Fibromyalgia sufferers know that their pain is not “all in their heads,” but since many factors influence the perception of pain, experts suggest that a means for coping with it may be developed using hypnosis.
Considered a complementary therapy to traditional medicine, hypnosis allows a person to participate in the healing process and take personal control over pain reduction.
In its simplest form, hypnosis involves inducing a trance-like state characterized by extreme relaxation, focused attention, and heightened susceptibility to suggestion. The two most common applications are the use of hypnosis to decrease sensitivity to pain (hyponeuralgia) and to numb sensation of pain (hypnoanesthesia).
Regardless of the application, the most important factor is the ability to focus attention. Research into psychological and physiological mechanisms supports the idea that the use of attention is what gives the mind power over the body.
It is the mind over body concept that researchers have been exploring since Viennese physician Friederich Anton Mesmer discovered hypnosis in the late 1700’s. In 1843 surgeon James Braid attributed the phenomenon to psychological rather than physical variables. Since then, hypnosis has proven itself to be an effective tool in management of pain and pain perception.
In a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, researchers described specific clinical applications of hypnosis that can make psychotherapy for pain management and perception briefer, more goal-oriented and more efficient. These include determining how susceptible an individual is to hypnosis, how to successfully integrate hypnotic suggestions and pain relief imagery, how to resolve unconscious sources of resistance to treatment, and how to reduce the emotional overlay associated with chronic pain.
Stages of hypnosis
In most cases, hypnosis consists of four stages. The first involves defining the patient’s expectations. The therapist will work toward the most realistic goals. In the second stage, the therapist helps the patient enter a focused and relaxed state. This leads into the third stage– both indirect and direct suggestions.
The third stage is considered the most important as the therapist focuses the patient’s attention by developing imaginary situations that may help achieve the goal of less pain.
The fourth stage involves posthypnotic suggestions that allow the person hypnotized to retain.pain reduction abilities outside of the hypnotic state. When in this final and deeply relaxed state, the subconscious mind is open to receiving the beneficial suggestions constructed by patient and therapist beforehand. Now the hypnotherapist can suggest changes in behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Only those suggestions relevant to the hypnotized person’s needs are accepted.
By maintaining awareness throughout the session, which can last 20-60 minutes, the patient is later able to reinforce the hypnotic experience independently. Experts recommend that numerous sessions be conducted to receive maximum benefits.
About 75% of adults are hypnotizable.
Real or parlor trick?
Hypnosis has been referred to by many as one of the great misunderstood treatments of our time, hurt by the public’s association of hypnosis with stage performances (images of the dangling watch trick come to mind) and bad sit-com episodes. But in reality, hypnosis has undergone rigorous scientific testing in modern times as researchers’ work to change the public’s perception of hypnosis as a parlor trick.
Although current research has not yet been able to show exactly why hypnosis works, it is believed that the brain sends out some sort of physiological signals that tell it to ignore pain. In the newest studies, researchers are setting out to prove that hypnosis works because how we experience pain is based largely on perception.
David Spiegel, M.D. and professor of psychiatry at Stanford University in California, recently concluded a study designed to determine whether hypnosis could modulate color perception. Spiegel observed that changes in subjective experience achieved during hypnosis were reflected by changes in brain function similar to those that occur in perception. This finding supports the claim that hypnosis is a psychological state with distinct neural correlates and is not just the result of adopting a role.
While the misconceptions about hypnosis will undoubtedly continue, experts are quick to point out that most of us have done it literally thousands of times without even realizing it – we call it daydreaming.
“Hypnosis is a form of highly focused concentration – like getting so caught up in a good movie you forget that you’re in a theater,” says Spiegel.