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Hypnosis

Using Hypnosis to Help Manage Physical Ailments

Hypnosis can be an effective clinical tool for the relief of physical symptoms.

Key points

  • Nearly everyone with chronic physical symptoms can benefit from better regulating their emotions.
  • In a minority of patients, psychological problems are the leading cause of their physical symptoms.
  • Self-hypnosis to help control emotional reactions can rapidly improve symptoms in some patients.

I learned about the importance of hypnosis as part of my practice of pediatric pulmonology when I recognized that, often, psychology played a major role in causing and relieving my patients’ physical symptoms.

Alexander Raths/Shutterstock
Source: Alexander Raths/Shutterstock

For example, my patients with asthma were more likely to complain of shortness of breath when academic pressures stressed them. Patients were more likely to present with habit cough when their social lives had been disrupted.

On the other hand, patients rarely reported physical symptoms on holidays as they were preoccupied with the festivities rather than their health issues.

I found that self-hypnosis could have a profound effect on many of my patients’ symptoms after 10 minutes of instruction about how they can use it to control their emotional reactions better. Some patients improved immediately, while others improved after several sessions of hypnosis therapy.

As a pediatrician and a pulmonologist, over the years, I expanded my use of hypnosis to children, adolescents, and young adults with any medical condition. I argue that nearly everyone with chronic physical symptoms can benefit from learning about its application.

In most cases, patients with significant physical discomforts develop psychological issues because of their symptoms. The psychological issues can then cause the physical symptoms to worsen. For example:

  • A patient with asthma might develop anxiety because he is afraid of being unable to breathe. Such anxiety could lead to worsening shortness of breath with an asthma flare-up.
  • A patient with irritable bowel syndrome might be afraid of traveling because she would not have easy access to a restroom. Such fear can cause abdominal pain to occur.
  • A patient with chronic pain might develop depression when his illnesses derail his life. Such depression can cause his perceived pain to become more intense.

In a minority of patients, psychological problems are the main cause of their physical symptoms. In these cases, the symptoms often provide subconscious solutions for problems affecting the patients.

  • A patient might develop vocal cord dysfunction that prevents her from speaking when she is afraid of disclosing uncomfortable information, e.g., which she worries might cause a negative reaction from a loved one.
  • A child bullied at school might develop stomachaches that serve the purpose of having an excuse from attending school.
  • A patient may develop chronic headaches because she has not dealt adequately with grief over losing a beloved friend. The headaches allow her to express her discomfort by talking about her physical symptoms rather than how she feels emotionally.

These patients can all benefit from learning how to calm their emotions with an associated improvement in their symptoms. Patients can even recover completely in cases wherein psychological problems are the leading cause of their symptoms, which are adequately addressed.

Because psychological factors are nearly always involved in patients with chronic symptoms, I believe that healthcare providers should address these factors early in medical therapy rather than once all of the standard medical treatments fail. For example, consider how the following patients would have benefitted from an early psychological intervention during their medical therapy.

A 14-year-old with vocal cord dysfunction developed difficulty breathing because her vocal cords spasmed and nearly closed when she inhaled. She was treated with medications for asthma, allergies, and acid reflux from the stomach. When she did not respond, she underwent a tonsillectomy. When she failed to improve, it was recommended that she undergo an injection of Botox into her vocal cords.

Finally, her symptom resolved after one session of hypnosis therapy when she was taught how to calm herself to prompt the relaxation of her vocal cords. Had she been taught hypnosis initially, she might not have required additional medical therapy.

A 12-year-old with asthma was treated with intensive asthma medications for 10 years, including oral steroids, which caused her to develop obesity and stunted her growth. Each time her oral steroids were discontinued, she ended up in an intensive care unit with a severe asthma flare-up.

At 12, she learned how to use hypnosis, and thereafter her asthma control improved greatly, as her symptoms turned out to be mostly related to her anxiety. Had she been taught hypnosis to calm herself early in life (which can be done with young children), she would likely not have required as much intensive medical therapy.

A 16-year-old with irritable bowel syndrome underwent numerous medical investigations and treatment with multiple medication regimens over 13 years. Nonetheless, he remained severely affected by his symptoms in that he could not get to school until mid-morning and could not participate in after-school activities because he was in so much pain.

His symptoms had largely resolved three weeks after learning to use self-hypnosis to calm his mind and gut. Had he been taught hypnosis earlier in life, he would have been spared a lot of trauma.

Takeaway

Patients who deal with chronic symptoms should ensure that any associated psychological issues are addressed early during a medical evaluation and treatment planning, especially if the symptoms fail to improve sufficiently with initial medical therapy.

Copyright Ran D. Anbar

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

More information about hypnosis and its use in the treatment for chronic symptoms is available in the 2021 book "Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center," by Ran D. Anbar. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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