Hypnosis for the people

All doctors should know how to perform hypnotherapy on their patients, according to a US expert. Professor David Spiegel, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University, said the therapy had been shown to help patients deal with pain, and could potentially be used in many other situations, such as helping people cope with long-term illnesses.

Professor Spiegel told BBC News Online: “We have more and more people living with these illnesses who need help coping with them, and hypnosis is a safe and effective way to teach people how to manage their own response, how to take the edge off their pain, how to think through their anxiety and not let it overwhelm them.”

The Stanford scientist made his comments at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston. He teaches self-hypnosis to help people manage their symptoms themselves.

Different colours

“If they have pain, I’ll have them imagine they’re doing to the part of their body that hurts what they actually do in the real world when it hurts, whether it’s using a bag of ice cubes or applying heat.”

Professor Spiegel said studies had shown hypnosis did help patients. In a study of women with breast cancer his team is due to publish later this year, those given support plus self-hypnosis had half the pain of those not given that combination.

His team has also found evidence that the brain’s reaction can be changed under hypnosis.

A study of people classed as highly receptive to hypnosis looked at how colour was processed in their brains.

Real view

They were shown patterns, either in colour, or in shades of grey. But if they were hypnotised to see colour, when in fact they were looking at the grey pattern, they believed they were seeing colour and their brain reacted as if that were true.

Professor Spiegel said that studies showed hypnosis was a distinct psychological state, and it was not simply that the person under hypnosis was adopting a role suggested to them.

He added: “People who are hypnotised see what they believe. They don’t just tell you that’s what it is – it actually looks that way to them.” He is still looking for a “brain signature” which will show what happens in the brain when people are hypnotised.

By BBC News Online’s Caroline Ryan in Boston  Tuesday, 23 December, 2003, 16:47 GMT