Controversial technique claims long list of benefits, for childbirth to anxiety to burns
By Aimee Heckel
Camera Staff Writer
Posted: 06/08/2011 01:00:00 AM MDT
Janet Golden Balzer is about to hypnotize you.
She doesn't have a pendulum, swinging pocket-watch or a black and white spiral. And she promises she's not going to make you quack like a duck.
Hypnotherapists, like Balzer, can't make you do anything that you don't want to do, she says.
In fact, that very idea goes counter to the purpose of hypnosis, which Balzer insists actually helps clients gain more control over their minds and actions -- not lose control.
Even the word "hypnosis" is misleading, hypnotherapists say. The Greek word "hypnos" means sleep. But even though you might look asleep while hypnotized, you're tapping into a deeper, subconscious level of your mind -- in a way, an awakening, they say.
"We have so much power in our minds," Balzer says.
Balzer, a certified medical support clinical hypnotherapist, sits in her home office, on the border of Erie and Broomfield. The room looks like a regular study, with a leather recliner, an organized desk and ambient music streaming, something you might hear in a yoga class. As a medical hypnotherapist, she works in conjunction with doctors (not replacing them), most commonly to help with pain management, pre- and post-surgery, childbirth, chronic pain and fibromyalgia.
It's nothing flashy. Close your eyes and relax in the recliner. Relax your face, down through your hands and to your toes. Her voice is calm and continuous, as she talks about imagining a golden disc traveling through your body, cleaning and healing everything it touches. The imagery she suggests and specific strategies vary with each person and their intentions, whether to help quit smoking, have a natural childbirth, work through emotional trauma or -- and she says this like it's commonplace -- undergo surgery without any anesthetic or pain medicine.
If you're starting to hear ducks quacking in the back of your mind, wait.
Despite the controversial entertainment "stage shows," talk shows and movies about brainwashing, hypnosis by trained professionals is approved by the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association as a way to treat a wide range of issues, from physical pain to improving compliance with taking pills or following medical instructions.
Other claims include helping treat anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, menopause, trauma, abuse, burns, tooth grinding, insomnia, memory, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, weight loss, general stress, sexual dysfunction, phobias and fertility. Other hypnotherapists work with patients to try to overcome abuse, betrayal and conflict, or improve performance (in sports, theater, music or speaking), confidence, creativity, procrastination or career success.
"It can be used for anything you want to change," Balzer says.
Hypnosis for pain control is used by the Stanford Cancer Center. The National Cancer Institute reports that women having surgery for breast cancer who received hypnosis before the operation needed less anesthesia and pain medication during surgery and reported less pain, nausea, fatigue and discomfort after surgery.
The Tulane University School of Medicine asserts that hypnosis shortly after the injury can prevent a second-degree burn from becoming third-degree.
Multiple hospitals affiliated with Harvard Medical School use hypnosis to speed recovery after surgery. One Harvard researcher even reported that hypnosis made bone fractures heal several weeks faster than usual.
A study at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel found hypnosis made the embryo transfer of in vitro fertilization twice as successful.
Even NASA has taught its astronauts mind-over-body techniques to slow and speed heart rates and warm and cool hands without moving them.
The list of health pros who back hypnosis is long -- and so is Boulder County's list of practitioners, from hypnotherapists to hypnobirthers.
Still, Boulder Community Hospital does not offer hypnotherapy as part of its services, according to spokesman Richard Sheehan.
"The general response in terms of how we determine what services to offer is to first recognize that every hospital has limited resources," he says. "We can't offer every conceivable treatment. It's economically impossible."
So instead, Sheehan says the hospital focuses on services that require the resources of the hospital, like surgery, and others that there is a demand and need for, but that isn't being met elsewhere in the community, like providing services for people with HIV and AIDS.
He says a handful of women every year who deliver babies at the hospital use hypnobirthing techniques, but they learn them outside of the hospital.
"At this point, I'm not sure if there is a community need for hypnotherapy that is not being met," he says.
So what is hypnosis -- really?
Hypnosis is facilitating an altered state of consciousness to make subconscious suggestions to achieve a specific goal.
It claims to help mute the conscious, thinking part of your brain (the part that is wondering, "How can this be real? It sounds sketchy to me.") to communicate with the subconscious level (the part that makes your heart beat, blood flow and emotions arise). For example, you might think, "I want to have a natural childbirth," but subconsciously, you fear it will hurt and that you're not strong enough. Hypnotism aims to reprogram the latter message to believe, on an almost impulsive, non-negotiable level, that childbirth is natural and easy.
In fact 85 percent of women who prepared for birth using a hypnosis-based system called Blissborn gave birth naturally, advocates say. Blissborn techniques are taught by a medical support hypnotherapist.
"It sort of is positive thinking. But it's not will power," Balzer says. "That comes from the logical mind. You can talk yourself in -- and out of -- things for the moment. It doesn't have a lasting presence. We feed the subconscious a different scenario and transform a thought for life. That's different."
Hypnotism often includes guided physical relaxation, direct or indirect suggestions and visual imagery or metaphors. It is not designed as a cure, but rather a technique to help bring about an outcome.
Modern hypnotism encourages more patient participation ("What do you want to change?"), compared with the old-school authoritarian approach. In that, some advocates say that all hypnotism is self-hypnotism; you only reach that state because you want to.
Brooke Patterson says the closest comparison to describing hypnosis is meditation. Except instead of clearing your thoughts, you zone in on something.
Patterson, of Littleton, has received regular hypnotherapy from Boulder's Lisa Schiavone since 2007, to help her overcome emotional struggles related to her past. Schiavone, a certified clinical hypnotherapist, has been practicing for more than 22 years. She also incorporates astrology into her sessions.
"You're sort of in a dream-like state, so it's maybe easier to delve deeper into difficult issues. I think it's the disconnectedness," Patterson says. "When we're so conscious, that reminds us of the fears and whatever you're dealing with."
She says she was surprised that it worked.
"I expected what you see in movies. Maybe somebody rings a bell, and then you're in this trance state," she says. "It's really not anything like that."
And after several sessions, she says she found a "peaceful detachment" to her past that she had been unable to find through traditional therapy.
The change wasn't instant, she says. But over time, she says she began reacting differently and her relationships began improve.
"I forget that people are skeptical and fear it, because I'm so open to it now," she says.
Contact Staff Writer Aimee Heckel at 303-473-1359