It happens so often that it is unremarkable: A child has fallen and scraped her knee, and sits crying and distraught. Then, as soon as a parent puts a Band-Aid on the scrape, the child happily gets up and goes back to playing. What just happened?
Was the child just faking it and looking for attention? Does the Band-Aid have a magical healing property?
No and no. Rather, something about the process of putting on the Band-Aid allows a child to access the inner resources which enable her to calm herself and feel better. The distress is gone, even though the scrape is still there.
It’s not just small children with scraped knees who can benefit from this kind of ability and inner resource. Almost anyone can access them, although they may require some coaching and practice. This process sometimes goes by the name of clinical hypnosis. And it is a powerful way to address pain in young people.
Hypnosis has been found to relieve pain and chronic symptoms of many kinds, including abdominal pain, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, headache, back pain, and insomnia. It also can help people to resolve phobia and fears, such as of needle sticks or medical procedures.
Hypnosis may sound somewhat mysterious or suspect. Stage hypnotists contribute to this perception, and are one of the reasons that so many people come to a session wondering whether I might make them “cluck like a chicken.”
People often don’t realize that they are in and out of that same hypnotic mental state quite frequently. In hypnosis sessions, we simply encourage it, identify it, and use it to help people to reach their goals, whether it is pain control, a change in eating habits or other behaviors, or overcoming a fear or phobia. (If someone would like to cluck like a chicken, we can help with that, too.)
One of the main characteristics of hypnosis is focused attention. This is not so much like paying attention in class – it’s more like being absorbed in a video game or a book. With that kind of attention, time passes without notice. All of a sudden, half an hour has whizzed by, not just the “five more minutes” that had been promised.
In this hypnotic state, young people may use a different kind of logic and association than when they are in their more typical state of mind. Creativity is enhanced and new connections can be made between thoughts or ideas that were previously very separate.
A hand gesture may be linked to a sense of calm. An imaginary cape may be linked to a pain-free state.
Thoughts of the ocean may be linked to easier breathing.
At the same time, other ideas or elements which were strongly linked can be decoupled. Eating no longer has to be linked to a fear or expectation of nausea. Getting ready for bed no longer has to be linked to abdominal pain. A past injury no longer has to be linked to ongoing dysfunction.
However, hypnosis is not something that happens passively. No hypnotist can create an association or separate paired ideas in someone else’s mind – we just help people to do it themselves. If a person is not ready to make a change, hypnosis cannot force him to.
Think of a person who has been stuck in one room for a long time, unable to get out. Hypnosis is like showing that person how to open the door. But it doesn’t actually make her step outside. And sometimes, leaving that familiar space is scary enough that it takes some time and preparation. There may be other impediments holding a person back against his will, which must be addressed in some other way. But now he may have a plan or a direction to reach the door.
Or that person may just step out easily into the fresh air.
Many health professionals are trained in hypnosis, as are several of the providers working with CHYP. You can always ask your doctor or therapist for recommendations. Hypnosis can even be effective via telemedicine, making it more accessible to kids and their families.
You may be surprised by how easily children are able to use this tool and their imaginations to access a wealth of inner resources – no Band-Aids required!
Rebecca Cherry, MD, MPH, treats digestive disorders, chronic pain, and anxiety-related conditions. Her approach is informed by her medical training and years of experience as both a pediatric gastroenterologist and as a clinical hypnotist. Dr. Cherry has combined her training at Harvard, Vanderbilt, and USC with an integrative treatment style. She sees patients in person in the Philadelphia area, and via telemedicine in California and Maine.