From the couch cushions in an upstairs wing of the historic Santa Cruz Hospital, I hear the syrupy voice of Carol Jensen, Certified Medical Hypnotherapist, rising softly above a trickling fountain and the ever-so-distant traffic sounds of Soquel Avenue. I would have gladly stayed for an eternity. Or at least a few days. In fact, had I not just heard my name, I would have dipped into tranquil sleep. The woman knows what she's doing.
It was only for the sake of this story that my eyelids finally flickered open. And there was Jensen, founding director of the Center for Health, smiling as I fumbled for my recording device.
Hypnosis—and guided imagery, specifically—shares an important symmetry with many integrative healing modalities, such as yoga nidra (“yogi sleep”), acupuncture and meditation.
“All of these ancient modalities completely integrate with our minds,” says Jensen. “Everything starts with the mind. If you change your mind, you can change your life. Where the mind goes, so the body goes.”
If the convergence of the body and mind in healing sounds New Age-y to you, it probably won't for long. Over the past decade alone, clinical research has come a long way in confirming a very real connection between the immune system and the mind. And thanks to pioneers like the recently passed Candace Pert, Ph.D., who found (among other things) that brain peptides communicate with the immune system, Western medicine has begun to embrace this connection.
So, when Jensen promises “life change,” she doesn't just mean dropping a few pounds or becoming a better parent—although she can work on that with you, too. Jensen's practice extends beyond her private office, and into the cutting edge of cancer survivorship. (“Because as soon as you’re diagnosed, you’re a survivor,” she says.
A cancer survivor herself, Jensen specializes in surgery preparation and recovery, leading free, monthly guided imagery sessions for survivors at the local organization WomenCARE, and teaching classes at Dominican Hospital.
“Self hypnosis is simply sliding into the alpha and theta brainwave states,” says Jensen.
Using all of the senses, Jensen brings her patients out of the chatter of our alert beta brainwave state, and into a deep hypnotic trance, where one is both completely relaxed and alert. During each highly personalized session, patients might journey into their own body, imagining its healing on a cellular level, or imagining the smells, tastes, sounds and feelings of the things they’ll do when they are well again. Reinforcement is key, so patients record the session and listen frequently—even during surgery, where relaxation can be crucial.
But Jensen places an emphasis on taking the imagery into the dreaded areas too, like chemotherapy.
“I do like to reinforce that the modalities of surgery, chemo and radiation are helpful,” says Jensen. “These modalities are our allies, rather than thinking they're poison and harmful. If our minds go to poison and harmful, then that's the reinforcement, and that's not helpful at all…When we see the formulas, the mixture, the chemo, as our ally, the research studies show that the side effects are lessened.”
A study at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Research Institute at Ohio State University found that patients using chemotherapy-specific guided imagery had significantly more positive experiences with it.
Aside from reducing cortisol levels and anxiety, the mind may also be giving the immune system a boost: In a study at the Center for Stress Management in North Carolina, Dr. Vann Donaldson found that medical patients diagnosed with cancer, AIDS and viral infections saw a significant increase in white blood cells after undergoing guided imagery for a period of 90 days.
“I always tell people going into surgery to gather their support system, to have them send healing thoughts and beautiful images when they go into their procedure,” says Jensen. “Because they can feel that, and that will influence the outcome.”