NEW YORK -- For most people lying in a hospital bed, the sight of an orderly arriving to wheel them to the operating room brings waves of anxiety and sometimes downright panic.
It's just this type of stress that may make people sicker and slower to recover than they might otherwise be, psychologists say.
Recent studies indicate that people who go through stress reduction programs before their hospital stays recover more quickly and experience less pain than do patients who don't have such programs.
In one study at the University of Notre Dame, 21 patients who had stress reduction therapy were discharged 3.5 days earlier than 21 patients in a control group, at a savings of $300 a day for each.
"The difference is quite remarkable," said George Howard, chairman of the department of psychology at the school. "It's findings like this that make hospital administrators sit up and take notice."
Howard said that in the Notre Dame study patients who used the techniques asked for significantly fewer painkillers than did patients in the control group.
In most preparation programs, patients are shown how to distinguish cues that indicate they are tense, such as increased heart rate, muscle spasms or shallow breathing.
The patients are then taught muscle relaxation exercises and asked to visualize an image they find comforting or relaxing.
Once patients are in the hospital, they are told to use the exercises whenever they feel anxious or feel pain. "It's like a football player getting hurt on the field," Wells said. "He's concentrating on the game and doesn't feel any pain.
Hospital patients vary in the amounts of stress and anxiety they experience, but almost all have some worries when they are hospitalized. "Not being able to sleep in strange surroundings, feeling doctors aren't responding quickly enough, lack of privacy -- these are all things people report to some degree," said Judith Wells, the researcher who conducted the Notre Dame study.
"Added to that is a list of worries," she said. "They are nervous about their families, about money and the cost of the hospitalization, about their future and their job security -- and they are concerned about their medical condition."
"They worry they might be handicapped or scarred or sick for a long time," she said. "They worry about death."
Wells said running through all these worries and anxieties is a common thread -- the feeling of being out of control. "They can't control the way the hospital is set up. They can't control the events that are happening to them," she said. "It is important to give them back a sense of control."
"Once patients feel they can reduce their pain and their anxiety, they feel more in control," Wells said. "That feeling of control reduces a lot of the psychological problems that patients experience."
"The studies have shown it works," said Wells, now a staff psychologist at CARES Systems, Inc., a rehabilitation center in Calumet City, Ill. "What's important to me is having patients say afterward that they are happier."
The programs may have an added benefit, as well.
Wells said a number of former patients have reported they use the techniques taught in the hospital to improve their lives at work and at home. "They use it in other situations," she said. "So it's helping them for the future, as well as for the hospital stay itself."