HYPNOSIS...REWIRE YOUR BRAIN
IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD
Michael Smith, PhD, CHt
Parkinson's disease belongs to a group of conditions called motor system disorders, which are the result of the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells. Dopamine sends signals to the part of your brain that controls movement. It lets your muscles move smoothly and do what you want them to do.
The four main symptoms of Parkinson’s are: Tremor, which means shaking or trembling (tremor may affect your hands, arms, or legs), stiff muscles, slow movement, problems with balance walking. In time, Parkinson’s affects muscles all through your body, so it can lead to difficulty swallowing.
Parkinson's disease is both chronic (meaning it persists over a long period of time) and progressive (meaning its symptoms grow worse over time). A person with Parkinson’s may have a fixed or blank expression, trouble speaking, and other problems. Some people also have a decrease in mental skills (dementia).
At present, there is no cure for Parkinson’s Disease, but a variety of medications provide dramatic relief from the symptoms. Usually, patients are given levodopa combined with carbidopa. Carbidopa delays the conversion of levodopa into dopamine until it reaches the brain. Nerve cells can use levodopa to make dopamine and replenish the brain's dwindling supply. Although levodopa helps at least three-quarters of Parkinsonian cases, not all symptoms respond equally to the drug. There are also other drugs that do help relieve the symptoms of Parkinson's.
Hypnosis can, through the relief of stress, aid Parkinson's patients. But how far can we go? Can we change the brain? Can hypnosis do more than modest symptom relief? That is what I set out to learn.
The original thought was to set up a foundation, raise funds, and do a year-long comprehensive study using hypnosis with Parkinson's patients. Then reality set in. It is almost impossible to raise funds in any significant way to do research in hypnosis. Unlike pharmaceutical research, hypnosis will never make anyone rich. Charitable foundations are not particularly altruistic.
Not to be discouraged, I decided to go forward with whatever I could: working with Parkinson's patients pro bono. Even a small sampling with good notes and documentation would be useful.
Initially, I recruited four people as study subjects. But after explaining requirements of the study, they obtained a referral from their physician, completed several pages of intake, showed up for weekly appointments, and signed a release for everything to be documented on video. I ended up with one very dedicated patient.
John: age sixty-three; retired military; his Air Force neurologists willing to cooperate; eight year history as a Parkinson's patient and eager to be a part of the study. John presented with uncontrollable tremors. Stiff and uncertain walk. He was a tall, emaciated man with ashen skin and an expressionless, frozen face.
Any competent hypnotist can guide a Parkinson's patient into hypnosis and, through simple relaxation, see the tremors stop. Unfortunately, when you emerge them from hypnosis, the tremors tend to come back. Good short-term relief, no long-term results. The challenge from the very beginning was to create a lasting effect; to create long-term relief and control.
Our weekly sessions were slow at first. On his first visit, John had severe unpredictable tremors, a slow and uncertain gait, was unable to drink liquids and frequently required a feeding tube for nourishment. His speech was weak and halting. On that visit, I induced hypnosis, created a relaxation response, taught him a simple meditative technique and sent him home. When he returned for his second week appointment, there was no change. This time, while in hypnosis, I gave him tasks to do.
"As I continue talking to you, I want you to silently, in the privacy of your own mind, count back from one hundred in 2’s."
He achieved a beautiful state of relaxation that lasted even when emerged.
The next couple of weeks followed a similar pattern. His ability to relax was growing, and the effect was lasting longer. Still, there was nothing remotely resembling a breakthrough.
One of the reasons there have been so few controlled studies using hypnosis is because in using hypnosis, each individual subject requires adjustment of the process. That will always bring doubt to the results. If we were in a drug trial, it would be like using a different dosage of the trail medication with each patient. This would make it hard to measure results.
John's job in the Air Force was nuclear missiles. His mind wraps so easily around numbers that simple things like counting from ten back to one bore him.
On week seven, with John starting to create relaxation occasionally on his own, I started work on his shallow breathing. His breathing had been shallow for many years and seemed to be getting worse as his Parkinson's disease advanced. My instructions were quite simple.
"I want you to count slowly in your mind from 99 all the way down to zero. As you do that, be aware of your breathing. At ninety-nine, inhale deeply…ninety-eight, exhale thoroughly. Ninety-seven, inhale deeply…ninety-six, exhale completely…and follow that pattern all the way down to zero. On the odd numbers you inhale; the even numbers, exhale. Remain aware of your breathing and count your breaths.”
This method produced very good results. His breathing became stronger and deeper over the next few weeks.
Throughout this entire study, John was, of course, still seeing his neurologist. As happens with all Parkinson's patients, his meds were frequently being adjusted. By having John keep a careful log of his medications and his progress, it was easy to tell when the medications were causing problems. In spite of the problems created by changing medications, we continued to see steady progress. As his breathing improved, so did his sleep; as his sleep improved, so did his symptoms.
At week twelve, recognizing his improvements, I began seeing John every other week instead of weekly. Still, he was underweight, having difficulty eating, and had an unsteady gait. This was not acceptable!
Having gone through all sorts of relaxation exercises, self hypnosis lessons and meditative devices, I really needed to find one single trigger to help him control his symptoms.
It finally hit me. The one constant that could not be ignored was tremors. While in a deep state of hypnosis, I instructed John "whenever you see, feel or become aware of a tremor any place in your body at any time, it will signal your subconscious mind to relax your body." This instruction was repeated several times and expanded in subsequent sessions. It became "whenever you see, feel or become aware of a tremor any place in your body, your subconscious mind will automatically relax you and the tremor will disappear." I reinforced this, session after session, drilling this anchor into his subconscious mind.
From the very first time we used the tremors as a trigger, you could see a change in John’s symptoms. The initial results were significant enough to continue. Soon, you could notice John was eating well and gaining weight, he was able to drink and was getting color back in his face. Even his walk had become strong and confident.
When we started this journey, John's desire was to be able to sit at his computer and write a book. His symptoms were so bad he could not use the computer, talk on the telephone or do much of anything to give his life quality.
Now he's working on his book (about humor) and recently won an award speaking at his local Toastmasters club. He drives his own car (manual transmission). His life has quality.
When you do a study of any kind, it is your obligation to document everything you've done: keep very careful records, and in my case, I also use video. I have a collection of scripts created to work with Parkinson's and have gained many months of experience.
I am convinced that we, as hypnotists, can make a difference for Parkinson's patients. My experience with this one patient is not going to change the way medicine is practiced. Technically, a study involving only one patient proves absolutely nothing. But it is my sincere hope that sharing this experience with others will stimulate further dialog and experimentation using hypnosis for other serious medical conditions.
We give hope. We change lives.