*This article first appeared on The Huffington Post, Science Section. Used with Permission, 2016
In recent years, hypnosis has become an accepted medical therapy to address a variety of conditions, including childbirth pain and weight loss, which are concerns for many women. This increased popularity is probably due to research that shows hypnosis can produce profound improvements in health—though we know very little about the mechanisms by which these improvements are made. The word hypnosis comes from ancient Greek and means “a mental state like sleep” -but as a therapy, it isn’t so easily defined. Though hypnosis produces changes in the body, it appears as if these physiological changes occur through our own mental processes.
Hypnosis was first used medically in the mid-1800s as an antidote to pain during surgery. Anesthetics had not yet been discovered, and 50% of all surgical patients died from the neurogenic shock of extreme pain. Before hypnosis, surgeons could offer their patients only shots of strong alcohol.
Then, with the aid of hypnosis, the Scottish surgeon James Esdaile performed about 3000 surgeries between 1845 and 1851 in India without any reported patient pain and with a death rate reduced to 5%. At this same time, anesthesia began being used in the U.S., and the comparative ease of administering drugs meant that hypnosis was never again the pain killer of choice for surgeons.
Since Esdaile’s time, however, scientists have continued to study the positive effects of hypnosis for many medical procedures, e.g., postoperative pain, and pain related to childbirth. In fact a major university, Stanford Medical Center, offers hypnosis training for many medical procedures and conditions.
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in hypnosis as an aid in childbirth. A number of carefully designed clinical studies have shown that this method of reducing childbirth pain may have beneficial effects for both the mother and newborn child, including improving the infant’s condition and reducing not just labor pain but also the duration of labor, complications related to birth and postpartum depression.
A physician who conducted a study on self-hypnosis during childbirth reported that, in addition to shortening labor, the practice helped these women to be composed and self-confident during childbirth and to see it in retrospect as a gratifying experience.
Another study gathered a firsthand account from a woman who went through childbirth under hypnosis. The woman, identified as KG, tried hypnosis in giving birth to her second child after having had an extremely childbirth in the first pregnancy. She said she met with her doctor, who was trained in hypnosis, for several sessions and then listened to recordings of these sessions every day for the next two months.
When my labor started, I used hypnosis at home until my doctor said to come to the hospital. I was 7 cm dilated when I arrived and felt great. I remember my daughter’s delivery as calm and quiet. My husband and I listened to music and talked. When a contraction started, I put myself in a trance, and when it ended, I came out of the trance. I was fully aware, completely pain free, and in control of my mind and body. I even had much less tension between contractions, because I didn’t fear the next one. My delivery was calm, and my recovery was easy as well. I am a huge advocate for hypnosis in all forms…. I tell my friends they should at least try it.
The woman’s doctor also commented on the childbirth experience, saying, “Having attended both of KG’s deliveries, I noticed a marked contrast between the two, and the second was inspiring.”
As striking as these case studies are, there remains a question about how hypnosis actually works. One of the scientific enigmas that remains for hypnosis is that its mechanism for pain reduction isn’t clear. Unlike chemical anesthetics, which universally act on a specific part of the brain, hypnosis has differing physiological effects on various individuals. One study found that in the same procedure, hypnosis caused pain-reducing physiological changes for some subjects in the anterior cingulate cortex (the brain’s decision-making center) and for others in the somatosensory cortex (perception of touch).
This suggests that with hypnosis, the individual’s own mind has the ability to choose where in the brain the experience of pain will be blocked—either a decision making center or a sensory center.
As a neuroscientist, I consider the effects of hypnosis to be amazing. How is a mental image translated into a physiological reaction that is physically transforming? As one scientist stated, the existence of such a phenomenon “poses a serious challenge to much of the ideology of biomedicine . . . [that] disease is a mechanical phenomenon.” It suggests, rather, that our thoughts have the power to alter our physiology in many ways, including not only the function of the pain pathways in our brain, but also the manifestation of a genetically inherited disease. Our thoughts support healing in very powerful ways.
Naturally, after reading these studies, I was interested in trying hypnosis. Looking online, I found a local hypnotherapist and asked her to help me with weight control, another application of hypnosis. Throughout my adult life, I’ve struggled with what I consider to be an “extra” ten pounds. During our session, the therapist led me verbally into a mental exercise that ended with my stepping into a new image of myself. I felt fully present and relaxed—so relaxed that when the she said I could begin to become aware of the chair underneath me, I didn’t want to. This was when I realized that I had gone deep in this session.
I was able to lose the ten pounds in ten weeks, but more importantly, I was aware of a shift in my attention, away from cravings for my favorite foods and toward other, more playful ways of enjoying myself: I began to make more space for myself to be at ease. It is this, I find, that is making a difference in the way I eat. Of course, what I have experienced—a healthier lifestyle—isn’t the same as surviving an operation or childbirth without anesthesia or with reduced pain. I propose, however, that these outcomes have the same source. Each involves an internalization of a new way of being through the power of the mind. This can positively change our health and our reality.