On Language and Healing

Ah, human perception. So varied, so quirky. Ya gotta love it.

Our psyche is a somewhat fragile construction. We are shaped, uniquely and individually by our experiences. However, we have an unfortunate tendency to focus on, and to recall, our negative experiences, so that our positive experiences do not get equal airtime in our memories.

When communicating with others, we also seem to have difficulty in discerning the intent of what someone else wishes to convey to us. And, to complicate this further, we have a tendency to be extremely literal in our interpretation of that communication, and we get caught up by our personal filtering systems for everything that we see, and hear, and feel. This can obviously work to our detriment if these perceptions are framed in negativity or poor self esteem.

Since clear communication is the essence of all human interaction, this is an important consideration for the start of the healing process.

Let me give two examples of how important and tenuous this communication can be and how critical our understanding of the details of language is to that process.

Many years ago, while working in the emergency room of a small hospital, a 40 year old Native American was brought to us by ambulance. He had been observed falling to the ground on the main street of his town, and was found to be unconscious. Emergency medical personnel were on the scene immediately, and CPR resuscitation provided, and delivered for the long one-hour ride up to our hospital. By the time he arrived at our facility, he was breathing normally, and had a good pulse and blood pressure. I examined him carefully, but discovered nothing wrong with him.

I queried him in as much detail as I could as what had happened, but he was reluctant to discuss it. Finally, he admitted that he had been told that he was dying, that he was terminal, and that he decided to “leave” before he began to suffer. Since he appeared healthy, I was baffled by his story, and pressed him for the details of how he had learned that he was dying.

He finally told me that several weeks prior, after having had a six-month bout with a skin condition called eczema he went to see a local physician who examined him and told him “there was nothing more he could do for me.” Now, what the physician meant (I presume) was that eczema was a fairly common and mild condition, and as a family physician and not a dermatologist, the options open to that physician seemed limited at that time. But the words spoken were: “there’s nothing more I can do for you”. Clearly the patient interpreted these words to mean that he was dying, and after contemplating his fate for a few weeks, decided to pull the plug early.

Hoping I now understood what had happened, I made a bargain with the patient. If he remained alive, overnight, at our hospital, I would run every reasonable x-ray and test we had available, and show him every report. If there was truly evidence that he was terminal, I promised him I would guard the door of his room, and not interfere with whatever spiritual process he used to “leave.” Reluctantly, he agreed. I kept my part of the deal, and by mid-morning we had lots of clinical evidence that he was, indeed, a healthy man. He left the hospital to re-join his family, and I was pleased to get a yearly Christmas card that updated me on how well they were doing.

A second story that emphasizes the power of language also goes back many years. Again, I was working at that same emergency room one night, when a 55 year old man came in with severe back pain. After going over his exam carefully, I was pretty sure he did not have a ruptured disc, but tight muscles over the entire back area. At that time in my career, I was in the throes of my infatuation with hypnosis, and I offered him a session to see if we could take care of his pain.

I induced a hypnotic trance fairly rapidly, but at that time in my understanding of hypnosis I (and many others) were under the impression that a trance state was a variety of sleep, so I told him “When you wake up from this state of sleep, you will be completely relaxed, comfortable and healthy.”

When he opened his eyes, he reported no improvement whatsoever. I gave him a prescription for pain medication and he went home.

The next morning, I was eating breakfast in a local café, and this same gentleman came in and saw me, and came right up to my table. I was ashamed and embarrassed, because in a small town, half of those eating breakfast knew me, and I was certain that he would loudly proclaim to the world what a silly man I was, to imagine that hypnosis could possibly take his pain away, and that my pathetic little attempt to do so had resulted in no benefit whatsoever.

To my surprise, he pumped my hand and thanked me over and over again for how effective the treatment had been. I was bewildered, since he left the emergency room with no relief of pain at all. And then he said the magic words, “When I woke up this morning, from my state of sleep, I was completely well.” Ah, that was the key. I had misused the word sleep.

That experience crystallized for me the critical importance of language in healing. The precise and exact use of language carries enormous power. Used properly, with consciousness, it can augment the healing experience. Used thoughtlessly, it can undo a great deal of good intentions.

For a long time I have urged all health care providers (and anyone else that wants to communicate clearly) to study hypnosis. Even if they never induce a “trance” state in anyone, if they learn to monitor their own language, movements, voice and gestures they will add immeasurably to improved patient compliance and better results.

One last example for now: For several years I worked as an Assistant Director of a Family Practice Residency program in Duluth, Minnesota.

Part of my job was to videotape residents in their interactions with patients, so that we could review those interactions and teach them how to communicate more effectively.

Young residents have a tendency, because they are still so new at the practice of medicine, to try to impress their patient with how much they know. When a prescription is given to the patient at the end of the visit, and the patient asks: “Doctor, does this have any side effects?” the resident will often provide a very detailed discussion. “Oh, yes. That medication can cause a rash, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue and visual disturbances.”

The young physician is often unaware of how the power of language creates an expectation in that patient that those side effects will, indeed occur.

So when the patient returns, one week later, and we review the new videotape, the resident is surprised to discover that the patient was unable to take the medication because of dizziness, nausea, and visual disturbances.

So I point out that one can provide responsible information without predisposing to those side effects. I suggest to the resident that they can tell the patient “usually, this medication has no side effects. Of course, any medication can, so if you are experiencing anything unusual, please let me know.” And the resident discovers that patients now rarely experience side effects of medication.

Things that make you go hmmm.