What is hypnotherapy?
The term “hypnosis” comes from the Greek word hypnos, meaning “sleep.” Hypnotherapists use exercises that bring about deep relaxation and an altered state of consciousness, also known as a trance. A person in a deeply focused state is unusually responsive to an idea or image, but this does not mean that a hypnotist can control the person’s mind and free will. On the contrary, hypnosis can actually teach people how to master their own states of awareness. By doing so they can affect their own bodily functions and psychological responses.
What is the history of hypnosis?
Throughout history, trance states have been used by shamans and ancient peoples in rituals and religious ceremonies. But hypnosis as we know it today was first associated with the work of an Austrian physician named Franz Anton Mesmer. In the 1700s, Mesmer believed that illnesses were caused by magnetic fluids in the body getting out of balance. He used magnets and other hypnotic techniques (the word “mesmerized” comes from his name) to treat people. But the medical community was not convinced. Mesmer was accused of fraud, and his techniques were called unscientific.
Hypnotherapy regained popularity in the mid-1900s due to Milton H. Erickson (1901 – 1980), a successful psychiatrist who used hypnosis in his practice. In 1958, both the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association recognized hypnotherapy as a valid medical procedure. Since 1995, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has recommended hypnotherapy as a treatment for chronic pain.
Other conditions for which hypnotherapy is frequently used include anxiety and addiction. (See “What illnesses or conditions respond well to hypnotherapy?”)
How does hypnosis work?
When something happens to us, we remember it and learn a particular behavior in response to what happened. Each time something similar happens, our physical and emotional reactions attached to the memory are repeated. In some cases these reactions are unhealthy. In some forms of hypnotherapy, a trained therapist guides you to remember the event that led to the first reaction, separate the memory from the learned behavior, and replace unhealthy behaviors with new, healthier ones.
During hypnosis, your body relaxes and your thoughts become more focused. Like other relaxation techniques, hypnosis lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and changes certain types of brain wave activity. In this relaxed state, you will feel at ease physically yet fully awake mentally and may be highly responsive to suggestion. If you are trying to quit smoking, for example, a therapist’s suggestion may help convince you that you will not like the taste of cigarettes in the future. Some people respond better to hypnotic suggestion than others.
There are several stages of hypnosis:
- Reframing the problem
- Becoming relaxed, then absorbed (deeply engaged in the words or images presented by a hypnotherapist)
- Dissociating (letting go of critical thoughts)
- Responding (complying with a hypnotherapist’s suggestions)
- Returning to usual awareness
- Reflecting on the experience
What happens during a visit to the hypnotherapist?
During your first visit, you will be asked about your medical history and what brought you in — what condition you would like to address. The hypnotherapist may explain to you what hypnosis is and how it works. You will then be directed through relaxation techniques, using a series of mental images and suggestions intended to change behaviors and relieve symptoms. For example, people who have panic attacks may be given the suggestion that, in the future, they will be able to relax whenever they want. The hypnotherapist will also teach you the basics of self-hypnosis and give you an audiotape to use at home so you can reinforce what you learn during the session.
How many treatments will I need?
Each session lasts about an hour, and most people start to see results within 4 – 10 sessions. You and your hypnotherapist will monitor and evaluate your progress over time. Children (aged 9 – 12) are easily hypnotized and may respond after only one or two visits.
What illnesses or conditions respond well to hypnosis?
Hypnosis is used in a variety of settings — from emergency rooms to dental offices to outpatient clinics. Clinical studies suggest that hypnosis may improve immune function, increase relaxation, decrease stress, and ease pain and feelings of anxiety.
Hypnotherapy can reduce the fear and anxiety that some people feel before medical or dental procedures. For example, hypnosis may improve recovery time and reduce anxiety as well as pain following surgery. Clinical trials on burn patients suggest that hypnosis decreases pain (enough to replace pain medication) and speeds healing. Generally, clinical studies show that using hypnosis may reduce your need for medication, improve your mental and physical condition before an operation, and reduce the time it takes to recover. Dentists also use hypnotherapy to control gagging and bleeding.
A hypnotherapist can teach you self-regulation skills. For instance, someone with arthritis may learn to turn down pain like the volume on a radio. Hypnotherapy can also be used to help manage chronic illness. Self-hypnosis can enhance a sense of control, which is often lacking when someone has a chronic illness.
Clinical studies on children in emergency treatment centers show that hypnotherapy reduces fear, anxiety, and discomfort.
Other problems or conditions that may respond to hypnotherapy include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Tension headaches
- Alopecia areata
- Labor and delivery
- Skin disorders [such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema (atopic dermatitis)]
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Cancer-related pain
- Weight loss
- Eating disorders
- Indigestion (dyspepsia)
Are there any risks associated with hypnotherapy?
Before considering hypnotherapy, you need a diagnosis from your doctor to know what needs to be treated. This is especially true if your condition is psychological (for example, a phobia or anxiety), and you should be evaluated by a psychiatrist. Without an accurate diagnosis, hypnotherapy could make your symptoms worse. Very rarely, hypnotherapy leads to the development of “false memories” made up by the unconscious mind; these are called confabulations.