By Lauren F. Friedman, published on September 1, 2010 - last reviewed on May 23, 2011
Ran Anbar, a pediatric pulmonologist in Syracuse, once watched a patient with severe milk allergies bring on an asthma attack simply by imagining the smell of cheeseburgers. He wondered: Could the mind be trained to suppress an asthma attack instead?
Anbar, now president-elect of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, believes the answer is a resounding yes. "If you asked me earlier if I thought people could think their way in and out of disease, I would say no," he says. "But you can train your mind to control a whole lot."
Hypnosis—a mind-over-body state of deep concentration and self-control—has been used in medicine for over a hundred years, and though there are some skeptics in the medical community, studies confirm it often works where traditional interventions have failed. The latest research shows that patients can achieve these curative effects through self-hypnosis, a simple technique that many master in a single session.
Hypnosis taps into the autonomic nervous system, which modulates processes like blood flow, breathing, digestion and—importantly—the body's immune response. Philip Shenefelt, a dermatologist in Tampa, has trained patients to apply hypnotherapy to inflammatory skin disorders. "When you just suggest that the treatment is happening, your immune system responds as if it actually were happening," he says. When hypnotized patients imagine a freezing sensation at the site of warts, the warts can disappear without physical treatment.
Some patients, like those suffering from certain types of vocal cord dysfunction, regain perfect function after one session, while others use self-hypnosis to temper long-term symptoms of everything from irritable bowel syndrome to asthma to breast cancer treatment (such as pain and nausea). "The appropriate question is not, 'Is hypnosis applicable to this medical situation?'" says Anbar. "It's, 'How is it applicable?' Because it usually is."
Got nagging symptoms that pills don't control? You should consult a physician, but self-hypnosis might help.
First, prove to yourself that your mind physically affects your body: Hold your palms four inches apart and imagine they're powerful magnets. They will come together until they're stuck. Now release them. Convinced?
Next, pick a one-handed gesture, such as crossing your fingers, to serve as your relaxation sign. When you make it, you'll imagine yourself someplace safe and tranquil, such as in a forest or at a beach.