"There seems to be a connection between one's state of mind and immune activity," says Harold L. Pass, director of the psychiatry outpatient department at State University of New York
(SUNY), at Stony Brook. "We haven't found a way to consistently tap into it and enhance it in a way that can be measured, but this study is another very nice indication that this is something that needs to be explored and should not be dismissed."
The study, reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, looked at 33 medical and dental students at Ohio State University as they faced the dreaded first major exam of the term. All participants were screened to make sure they would be susceptible to hypnosis.
Blood was drawn from each subject before any relaxation techniques had been used and again three days before the exams. By this time, about half the participants (10 women and seven men) had started using self-hypnosis techniques alone and in formal group sessions. A control group went about life as usual.
The simple relaxation techniques included deep breathing, followed by progressive muscle relaxation, imagery and, woven into the imagery, suggestions focusing on the student's ability to concentrate and retain information, even how enjoyable it would be to sit down and study for that killer mid-term or final. These "interventions" lasted about half an hour each and took place every day for about a week.
At the end of the study, students who had used self-hypnosis techniques showed a 26 percent to 39 percent difference in the activity of T-lymphocytes, the white blood cells which are crucial indicators of immune response. The ability of the T-lymphocytes to respond to a challenge dropped 24 percent to 33 percent in control-group students compared with the relaxing group as exams approached. Students who practiced self-hypnosis most frequently showed the best immune responses.
It's not the first time scientists have observed such effects on immune response. A study about 10 years ago showed that breast cancer patients who attended support groups tended to live longer, suggesting their immune system's ability to fight the cancer was enhanced by the sessions.
The findings in the Ohio study may have applications for patients about to undergo surgery. One of the study authors, Cathie Atkinson, a clinical psychologist at Ohio State University, says some of the dental students who took part in the study are planning to use self-hypnosis in their own practices.
Pass says though encouraging, the study was a fairly small one and needs to be buttressed by more studies that have similar results. It also focused on people who seemed to have a clear susceptibility to hypnosis so the results can't necessarily be applied to everyone. "It's beautiful if it's true, but it requires follow-up with rigorous scientifically acceptable standards for replication," says Pass.
Atkinson is hopeful. "I am a big believer in mind and body," she says. "I think that we control our body's responses a lot more than we know."
What To Do
Pass says various stress-management techniques, including meditation, relaxation and hypnosis, seem to affect the sympathetic nervous system (blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tone) by changing an individual's state of mind and sense of well being. Although participants in the study received training in self-hypnosis techniques, you can learn similar techniques on your own. For basic instruction on some of the techniques, check Hypnosis Online, or Mental Help Net
The Hawaii Medical Library's Consumer Health Information Service also has links to various alternative medicine sites.
If you decide to get professional training or help, be careful. "There are people out there who are offering treatments that don't have any scientific validity," says Pass. "The danger is that there are untrained people offering unproven techniques using testimonials and anecdotal research, single case studies that are not scientifically acceptable.
Don't automatically assume that a treatment is not helpful, but it's certainly advisable to ask the practitioner for the data that shows this is an effective treatment. If they show you patient testimonials and single-case reports in non-refereed journals," this is not acceptable.
You can also check with state officials to find out if a practitioner is licensed.