When a patient is in a hypnotic trance the amygdala automatically shuts down the rapid alert system and turns off the stress hormones epinephrine, cortocotropin, and glucocorticoids. I have tried to talk to the amygdala in a number of critical cases including a 22-year-old woman with diabetes and a fear of hypodermic needles, 40-year-old male with osteoscarcoma and prostrate problems, and a 75 year-old man with kidney failure. In each case, the technique of relaxation through hypnosis has proven a highly effective tool in giving the body a chance to heal itself through its own inherent wisdom system. This is the part of the mind that knows how to make you breathe and send oxygen to your blood cells.
David Barlow of the Boston Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders claimed in a Newsweek article (Feb. 24, 2003) that it is actually possible to talk with the amygdala, a key component of the brain that deals with emotions like fear. Since this idea was consistent with the basic tenets of hypnosis, it intrigued me.
"Hypnosis is a way to access the untapped power of the mind and alter brain functions. In this state of intense relaxation and concentration, the mind is able to focus on positive suggestions which can be carried out at a future time. These subliminal messages are surprisingly powerful.
"The mind is like an onion. The outer layer, or conscious mind, deals with intelligence, reality, and logic. The inner mind is concerned with emotion, imagination, and memory, as well as the autonomic nervous system which automatically controls our internal organs (i.e., how we breathe, send oxygen to our blood cells, or walk without using the conscious mind.) The internal mind is on autopilot, reacting to the dictates of the pleasure principle. It seeks pleasure and avoids pain" (Warren, 2003, pp. 175-6).
It is these characteristics that make hypnosis a highly effective therapeutic tool in dealing with a wide spectrum of mental and physical disorders. When a therapist is doing hypnosis, the amygdala is turned down. Therefore, I call this "talking to the amygdala." The hypnotist can actually relax the autonomic nervous system, shutting down the usual "fight, flight, or freeze" response and curtailing the trigger that sets off secretion of the pituitary and adrenal glands. This gives the body a chance to build up its immune system and reduce trauma (Frank and Mooney, 2002) in many chronic illnesses (i.e., irritable syndrome, bulimia, cancer, high blood pressure, and Parkinson's disease.) Even the Wall Street Journal (Friedman, 2003) has documented how hypnosis has entered the mainstream and is using trance states for fractures, cancer, and burns and speeding recovery time.
Dr. David Spiegel, Stanford University researcher, speaking at the 54th Annual Conference of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, November, 2003, in Chicago reminded us that although we don't fully understand how it works, there is significant evidence that hypnosis can be effective in helping people reach into their own unconscious resources to solve problems normally beyond their ability. Not only does it work, but it often succeeds where modern medicine has failed.
That evidence continues to pile up. Hypnosis is now being used in dentistry, fertility, childbirth, allergies, eating disorders, headaches and improved academic and sports performance. Eleanor Laser, PhD. assists physicians like Elvira Lang, MD by performing hypnosis and analgesia during operations at the Harvard and Iowa University Medical Schools. Hypnosis is not sleep, but an altered state of consciousness in which a person accesses that part of his or her mind that is capable of adjusting the problem without the conscious, thinking mind directing it.