthma to open constricted airways, Dr. Lartigue said. For people with migraine headache, deep relaxation and intense concentration can enable them to relax the constricted blood vessels in their brains that cause the crippling pain.

For phobics, hypnosis can be a very powerful tool, according to Jeff Herring, a marriage and family counselor who employs hypnotic trances.

"People who are afraid of flying run pictures of trauma through their heads again and again," Mr. Herring says.

For them, the pictures and the fear begin long before they ever get on the plane.

To overcome this sort of fear, Mr. Herring helps his client into a hypnotic trance and then talks with him about the last time the client flew in a plane. In the highly suggestive state of hypnosis, the memory of survival outweighs the imagined horror.

Before the next flight, the client eases himself into that state of total relaxation and replays in his mind the image of the plane gliding in for a safe landing.

The same sort of techniques used for phobics can help the person who has tried unsuccessfully to lose weight or stop smoking.

Changing negative self-images is the most important part of changing habits that limit potential, according to Dr. Jim Healy. Dr. Healy said he uses hypnosis with about half his clients.

As we begin exploring ancient medicines and religions to better understand the connection between the mind and body, hypnosis is gaining more regard in the mainstream Western medical community. Physicians like Dr. Dukes, the neurosurgeon, are far more likely to refer their most difficult patients to hypnotists to help them take control of situations that have previously controlled their lives.

Charles Evans has come to think of his health in these terms: "You can't control your body unless you can control your mind. You've got to have the two cooperating. If you don't, your body is going to fight with your mind."

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