On the mornings she undergoes chemotherapy, Jeanne Safer hypnotizes herself en route in the taxi.
She starts by closing her eyes, then rolling them up to the top of her head and down, all the while breathing deeply. "As I'm doing that, I'm saying to myself, 'This is a procedure that will save my life. I'm not going to fight it. I'm going to make it as easy on my body as possible,' " she says.
Dr. Safer, a New York psychologist who has a rare but curable form of leukemia, started out as a skeptic, but found that hypnosis helped put her at ease before biopsies, MRIs and several surgeries. She now uses it with some of her patients as well. "It's an excellent self-management technique," she says. "It gives me a feeling of mastery, a sense that I am participating in my own care rather than just being passive."
Hypnosis has been the subject of fascination, intrigue and ridicule for centuries. Now, researchers are getting closer to understanding why and how it can work. The mechanism may be similar to the placebo effect—in which patients' expectations play a major role in how they feel. Hypnosis, in turn, can help patients adjust those expectations to minimize pain, fear and disability.
The image of a stage hypnotist swinging a stopwatch and commanding a volunteer to squawk like a chicken has led to misunderstandings, experts say. Real hypnosis for therapeutic purposes gives subjects more control over their minds and bodies, not less.
"We can teach people how to manage pain and anxiety, " says David Spiegel, a psychiatrist and director of the Center for Health and Stress at Stanford University who has studied hypnosis for 40 years. "There's been this mistake in medicine that if you have a certain amount of tissue damage, you should feel this amount of pain. But many things can alter how much pain you feel."
Indeed, scientific evidence is mounting that hypnosis can be effective in a variety of medical situations, from easing migraine headaches to lowering blood pressure, controlling asthma attacks, minimizing hot flashes and diminishing side effects from chemotherapy.