How Does Hypnotherapy Work

Where did hypnotherapy come from?

The practice of hypnotherapy is thought to have begun as far back as 6,000 years ago when the ancient Sumerian people used hypnosis methods as a therapeutic tool administered by priest-physicians.

The modern form evolved from the work of eighteenth century Austrian doctor Franz Anton Mesmer who worked with magnets to put patients into a trance to help re-balance the so-called ‘animal magnetism’ of the body [[BS origins in other words]]. By 1843, James Braid had discovered that patients could undergo surgery without being knocked out (literally) and still feel no pain although the discovery of anaesthetics, such as ether and chloroform, pushed hypnosis out of the mainstream. But, in the 1950s and 1960s, American therapist Milton H Erickson began to develop the modern form of hypnosis to help him make health improving suggestions to patients in a trance state.

How does it work?

No one is really sure how hypnotherapy works, more to the point there is no proof that it has any effects beyond placebo. There is one idea that entering a so-called “trance state” helps the analytical side of the brain relax and the creative half take over, but that sounds like quackery to me. Others think that it might simply be a matter of suggestion and the patient’s own mind willing themselves better – the placebo effect, in other words.

One of the key principles is that the mind works at different levels of consciousness, some would say that such a statement is at best dubious. During hypnosis it is thought that the conscious part is put on ‘standby’ which allows the subconscious brain much more susceptible to suggestions from the practitioner, perhaps that is akin to the half-asleep/half-awake some people experience when tired or during meditation.

Research suggests that about one in ten of us cannot enter a hypnotic state but of the other 90% some 10% can be enter a trance so deep that it is possible to perform surgery without conventional anaesthetics.

Most practitioners say that it is impossible to hypnotise someone against their will as the subconscious mind is actually very forceful and will not usually listen to unreasonable suggestions. The relationship between the patient and the practitioner has to be a good one. If the patient is at all uncomfortable, then they are unlikely to enter a trance state, which is a convenient excuse as to why skeptics may not be susceptible.

What happens during a session?

A typical session with a hypnotherapist might involve the therapist asking you to lie down, close your eyes, and relax. Each therapist has their own unique approach for helping you enter a deeper state of relaxation such as speaking slowly and soothingly, asking you to tense and relax muscles one after the other working up from your toes to the top of your head. They may ask you to picture a garden and to imagine yourself relaxing on the lawn among beautiful flowers and absorbing the sun’s rays. They may even use a pencil, a light or other object on which you can concentrate to help you focus your mind.

Whatever method the hypnotherapist uses, the aim is to help the patient enter a relaxed state, sometimes referred to as a ‘trance’ state in which the mind can begin to heal itself and the body.

There are various claims for hypnotherapy, but little controlled experimental evidence. Practitioners claim it can help with the following:

  • Addictions
  • Arthritis and aching joints including back pain
  • Asthma and allergies
  • Dental surgery
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Fears and phobias
  • Insomnia
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Migraine
  • Pre-menstrual syndrome
  • Sexual problems
  • Skin complaints
  • Speech impediments
  • Stress, anxiety and panic attacks

The usual list of ailments, the majority of which are very unlikely to respond to placebo in any significant way.

Where’s the evidence?

The basic assumption that hypnotherapists work by is also recognised by science and that is that the body and mind are inseparable. Every tissue, organ and cell is part of the whole body system. It is perhaps the old mind over matter idea, although practitioners believe that in a trance a patient can ‘enter’ their own body and ‘observe’ the tissues and organs, which is nonsense, of course. Whether this is simply a metaphorical notion or there really is some way for the mind to see what is going on inside we may never know.

What does conventional medicine think of hypnotherapy?

The stage hypnotist has a lot to answer for the public image of hypnotherapy. The idea of the mind entering a trance is not at all mystical though and patients actually remain conscious, so hypnotism is nothing more than someone talking to you while suggesting that you’re in a trance.

In fact, we are in and out of trances all day long – just think – how many times have you driven somewhere on ‘autopilot’? That’s a kind of trance.

Hypnotherapy is most often used to help people with psychological problems like obsessive thoughts, eating disorders, alcohol problems, and even chocolate addiction. There are scant solid trials to support the idea that disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, and backache can be treated by the suggestions of the mind under hypnosis.

Dr David Oakley a Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Hypnosis Unit at University College London believes hypnosis is a very valuable tool for assisting psychological therapists. He points out that if there is a good psychological treatment for a condition then using that treatment while a patient is under hypnosis can be helpful in most cases. The basic idea is that the trance state helps the patient improve the imagery, focus their attention and enter a more deeply relaxed state. Hmmm. Look into the eyes, not around the eyes, into the eyes…you’re under.