Page last updated at 10:55 GMT, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The healing power of positive language

By Jane Feinmann
Producer, Metaphor For Healing

Jan Alcoe
Jan used positive images to cope with radiotherapy sessions

When Jan Alcoe was diagnosed with a difficult-to-treat cancer three years ago, she was shocked by the frightening metaphors that doctors and nurses would use to describe the treatment she was to receive.

"The words were overwhelmingly negative," she recalls.

"My oncologist said my skin might not cope with the onslaught. The cancer nurse came round to my house to read out the side effects of my treatment - using words like 'toxic' and 'burning'.

"I wanted the life-saving treatment but I felt strongly these images were not helpful."

Jan told the nurse that she did not want to know about the side effects of her treatment and instead developed her own detailed metaphorical landscape located in a favourite bluebell wood - a refuge from the fears, anxieties and frustrations that accompanied her hospital treatment.

Here, the chemotherapy became "a beautiful golden liquid which my veins opened up to receive with gratitude", while a metaphorical pool of water cooled her skin after radiotherapy.

At the very least, she says, developing these positive metaphors made a difference to her ability to endure her treatment.

"One of the worst times was having to lie on a table in an uncomfortable position under a revolving radiotherapy machine for several hours every day for six weeks.

"It was a tough place to be. But I was in the bluebell wood, and every buzz of the machine felt like a ray of sunshine coming into my body, feeling good and healing me."

Negative imagery

Jan is not alone in seeing the need to put a positive spin on health care.

A growing number of clinicians believe that, speaking directly to the unconscious, metaphors have a potent therapeutic impact and should be handled with care.

Operating theatre
Doctors say linguistic treatment can help some patients avoid surgery

Dr Grahame Brown, a musculo-skeletal specialist at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, claims he is able to save hundreds of patients from the need to have spinal surgery every year simply by "reframing the negative metaphors that have been unwittingly used by their doctors that can lead to a destructive and self-fulfilling cycle".

Many of the patients he sees have been referred for surgery after becoming convinced their spine is 'crumbling' or that they have 'degenerating' disc disease, when in fact they have a prolapsed disc or other normal wear and tear that is common in most people.

Yet anxious patients latch on to these suggestions and become convinced that things are only going to get worse.

'Corrupt software'

Dr Brown, who has trained in the metaphor-based Human Givens therapy, claims that nine out of ten of his patients no longer require surgery after undergoing linguistic treatment.

"I tell patients who work in computers that I've examined their hard drive and it's functioning well but that the software is corrupt and needs to be deleted and replaced with a new, more positive programme.

It's a wonderful metaphor that makes them laugh out loud - and say, 'yes of course, why did no-one explain this to me years ago?'" he says.

Another favourite metaphor he uses for people with unexplained pain involves him showing the patient that even a light touch on the skin can cause an agonising response.

Dr Brown then goes on to liken this response to "a country that has gone on red alert to defend itself against a terrorist attack and then, months later, has maintained this inappropriate hyper-vigilance, long after the threat of attack is over."

"I'll say to them, 'The threat has passed, this part of your body can stand down now'.

"And quite quickly, they'll understand this complex phenomenon that is still not fully understood even by pain biologists. And this helps them progress, to find a more constructive and enlightened way to deal with their symptoms and respond to treatment because you've changed the whole way they are thinking about the problem."


Elsewhere, life coach Matthew Critchlow uses Roger Bannister as a metaphor to inspire people to improve their lifestyle.

"Bannister broke the four-minute mile because, as a doctor, he didn't believe it wasn't possible," he says.

"And once he'd broken that barrier, a flood of runners did it too, not because of a leap forward in evolution but because they suddenly realised it was possible.

"That story is a powerful metaphor for losing weight or giving up smoking by getting people to think about how much their own self belief might be the thing that is holding them back."

Jan Alcoe has now retrained as a hypnotherapist based in Brighton, and has recorded a CD, including the bluebell wood script, to help others dealing with serious illness.

She cannot say for sure whether eliminating the negative and accentuating the positive really did help her beat cancer. But she had a large tumour and after just two chemotherapy sessions, her oncologist could not see it on the scan.

"He was a man of few words but as he was examining me, he was muttering: 'This is amazing, this is amazing'."

Metaphor For Healing will be broadcast on Tuesday, 27 October, at 2100 GMT on BBC Radio 4, or you can hear it for seven days after that on the BBC iPlayer

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