Six Ways Hypnosis Can Help People with Cancer

7 minutes Written by Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD

If you are struggling with a new diagnosis of cancer or you have been living with it for a longer period, you are probably experiencing some emotional turmoil about your health and your future. You might also be having unpleasant medical procedures and physical symptoms that concern you, including pain, nausea, dizziness, and tension from stress and anxiety. Cancer can affect you physically as well as emotionally.

Having cancer can increase your chances of becoming depressed or anxious, and you may be facing existential concerns that make you question your desire to live. Grief may be another experience that you grapple with as your health and future are in limbo. Your family may also be experiencing anxiety and grief in finding out how to support you through this difficult time. This article is an overview of some of the ways that hypnosis can help you cope with cancer.

Why receive hypnosis for cancer?

As a complicated grief specialist, I have used hypnosis to help people with life-threatening illnesses to cope with their illnesses more effectively and have as much comfort as they can. Hypnosis can be helpful at any stage of the disease process (Wortzel and Spiegel, 2017), from early discovery to terminal illness. Hypnosis can help people change the way they eat and other health habits like quitting smoking, which can prevent cancer from developing or improve the health of early-stage cancer. It can also help people with the effects of radiation and chemotherapy, such as nausea, breathlessness, difficulty eating, and acute and chronic pain. Some of the uses for Clinical Hypnosis are listed below:

  • Reduce anxiety and depression;
  • Enhance control of the body through the mind;
  • Process grief about yourself and others, especially through finding meaning;
  • Increase coping skills by strengthening self-efficacy and ego strengthening; and
  • Greater longevity by improving sleep and reducing stress.

What is Hypnosis, anyway?

Hypnosis, when used clinically, is a versatile and effective tool to allow people to use their imagination while in a focused, often relaxed state. It uses principles of dissociation in a healthy way, as well as mind-body exploration of controlling perceptions, sensations, and

Hypnosis for anxiety and depression.

In a study on the efficacy of Clinical Hypnosis for terminally ill cancer patients, Liossi and White (2001) found that clinical hypnosis was effective in decreasing anxiety and depression, as well as improving the cancer patients’ quality of life. Some of the participants who received hypnosis said they felt more confident in handling their illness, more in control of their situations, and more accepting and even cheerful about their lives. Many of the participants could relax for the 1st time since their diagnoses, and some enjoyed the feeling of leaving behind their “sick painful body” and moving “freely anywhere I want, real or imaginary” (p. 154).

The hypnosis that the terminally ill cancer patients received in the study was focused on symptom management, pain control, increasing comfort and self-efficacy, as well as inner coping strategies. Hypnosis can help ameliorate both acute, surgical pain as well as chronic pain.

Enhancing the control of the body through the mind

Hypnosis can also be used in earlier stages of cancer to enhance the immune system and improve coping strategies so that you can fight the cancer more effectively. Hypnosis is not a standalone treatment technique, however. Cancer is a complex illness that requires a holistic multipronged approach. Nonetheless, when you have a sense of control over your body and you can enhance the connection between your body and mind, this reduces feeling victimized by your body, or by fate or whatever you blame for the cancer.

Hypnosis to help with grief about the death of others and your own mortality

Hypnosis creates a wonderful opportunity to use your imagination and bypass your usual way of thinking. You often rely solely on your rational mind, which is your conscious mind, to solve problems. However, this can be limiting and overly rigid. When you use hypnosis to address grief, the imaginative and creative part of your mind is allowed to help you cope with your distress. The hypnotist can use imagery, dreams, and other unconscious processes to help you cope with the loss of life and abilities. One technique that Wortzel and Spiegel (2017) used with cancer patients is a “split screen” where they asked clients to picture the person they lost on one screen and on another screen, picture something that the deceased left behind, such as advice, encouragement, personal qualities like courage. The client was encouraged to balance their feelings of loss with memories that they held onto from knowing that person.

During hypnosis, you can also find ways to make meaning of loss and your own life or someone else’s. It is a way of discovering your purpose on earth and what you want to leave to your surviving support system. Sometimes it is hard to access this when you are overwhelmed by emotion, but in the soft, gentle space of hypnosis, you can access a deeper meaning for your life. It can also be an exploration of the highlights of your life and what you enjoyed about being alive. You might find gratitude that you never felt before by being able to dispassionately review what has occurred in your life.

Hypnosis to increase self-efficacy

Sometimes you don’t realize what you’re capable of until you are severely tested by your environment or by serious illness. In those moments of extreme stress, you might forget times when you were strong, resourceful, and you overcame whatever was challenging you. Hypnosis can help you access those earlier times of strength and revivify the power that you have inside you to make the best of a bad situation.

You can think of ways that you have dealt with loss, trauma, anxiety, a depressed mood, a sick body, or the illness of someone close to you. In the hypnotic state, you are focused on your internal experience so you can dissociate in a healthy way from your current stress. You can dive deeply into previous states of positive coping, or learn new coping skills without the resistance of your “yes but” mindset. It can be very empowering to remember how you solved problems in the past, and to transfer those skills and adapt them to your current situation.

Sleep Hypnosis for Cancer Patients.

As you might imagine, hypnosis can be very helpful for encouraging sleep. In a relaxed, focused state, you can set aside the stressors that keep you from being able to surrender to sleep. You can also learn ways to compartmentalize the things that you are worried about doing the next day or the future, so that you can be more present and focus on what your body needs to do, which is rest and repair itself to the best of its ability.

Usually, you will receive a recording of the hypnosis session so that you can listen to it when you need to sleep or relax. When your body gets enough sleep, it improves longevity and your body’s natural ability to repair itself. The more you listen to the recording, the better you train yourself to go into hypnosis every time you practice.

There are so many ways that hypnosis can be useful when you face a life-threatening illness like cancer. I recommend that you find a therapist who has extensive knowledge and experience working with illness and grief, and who does hypnosis regularly.

References:

Liossi, C. and White, P. (2001). Efficacy of Clinical hypnosis in the enhancement of quality of life of terminally ill cancer patients. Contemporary Hypnosis, 18(3), 145-160.

Wortzel, J. and Spiegel, D. (2017). Hypnosis in cancer care. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 60, 4-17.

Avatar Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD

Written by Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD

Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD is a therapist in California who specializes in group and individual therapy.