Any patient going into surgery will naturally feel anxious. That’s why standard procedure is to give them a dose of anxiety medicine, typically hydroxyzine, which helps them relax before receiving anesthesia. It turns out, however, that a few calm words from the doctor or anesthesiologist is more effective at reducing patient anxiety than pills, according to a new study being presented at the Anesthesiology 2015 annual meeting.

The technique of soothing the patient with words is referred to as “conversational hypnosis,” and the researchers found that it actually is quite helpful before surgery as a substitute for medication.

“The anesthesiologist uses calm, positive words to divert the patient’s attention and help him or her feel more comfortable,” Dr. Emmanuel Boselli, lead author of the study and a physician anesthesiologist at Édouard Herriot Hospital in France, said in the press release. “It reflects a change in the way the physician interacts with the patient and takes just a few minutes.”

The researchers examined 100 patients who were undergoing hand surgery. Half of them were given conversational hypnosis, and the other half were given 25 mg of oral hydroxyzine about an hour before anesthesia. They measured the patients’ anxiety levels with the comfort scale and the Analgesia/Nociception Index (ANI), a test that analyzes heart rate variability from zero (completely relaxed) to 100 (stressed). The results showed that the patients who had undergone conversational hypnosis received an average ANI of 51 beforehand and 78 afterward. Those who received meds had an average ANI of 63 before and 70 after. 

“Conversational hypnosis can be used prior to surgery in conscious patients having local or regional anesthesia,” Boselli said in the press release. “It also could be beneficial before general anesthesia to decrease patient anxiety.”

The study may also have implications for anxiety reduction outside the hospital setting and in general. About 3.3 million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, and they often go hand in hand with depression, stress, and other mental health problems. Finding ways to reduce anxiety outside of medications can help people find more sustainable ways to avoid high, damaging levels of stress.

Source: Boselli E, et al. American Society of Anesthesiologists. 2015.