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Mind Body Spirit


The Open Mind

Despite Hollywood stigma, hypnosis is beginning to assert its place in Western medicine

By Amy Halloran

You may know hypnosis from the movies and associate it with the phrase “You are getting very sleepy,” droned by an untrustworthy man to a curvaceous young woman. Also required for the scene is a gold watch swinging like a pendulum. Images like this have fed the public fear of predatory mind control, yet the field’s stature and acceptance are growing beyond this stereotype.

“Hypnosis, at this time in history, is somewhat like chiropractics was maybe 30 years ago,” says George Guarino, a practicing hypnotist.

That is, hypnosis is gradually losing its negative reputation and gaining a positive one, but the battle will be long. The American and British Medical Associations acknowledged hypnotism’s usefulness as a tool in psychotherapy in the 1950s, but the cultural idea that the practice is a kind of voodoo persists even as medical uses for hypnosis are expanding. The use of hypnosis by professionals trained in psychological and psychiatric frameworks is becoming fairly common, and, for the sake of classification, it might fall under the umbrella of behavioral modification or positive thinking.

For example, the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine is part of Massachusetts General Hospital, and its doctors study and use hypnosis along with a battery of techniques to address a variety of conditions, including but not limited to anxiety, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and pain management. Within alternative and integrative medical circles, such as Dr. Andrew Weil’s School of Integrative Medicine, the use of hypnosis is widely embraced. Perhaps the best sign that hypnosis is growing out of the clichés that surround it is a fact reported by Business Week in early 2008: Corporations were paying big money to business coaches who used hypnosis.

Yet, Guarino was warned as he studied to be a hypnotist that the methods he was learning would be popularly dismissed. Now, he finds that skeptical attitudes are decreasing. Most people who seek his help usually do so because they’ve witnessed friends and family successfully using hypnosis. Typical goals are stopping smoking, losing weight, overcoming fear of public speaking and improving sports performance, but he’s also working with people on their test-taking skills.

Barbara Davison, president of the Capital Region Chapter of the National Guild of Hypnotists, got interested in hypnosis when she wanted to stop smoking.

“My whole family smoked, and my mother had lung cancer, so I decided to do this because every time I stopped at the house she knew I had cigarettes and I felt guilty as hell,” Davison says. “I stopped with one session in 1988. I haven’t had a cigarette since.”

After she had brain surgery in 1993, Davison had time to find a hypnosis program, and she earned a bachelor’s and doctoral degree in clinical hypnotherapy from the American Institute of Hypnotherapy in Santa Ana, California.

Davison became a registered nurse in 1959, worked 28 years in psychiatric mental health, and about 25 years in medical surgical nursing. She has incorporated hypnosis into her work for about 15 years, and now works in private practice as well as through Northeast Women’s Health Center.

“Many of the doctors refer patients for pain management, smoking cessation, weight loss, fears and phobias, anxiety, stress management,” she says. “I treat men, women, teenagers, college students, for motivation, test taking, for sports performance.”

So what exactly is hypnosis?

“Every day,” says Guarino, “people are going in and out of hypnosis and experiencing the benefits of it, when they’re getting lost in a book, for instance, and finding the time fly by, or when they’re driving down the Northway. They get on at a certain exit and put themselves on remote control and let it all happen, and they really don’t have to be consciously thinking what they’re doing, drifting away into a light form of hypnosis.”

Davison employed self-hypnosis herself before she knew its name.

“I was a single mom with three teenagers. After dinner I would sit down and put the TV on to the news, and I would sit with my eyes closed for a half-hour. I didn’t know I was putting myself into trance, but I was,” she says. The habit refreshed her and allowed her to function throughout the evening.

The difference between these forms of hypnosis and using a hypnotist is, of course, the setting and the intention of change.

“The definition that I use is to bypass the critical factor of the conscious mind and establish thought and thinking,” says Guarino. “To bypass the critical factor means that your conscious mind, your ego, is moving aside for a moment, and I’m able to talk to your subconscious mind.”

A hypnotist can formulate suggestions to help you achieve your goals, whether it be to stop smoking, conquer a crippling fear, or have a pain-free childbirth. Davison has helped more than 200 women practice hypnobirthing, which is a form dedicated to reframing the way women think of labor and delivery, as a pain-free, rather than painful experience. Not all of those women had success with the process, but not everyone who is hypnotized to stop smoking will quit either.

“Hypnosis works if you allow it to work,” said Davison. “It takes a leap of faith, but there’s absolutely everything to gain and nothing to lose.”

D for Deficient

Medical studies increasingly suggest the importance of vitamin D, a sun-derived nutrient we could all use a little more of

By Amy Halloran

A few years ago, sleep apnea seemed the medical problem of the moment. Today, it’s vitamin D deficiency. If you haven’t been diagnosed yourself, ask your friends and relatives. There’s a good chance someone in your circle has come up short of the vitamin. Why? Because we live so far north that we cannot get enough of the sunshine vitamin year-round.

“If you live north of Atlanta, you can’t possibly, especially in the winter, get enough sun to make enough,” says Nancy Campbell, a professor at RPI who was recently diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency. “You have to have a substantial part of your body exposed to the sun, like your arms or your legs, in order to make enough. You have to be out in the sun for 10 minutes or so before you start production of vitamin D, and then you have to be in the sun for 10 minutes or more after that to make an adequate amount. You can’t really store it. So you can’t really do that in this climate.”

You can’t make vitamin D by sitting in a sunny window either, because glass breaks up the necessary rays. The body’s ability to synthesize the vitamin weakens as you age, and is also limited by pigmentation, which interferes with production. Food sources are minimal; even though milk, orange juice and some cereals are fortified, you’d have to consume monumental amounts to make up for what you could get from the sun. Given the fear of skin cancer, and our cultural preference for indoor lifestyles, we just are not putting ourselves in a position to let nature take its course, even in summer.

“I’ve been one of those people who believes that you should be able to get all the vitamins and minerals you need from food, so this is really the first time I’ve been convinced that’s not true,” Campbell says. “I’ve become a proselytizer for vitamin D.”

She’s not alone in telling people to pay attention to this nutrient. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published an editorial in 2007 calling for an increase in recommended dosages, based on numerous studies they’d published that showed the 400 IU suggested for adult intake to be insufficient. Studies examining the link between vitamin D and overall health, and its connection to specific diseases, are filling the medical literature. It’s thought to play a role in autoimmune diseases such as Rheumatoid arthritis and Multiple Sclerosis, cancer prevention and survival, hypertension, osteoporosis and diabetes. Doctors in Rochester just released findings from a study suggesting there may be a link between vitamin D deficiencies and cardiovascular mortalities in African-Americans.

“The recommended daily allowances are being rewritten for vitamin D. I believe we’ll see new numbers this year,” says Dr. Jeffrey Ryan, a family practitioner with some experience in integrative medicine. “The first time I remember hearing a talk about vitamin D was from a Canadian physician at a pain conference. It fell off my radar and now it’s kind of included among the things one does for a mood disorder, either Seasonal Affective or mild depression.”

Ryan also notes that the vitamin is considered relevant to people suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and fibromyalgia.

In the past, vitamin D had been mainly seen as important to calcium absorption. Deficiencies can result in rickets or osteomalacia, a softening of the bones. Rickets is the name for the disease in children, and it was largely eradicated by food supplementation, but is creeping up again. Osteomalacia can begin as pains in the lower back and thighs. This is what initially sent Campbell to the doctor.

“I was experiencing what I thought was the onset of arthritis and I ultimately found out that it was both Lyme disease and a vitamin D deficiency,” she says. The first problem was solved with antibiotics, but the second is lingering. She’s been supplemented with vitamin D for six weeks, and while she has more energy, she is still not back up to speed after experiencing fatigue that she described as “bone-crushing.”

“It’s not my area of expertise, but it’s a deficiency that can cause generalized symptoms that can be misdiagnosed as depression and as psychosomatic,” adds Campbell, who is a historian of medicine. “For many years, women were diagnosed with mental illness, and as I look back, I think it could very easily have been vitamin D deficiency, perhaps complicated by something else.”

Campbell is taking vitamins (2,000 IU a day) she got over the counter, but many people have levels that demand a prescription-level dosage of 50,000 IU once weekly. In alternative medical circles, supporters champion its use at higher dosages than advocated in Western, or allopathic, medical circles, and vitamin D is now taking the place once held by vitamin C, high doses of which have been touted as a cure-all for the common cold and other ailments.

So, should you run to the store and grab a supplement? Yes and no. The numbers for safe and effective dosage are in debate, and some nutritional experts recommend taking 1,000 to 2,000 IU a day. Still, you should work with your doctor to find out if you have a significant deficiency, and how you should address it.

Wanda Burch

Photo: B.A. Nilsson

What Dreams May Bring

A breast-cancer survivor extolls the virtues of dream therapy as a technique for diagnosing and treating disease

By B.A. Nilsson

Last weekend, the Annie Appleseed Project finished its third annual Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies conference in West Palm Beach, Fla., where Wanda Burch conducted a workshop titled “Dreams and Their Meaning.”

“The conference brings together scientists and doctors and many cancer survivors, all exploring alternative therapies through science,” says Burch. “And at one point I was sitting with a group of women who were describing how they survived cancer. One woman, who’d gotten chemo, ended up yelling at another one who didn’t, and neither was going to change the other’s mind. So we still have a long way to go.”

Burch is herself a 20-year survivor of breast cancer. The experience led her to write She Who Dreams, a memoir describing her discovery and use of dream therapy, a practice she pursues today as a writer and speaker from her home in the Montgomery County town of Glen. (Her Web site is at

It started in 1988 with a dream journal. Burch is site manager at Johnstown’s Johnson Hall, and there she met author Robert Moss, who was writing a book about Sir William Johnson. “We talked about dreaming, especially about Iroquois dreaming, and he told me to keep a journal and follow how my dreams fit together.” Some of the dreams she recorded were uncomfortably unpleasant, dealing with journeys she couldn’t understand. “At the same time, I began to feel stabbing pains in my left breast. Now, the first thing a doctor will tell you is that pain is not part of cancer. I told my gynecologist about this, who ordered a mammogram that showed nothing.”

Burch’s father, who had died the year before, appeared in a subsequent dream. “He was dragging a doctor from the Mayo Clinic into my bedroom, shouting, ‘You have cancer! Do something about it!’” Her gynecologist ordered an ultrasound. “It was ambiguous, so I was told to wait six months. I said I wouldn’t. She got furious and asked if I wanted a biopsy. Yes.”

After being referred to Dr. Lyle Barlyn, a surgeon, she told him of the dreams she’d recorded. “Without flinching, he asked if I’d dreamed the location of a tumor. I told him about a dream in which I held a cone-shaped breast, which I turned over and saw within it a dark vial of liquid. I took the breast to a bathroom sink and washed the dark liquid down the drain. Dr. Barlyn handed me a felt-tip pen and told me to draw the location on my breast. He did a needle biopsy there and that’s where the most resistance was.”

The surgeon also told her to take this information she was being given and “‘do something about it.’ I didn’t know what he meant,” she says, “but I went home and thought about my dream and decided to make it a center of meditation. I think, on some level, I was realizing that the image of that cone-shaped breast could generate a healing response in me.”

She discovered that she had an aggressive, fast-moving cancer not always visible on a mammogram. Although she chose a traditional treatment of surgery and chemotherapy, each stage was accompanied by her own aggressive meditation and imagery, to which she credits a resistance to the chemical side effects so strong that it astonished her oncologist.

“So my treatments were over, I was out of the woods, and then I had my most terrifying dream yet, one in which some kind of a messenger appeared and said, ‘You’re still going to die.’ And it was going to happen when I turned 43, which was only a few months away. By this time, I had learned that you can create a request for a dream. So every night before I went to bed, I said to myself, ‘OK, I need to go beyond that messenger.’ The night before my 43rd birthday, I dreamed that I was moving up the side of a mountain, and found myself in the presence of a blazing light. I begged for my life and I was given a contract to renew. And my sense about it was that I was being given more time and had to do something with that time. So I became involved with advocacy groups for breast cancer survivors.”

Burch got involved with Project LEAD, the National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund’s science training course, and has gone on to become one of the peer-review specialists for the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program. She also has joined with her old friend Robert Moss to participate in many of the dream workshops he offers.

“I spent most of my year with cancer learning that dreaming can be an important part of the healing process for me and for anyone. It’s there for all of us, to take that imagery and use it. Paint it, write poems, do anything that actively places those dreams out front as part of our healing kit. And that’s what I continue to do.”

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