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A physician named Herb Spiegel tells the story of his first weeks in a MASH unit in North Africa during WWII. Having practiced medicine in Boston for a time before the war, he was shocked at how little morphine and other pain medications the wounded soldiers he was treating needed. Here were soldiers with serious bullet wounds and the like, that except for the men with the most serious injuries, did not seem to be experiencing a great deal of pain. Puzzled, he asked another surgeon what was going on.
His more experienced colleague explained that the wartime fate of the American soldier was to fight until either the war was over, they were killed, captured, or injured badly enough to return home on the next troop ship. The soldiers referred to the latter such injury as a “million dollar wound.” The men Spiegel was treating felt lucky to have their injuries. They were happy!
A gunshot wound, burn or other trauma which would feel so catastrophic in civilian life meant the end of combat for them. They would soon be going home and could once again feel that they might live long enough to marry, have children, and lead a normal life.
The meaning of the injury profoundly affected their experience of it. Their belief about what happened made all the difference. Makes you realize how important beliefs are to our physical and emotional health and well-being.
But where does hypnotic trance fit in all of this? It’s trance (a state of great mental absorption) that can offer you the opportunity to know what it is that you in fact believe. It’s also trance that allows you to alter or trance-form undesirable or destructive beliefs, or better still, choose beneficial or healthful beliefs.
This occurred to Spiegel as well. After the war he devoted the rest of his medical career to the use of clinical hypnosis, which is the science and art of learning to use and intentionally influence a patient’s beliefs and expectations so as to foster a clinically beneficial outcome. His book is called “Trance and Treatment.”
Screaming for Alternatives
It was a dark and stormy night about 30 years ago when I came to know a 3 year old little boy named Collin who was having a bad night. I was asked to help. This is the story of how I got the idea to teach physicians and health care workers about the utility of clinical hypnosis in their practices:
It was 3 in the morning and Collin, his mother and I, met in a curtained area in an emergency room in downtown Baltimore. When I first saw him Collin’s arms and legs were firmly strapped to a thick board, his mother was holding his waist down tautly and the physician’s assistant who was about to suture a long gash above Collin’s left eye needed me to hold Collin’s head tightly and prevent it from moving. My face was about 3 inches from Collin’s face as his screams resonated throughout the ER.
When the procedure was over, I remember the ER doctor telling Collin’s mom that it would be wise to have Collin’s pediatrician remove the sutures since kids really never want to come back to the hospital after an experience like what Collin had gone through. I can understand - I never wanted to go back to a hospital after my experience holding Collin’s face still. Could there be a better, more benign way to implement treatments?
I was then and still am a clinical social worker with years of experience working with children and their emotional, behavioral and learning problems. I also was a student and later a teacher of the usefulness of clinical hypnosis for the helping professions.
A key element of the hypnotic perspective is to arrange expectations for the patient in such a way as to engage their imaginations to foster cooperation. For example I once presented at a conference on pediatric uses of clinical hypnosis. On a lark I spent an free hour in a crowded room of pediatricians exchanging techniques on how to to put an otoscope (used to look inside ears) in a toddlers ear. Apparently it’s not easy to do but many of them had devised artful ways to do it successfully and share with their colleagues. That is, artful ways to engage the child’s interest, curiosity and imagination.
Could clinical hypnosis offer an artful alternative to restraining Collin, letting him scream and freak himself (and the entire ER) out?
Thinking about it later, it occurred to me that each scream alternated with a breath. Perhaps each time he took a breath the time could be used to influence him in a benign, friendly, interesting way. A year or so later an opportunity arose in my family life for another way to handle a very upset child.
My 5 year old son, Michael, needed a bath one evening. As he was getting out of the tub he cried out in pain and I saw that somehow he had cut the bottom of his foot on something and it was bleeding profusely. He screamed and seemed to be panicking. My attempts to console him did no good and then I realized this was another screaming child situation that could be handled differently. I went over to him and about after his third scream I waiting for the breath and said something like, “you’re in pain and it must hurt a lot.”
No response! I gently reached out to pick him up from the tub and he screamed again and waiting for the breath I said to him “I know it must hurt but let me tell you, something really wonderful is now happening to the cut that we can soon see.” Another scream, another breath! “Let me have you sit on the side of the sink and we can watch together how the body starts to slowly stop the bleeding and create a scab over the cut.” He screams again, not quite so loud or long as I wet a wash cloth and dab it over the cut. He takes another breath as we both gaze silently at his foot in the sink as the blood flow is slowing down while I tell him to watch closely. I call out to my wife to bring a magnifying glass so we can really see coagulation happening.
A screaming alternative if there ever was one. An outcome that led to learning, amazement and wonder at how the body heals. Clinical hypnosis is a system, a body of knowledge and wisdom. Learning to look at illnesses and health related issues from a perspective of fostering wellbeing in the patients. Stimulating a patient’s curiosity, imagination, expectations in addition to preforming procedures, giving medication, etc.