Hypnosis Helps Patients Control Stress And Anxiety, UF Researchers Say

August 3, 2000

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Hypnosis is often thought of as losing control because of the Hollywood stereotype: “Look into my eyes, you are getting sleepy and you’re falling under my spell.”

But a team of University of Florida researchers is finding that learning self-hypnosis actually gives a patient greater control over the stress, anxiety and pain of medical operations and childbirth.

A study directed by UF counseling psychologist Paul Schauble found that women who learn hypnosis before delivering babies suffer fewer complications, need less medication and are more likely to have healthier babies than are women without hypnosis.

And in an ongoing pilot study, Schauble’s preliminary results show hypnotized patients with hypertension reported being able to make lifestyle improvements that can lower blood pressure.

Schauble, who is presenting results of the studies Friday (8/4) at the American Psychological Association annual conference in Washington, D.C., said that although hypnosis has been used in medicine before, it typically has not been done in a group setting or to prepare patients for treatment as UF researchers are doing.

“Training patients in hypnosis prior to undergoing surgery is a way of helping them develop a sense of control over their stress, discomfort and anxiety,” he said. It also helps them better understand what they can do to bring about a more satisfying and rapid recovery, he said.

“We’ve found, in working with individual patients, that they often feel literally stripped of control when they go into the hospital,” he said. “The surgeon may do a good job of explaining the surgery, but patients’ anxiety may make it difficult for them to absorb or comprehend. This can result in undue apprehension that can create complications or prolonged recovery.”

A common technique to teach people to enter hypnosis is visual imagery, where hypnotic suggestion helps patients to imagine they are someplace else, Schauble said. For example, a patient may be induced to walk through the winter woods feeling a brisk breeze and seeing a heavy snowfall. If asked to bury their hand in the cold snow and then press it against their jaw, the patient may develop a numbness that can reduce the need for anesthesia in dental surgery, he said.

Children make excellent subjects because they spend more time using their imaginations, but with practice most adults can learn how to enter into a therapeutic hypnotic state quite easily, he said.

Schauble’s first study involved adolescents getting prenatal care at a public health clinic. A group of 20 patients who received hypnosis preparation were compared with 20 who were given supportive counseling and 20 patients in a control group who received only the standard prenatal care. None of the women who received hypnosis required surgical intervention in their deliveries, compared with 12 in the supportive counseling group and eight in the control group, he said.

“Patients who are prepared for labor and delivery in hypnosis are more likely to absorb and benefit from information because they are in a relaxed, highly focused state,” he said.

Fewer birth complications mean less need for surgical intervention or medication for the mother, and less likelihood an infant will spend time in intensive care, he said.

In his current pilot study, three of four patients using were able to reduce sodium intake, increase exercise, lose weight and better manage tension, all keys to lowering blood pressure, he said.

“It’s a small sample, but with very encouraging results,” Schauble said, adding that he plans to expand the sample group as the study continues during the next year.

People in the medical profession may not naturally think about how to involve the patient as an active partner in the treatment process, Schauble said. “Our physicians and nurses are so thoroughly trained in a variety of stunning medical technologies,” he said, “that there is less emphasis on understanding the psychology of the patient.”