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The Hospice-Hypnosis Connection  
by Paul Gustafson RN, BSN, CH

Do you know that you are hypnotized every day? Social hypnosis goes on all the time. We are constantly bombarded with information and messages targeted for our subconscious minds. Advertisers know this. They know that once a message reaches our subconscious it takes root and grows as an accepted belief. They also know that when we are relaxed and focused on a television screen our critical conscious mind rests and our fertile subconscious mind is open to receive their work, uncensored. Our conscious mind normally evaluates everything we hear and see everyday of our lives. Advertisers capitalize on this unguarded moment to convince us we need what they have.  

There are two ways messages can reach our subconscious mind. One is to just serve it up and keep your fingers crossed that the conscious mind will let it in. The other is to relax the analytical conscious mind allowing the subconscious mind to open up and become focused on what ever message is being offered. This way is more productive and ensures positive results.  

Hypnosis, whether it involves a hypnotherapist or the efforts of a Wall Street advertising firm, is based on this simple technique of achieving relaxed focus and offering suggestions to effect action or change. It can be as subtle as a 30 second television ad showing the Marlboro Man riding off into the sunset or as involved as a session with a hypnotherapist. It can be divisive or benevolent.

So what’s the hospice connection?  In ten years of nursing I’ve never seen a more attentive motivated group.  Once you earn your hospice families trust, get them more relaxed and focused you can nearly always dramatically enhance their ability to cope and to manage the daily changes and inevitable hospice surprises by what you say and how you say it.

Most people go into nursing because they want to make a difference. In hospice nursing the opportunity to make a big difference pops up everyday. Most hospice families are ready and eager to hang on every word the hospice nurse has to say. They want straight answers, guidance and empowerment. Seize the moment. This is what all nurses are looking for, to teach important things to people in need and get positive results.

Early in my career I realized that the hospice population was starving for a compassionate ear. After the shock of their diagnosis, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, busy doctors and nurses and then the ultimate hospice referral, this group always tends to have a few things on their mind. Listen to your families.

Not only is this helpful to collect information, but it’s also a cathartic process for them to experience. It puts them in position to hear you’re your helpful words. Finally they get someone who just listens. What a pleasant surprise. Your job is easy just ask open ended questions, get comfortable and let them run with it. When you think it’s time for you to speak, don’t. Listen a little more. Give them all the time they want.

This simple process of actively listening does three things. It supplies you with information, creates a trusting therapeutic relationship and more importantly it helps them to relax and focus. You can almost see the relaxation unfolding as they speak. This may not necessarily be obvious on your first visit but usually it is. There are, however, some families who haven’t had a moment of peace their whole lives and they are not about to start with you. So be open minded, realistic and patient.

Once you have your hospice family relaxed and focused, how you speak and what you say can offer profound impact and direction. You speak slowly, confidently, with direct eye contact and use positive affirming tones. One statement builds on the next. For example: “you’ve shown that you can manage his pain and there is enough medication in the house.” Any victory along the way is praised and added to your laundry list of positive review topics. Such as: “you did a great job repositioning him in bed, you’ve also made excellent decisions using the break-through medication and you know you can call us anytime.”

By packaging up distracting emotional debris you can better offer direction, validation and clarity in a way that supports their continued growth and success. The more order and control you create the more relaxed and focused they can become. The more at ease they are the more attention they pay to everything you say.  When your words and suggestions reach their subconscious mind they have more dramatic impact on their ability to cope and make difficult decisions while dealing with their own issues of grief. Your words become their words and their actions. Whether you like it or not you are in the position of authority and knowledge of all issues involved with this life transition. All eyes and ears are pointed in your direction so take advantage of this opportunity to position them for success.  

By understanding the principles of suggestion and how the conscious and subconscious minds work, hospice nurses can empower effective change with every stop they make. The repetition of supportive constructive suggestions and affirmations to those in a more relaxed and focused state of mind can have an enormous therapeutic effect. Good nurses know the obvious advantages of reducing stress and putting their clients at ease. By also practicing these simple communication techniques your hospice families will be much more autonomous, confident and in control during this difficult transition.


Paul Gustafson RN, BSN, CH runs Healthy Hypnosis in Burlington Massachusetts. He has ten years of nursing experience and eight years specializing in the field of hospice nursing. His in-depth medical experience offers a solid foundation supporting his clinical approach to hypnotherapy.
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