Can hypnotherapy provide pain relief for cancer patients?

Hypnotherapy has the ability to provide relief to cancer patients as they try to navigate their situation. The help offered by hypnotherapy can range from emotional support to practical aid with sleep and pain management techniques. The fact that hypnotherapy can be utilised in such a variety of ways makes it a solid companion to more orthodox medicines and treatments. Each cancer patient will have a different experience and hypnotherapy has the flexibility to adapt to each client’s individual needs, tailoring their treatment and targeting the areas that are most appropriate to them.

Cancer is an incredibly complex condition and coping with the treatment can have distinctly different effects. Loss of hair, loss of weight, skin rashes, nausea and so much more can be experienced as side effects from the treatment. In turn, these can have a profound effect on the mental and physical well-being of the individual. When tackling some forms of cancer, the treatment can be ongoing over several months or years and can feel relentless, intrusive and debilitating.

Hypnosis can help in a range of ways. While this does not cover every aspect of cancer (as the symptoms can be so vast and not all cancer patients experience them all), it is an indication as to how many areas of this condition hypnotherapy can assist with.

The initial consultation

It is vital that, within the initial consultation, the therapist is able to gauge the emotional state of those seeking support, as well as their physical well-being. There are many aspects of cancer that hypnotherapy can support with and, so, it is essential that these are discussed in detail and a plan is put in place that accommodates all the needs of the client.

These could include:

  • their sleep pattern and if they are experiencing insomnia
  • levels of fatigue from treatments
  • their levels of resilience
  • whether they are experiencing nausea and vomiting from the treatment
  • how their appetite has been affected – this, in turn, could have a huge effect on their body if they are not eating the right nutrients. 

Discussing these physical effects is to be alongside gaining an understanding of the client’s emotional well-being, which could include; levels of irritability, levels of optimism, are they socialising, do they feel angry or depressed or anxious? Perhaps a combination of them all.

There is no rushing this initial meeting between the therapist and the client. It is vital that time is given so that both parties are able to understand the effects of cancer treatment and how hypnotherapy may be able to assist. It is an opportunity for the client to express themselves freely and begin gaining the help they seek. 

Pain management with glove anaesthesia

There is significant evidence to suggest that, once a client has gained a degree of pain relief, they are more able to process other aspects of their condition. Glove anaesthesia is a method that is very popular and can be learnt as a self-hypnosis technique so that the client is able to ‘administer pain relief’ outside of their therapy sessions.

This technique utilises the power of the subconscious to anaesthetise conscious pain by generating numbness in the hand. This can then be transferred to areas of the body that are in pain.

The benefits of managing pain are twofold. Firstly, the client feels the positive effect of pain relief. Pain can dominate their condition and prohibit them from other, more positive, areas of their life. If the intensity of pain is putting a patient off from seeing loved ones or leaving the house, then alleviating it can be hugely significant. 

The second benefit is enabling the client to use glove anaesthesia independently. This gives them a degree of control and management of their own situation. When undergoing so many changes due to cancer, it is beneficial to give the patient back some sense of control. Glove anaesthesia is one way of encouraging this. 

Insomnia and cancer-related fatigue

Insomnia can be a common symptom for people with such high levels of stress and anxiety. Some therapists may start by trying to tackle the anxieties, while others will aim to support with sleep. Addressing the amount of sleep a client is getting is of major significance, as the importance of sleep when healing is undisputed. 

Again, this is an opportunity to encourage some self-hypnosis or provide the client with a recording that they could listen to. The recording can aid them back to sleep or quieten their mind, allowing for periods of assisted self-hypnosis at home.

The deep relaxing that occurs during the hypnotic induction may automatically reduce fatigue, irritability and insomnia. 20 minutes of hypnotic relaxation can equal one or two hours of sleep.

– J Hadley and C Staudacher (1996)

In addition to insomnia, fatigue is a common symptom of cancer treatment and can be hugely detrimental to a client’s mental well-being. Tiredness can often reduce levels of determination to tackle the disease or live more ‘normally’. 

An increase in sleep and energy can support clients in reducing irritability and start to develop a more positive frame of mind. This can be challenging if the client’s cancer is terminal, but a lack of sleep will only compound the issues and make their remaining time (managing their condition) even harder.

Anxieties and stress

There are so many things that a client may be stressed or anxious about. It is, of course, entirely lead by the client and the therapist will always work on what the client wishes to address. It may be supporting them as their body changes; weight and hair loss are both significant factors in contributing towards someone’s sense of losing their identity. 

Equally, there may be anxieties over the course of treatment they are receiving. A fear of needles can exasperate an already traumatic time. These anxieties can have a substantial impact on a client’s well-being, and it is vital that time is given in order to address them and support the client in managing these additional challenges, concerns and fears.

Ego-bolstering and sense of control

As previously stated, encouraging a client to have a sense of control can be hugely beneficial. Giving anyone some simple techniques to manage their condition and situation can support them in feeling more independent and empowered. Helplessness can be an incredibly negative feeling and one that can easily magnify any negative feelings and emotions surrounding a diagnosis. 

Through some ego-boosting work, hypnotherapy can try and nurture a better frame of mind, encouraging more positive self-talk and how the client feels about themselves. Reflecting on accomplishments and successes of their life can encourage a more determined frame of mind and one with a stronger, more constructive outlook.

Hilard and Hilard (1994) summarise the value of hypnosis neatly: 

“Hypnotic treatment is not a cure for cancer, but it may improve the psychological and social situation of the patient and make the remaining period of his life more comfortable and agreeable than it would otherwise be. This prospect is one of the most humane promises that hypnosis holds.”

If you’ve been affected by cancer, whether you’re going through treatment yourself or you’re looking for information on behalf of a loved one, know that it’s OK to be experiencing difficult emotions. 

You may benefit from speaking to someone outside of the situation, such as a counsellor, or seek support via charity websites and communities, such as Macmillian or Cancer Research UK. Whatever your situation, you don’t have to go through this alone.

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Written by Jessica Chapman
Jessica Chapman is a therapist and teacher with a passion for the outdoors and being creative. She enjoys assisting others in making positive changes to their lives alongside working on her own aspirations.
Written by Jessica Chapman
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