Why one psychologist took clinical hypnosis to ‘heart’

By Shamontiel Vaughn
Dr. Flavio Epstein

Dr. Flavio Epstein, a heart failure/transplant psychologist, wasn’t quite sure what results would come from being a first-time attendee at the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) Annual Scientific Meeting & Workshop. He was pleasantly surprised to get clinical hypnosis experience, a warm welcome from other medical professionals, and new ideas to help heart transplant patients.

I was already in my fourth year of business school at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil when I came to the conclusion that I should have gone into psychology instead. In Brazil, it takes five years to earn a business degree, and I was almost at the finish line. But that didn’t stop me from attending a psychology-related conference with my mother and her friend, where I met Stanley Krippner, legendary professor from Saybrook University. While I don’t remember everything about the conference, what stood out were the talking points related to Humanistic Psychology and the significance of spirituality. That’s when I made the decision to pursue a psychology degree in California.

Pursuing the career I didn’t know I wanted

Saybrook was pretty small at the time, which was a bonus for me considering I’d never studied in the United States and was self-conscious about my writing and language skills. So after completing my business degree and a yearlong internship with the marketing department of American Express, I arrived at Saybrook in January 1990. I earned my master’s degree in Psychology in 1992 from Saybrook and went on to receive a Ph.D. in Psychology from Meridian University in Petaluma, Calif., in 2003. That was around the time I also developed an interest in working on a multi-disciplinary team with psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and other health care providers in the field of transplantation.

How clinical hypnosis entered the equation

Some of my most recent work includes assisting a team with evaluating patients for left ventricular assist device implants and for heart transplants, and presenting at centers of excellence; working on a feasibility study that focuses on a cognitive behavioral therapy protocol adapted for post-heart transplant patients; and pursuing certification in the clinical hypnosis certification program from Saybrook to add to my toolbox of interventions to help address complex issues faced by heart failure, left ventricular assist device, and post-heart patients, with whom I work.

Clinical hypnosis is an evidence-based psychological intervention that may help improve anxiety, depression, pain, nausea, and emotional distress, among other issues. I’m hoping that clinical hypnosis will help my patients manage the physical and psychological symptoms they struggle with, such as depression and anxiety, and improving their quality of life.

Attending the ASCH workshop

When I recently attended the advanced track of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) Annual Scientific Meeting & Workshop in Phoenix, Arizona, as a first-timer, I must admit I was apprehensive.

Attendees from the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) Annual Scientific Meeting & Workshop

I was about to meet new colleagues from a number of health disciplines who were likely more seasoned hypnosis practitioners than me. To my delight, I could have not asked for a more welcoming professional crowd, such as the one I met at the ASCH conference.

I am a mid-career licensed psychologist, and clinical hypnosis student working under the mentorship of Dr. Willmarth, who was installed as president of ASCH at the same meeting. Professionals and students at the ASCH conference are eligible to participate as beginner, intermediate, or advanced, according to prior clinical hypnosis training programs. In the advanced course I was in, taught by G. Elkins and other well-known hypnosis researchers and clinicians, I met a number of friendly professionals, eager to share knowledge and experiences with each other and myself from events focused on clinical hypnosis, integrative medicine conferences, and mind-body medicine. Working as a psychologist in transplantation, I attend a number of international multidisciplinary conferences every year. Honestly, none of them are as welcoming.

But just as I have earned my own accomplishments, I’m always seeking to be around those who are as goal-oriented as me—but in an atmosphere that is not isolating or overly competitive. The ASCH conference was exactly that. I bonded with group members in just a few hours after my flight from San Francisco. I took a tour of Dr. Milton Erickson’s family home the first evening, met Dr. Erickson’s wife’s companion and the companion’s close friend, shared an Uber ride to our hotel, made lunch plans with the group, and chatted amicably with many participants at the different workshops.

I think that I have found my professional home, which has been my quest for many years. I encourage more students and professionals to join ASCH for the invaluable bonding and resources.

And if you’re interested in treating the whole person—not just the symptoms—Saybrook’s College of Integrative Medicine has top-notch professors and the integrative approach that I (and you) may be looking for.