Many practices are included under the general term of relaxation. Relaxation techniques are generally accepted as beneficial to individuals who are otherwise unable to sleep, in pain, under ongoing job-related stress, or recovering from surgery. Various relaxation techniques frequently are used in hospitals to help patients deal with pain or to help them sleep.
In the simplest form of relaxation therapy, the individual is taught to lie quietly and to consciously relax each part of the body. Beginning with the feet and progressing through the ankles, calves, thighs, abdomen, and so forth up to the neck and forehead, each part of the body is told to relax and the individual focuses his thoughts on the body part that is being told to relax. It is possible to feel the muscles of the leg or the arm relaxing under this focused attention.
The ancient practice of yoga is also considered a relaxation technique. The practice of assuming a specified position (the lotus position, for example), clearing the mind of the sources of stress, and concentrating on one's inner being for a short time can be beneficial. Following a yoga session, the individual often is less stressed and can order his thoughts in a more organized manner. Transcendental meditation is a variation of yoga that consists of assuming specific body positions and chanting a mantra, a word or two that is repeated and serves to concentrate the mind. This practice is claimed to clear the mind of stressful thoughts and anxiety, and enables the practitioner to reorder his priorities in a more relaxed manner.
Yet another variation on relaxation came into widespread use in the late 1960s. Biofeedback became a popular practice that initiated an industry devoted to manufacturing the devices needed to practice it effectively. Biofeedback is a process by which an individual consciously controls certain physiologic processes. These can be processes that normally are subject to thought control, such as muscle tension, or those that are not, such as heart rate. To effect such control, the person is connected to a gauge or signal device that changes tone with changes in the organ being controlled. This visual or auditory signal provides evidence of the effectiveness of the person's effort. The heart rate can be monitored by the scale of a tone or a blip on a small screen. The tone lowers in pitch or the blip appears with decreasing frequency as the heart rate slows. The goal is for the individual to learn to influence the signal in front of him and, having acquired this proficiency, to be able to accomplish the same physiologic changes without the visual or auditory signal. Biofeedback has been used successfully to reduce stress, eliminate headaches, control asthma attacks, and relieve pain.
Hypnotism, despite its use for entertainment purposes, also has a place in medical practice. Hypnotism was first introduced to the medical community in the late eighteenth century by a German physician, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), and was first called mesmerism. Mesmerism fell out of favor in France when a scientific committee failed to verify Mesmer's claims for the practice. The name was later changed to hypnotism (from the Greek word hypnos for sleep) by James Braid (1795–1860), an English ophthalmologist. Although technically hypnotism is not sleep, the name stuck.
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) adopted hypnotism into his practice in the nineteenth century. Early in his use of the practice he praised its benefits, writing two scientific papers on hypnotism and employing it to treat his patients. By the early 1890s, however, Freud abandoned hypnotism in favor of his own methods of analysis. It was not until the 1950s that the British and American medical societies approved the use of hypnosis as an adjunct to pain treatment. In clinical use, hypnotism is called hypnotherapy, and it is used to treat both physical and psychological disorders. The patient is placed in a trance-like state so that the physician may delve into the deepest levels of the mind to relieve such conditions as migraine headaches, muscle aches, chronic headaches, and postoperative pain. This trance-like condition can be induced by the practitioner or by the patient. It is achieved by first relaxing the body and then by concentrating the patient's attention on a single object or idea, shifting his thoughts away from the immediate environment. In the lightest form of hypnosis, the superficial level, the patient may accept suggestions but will not always take steps to carry them out. Therapists try to reach the deeper state of hypnosis, the somnambulistic stage, in which the patient is readily susceptible to suggestion and carries out instructions while hypnotized as well as after he has come out of the trance (post-hypnotic suggestion).
While in the trance the patient can be induced to ignore pain, to fully relax, or to carry out other beneficial suggestions by the therapist. Also the therapist may suggest that the patient can hypnotize himself when he needs relief from pain or needs to blunt his appetite. The patient is given a simple ritual to follow including specific words to say to place himself in a hypnotic trance. He will then convince himself that his pain has been relieved or that he has eaten a sufficient amount. Upon recovering his normal level of consciousness he will find that his pain is less or that he has no need for additional food.
Unlike portrayals of hypnotists in films, a therapist cannot hypnotize anyone who does not want to be hypnotized. It is essential that the patient and therapist have a close rapport, that the patient fully believes the practice will be of benefit to him, and that the surroundings are devoid of distracting stimuli. Even when in a trance, the patient will not carry out any act he would find morally unacceptable in his waking state. The hypnotist cannot place someone in a trance, for example, and direct him to steal a car or rob a bank. The subject will awaken with the shock of the suggestion.
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