What is hypnotherapy?
The term "hypnosis" is derived from the Greek word hypnos, meaning
"sleep." Hypnotherapists typically use exercises that bring about deep
relaxation and an altered state of consciousness, also known as a trance. Many
people routinely experience a trance-like state while they are watching
television or sitting at a red light. A person in a trance or deeply focused
state is unusually responsive to an idea or image, but this does not mean that a
hypnotist can control his or her 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 ritualistic activities. 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 used magnets and other hypnotic techniques (hence the word,
mesmerized) to treat people, and while he achieved a number of dramatic
"cures" for blindness, paralysis, headache, and joint pain, the medical
community was not convinced. Mesmer was accused of fraud and his techniques
Hypnotherapy regained popularity in the mid-1900's due in to the notoriety
and career of 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 the therapy as a valid medical
procedure. And since 1995, the National Institutes of Health has recommended
hypnotherapy as a treatment for chronic pain. Other conditions for which
hypnotherapy is frequently used include anxiety and addiction; see the section
entitled What illnesses or conditions respond well to hypnotherapy?
How does hypnosis work?
When something new happens to us, we remember it and learn a particular
behavior in response to that circumstance. Memories stored in our brains hold
the original physical and emotional reactions that occurred when the given
memory was first formed. Each time similar events occur again, the physical and
emotional reactions attached to the memory are repeated. These reactions may be
inappropriate or unhealthy. In hypnotherapy, the trained therapist guides you to
remember the event that led to the first reaction, separate the memory from the
learned behavior, and reconstruct the event with new, healthier
During hypnosis, a person's body relaxes while his or her thoughts become
more focused and attentive. Like other relaxation techniques, hypnosis decreases
blood pressure and heart rate, and alters certain types of brain wave activity.
In this relaxed state, a person will feel very at ease physically yet fully
awake mentally. In this state of deep concentration people are highly responsive
to suggestion. If you are trying to quit smoking, for example, a therapist's
suggestion may successfully convince you that in the future you will have a
strong dislike for the taste of cigarettes.
There are several stages of hypnosis. The process begins with 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 whole-heartedly to a hypnotherapist's suggestions);
returning to usual awareness; and reflecting on the experience.
What happens during a visit to the hypnotherapist?
During your first visit to a hypnotherapist, he or she will ask you questions
about your medical history and what brought you to see them
- in other words, what condition it is that you would
like to clear up. The specialist will then, likely, explain to you what hypnosis
is and how it works. You will then be directed through relaxation techniques
with a series of mental images and suggestions intended to change behaviors and
alleviate symptoms. For example, people who suffer from panic attacks may be
given the suggestion that, in the future, they will be able to relax at will.
The hypnotherapist will also teach you the basics of self-hypnosis and give you
an audiotape for home use. This enables you to recreate the feelings you
experienced during the session and reinforce the learning on your own.
How many treatments will I need?
Each session lasts about an hour, and most people begin to improve within 4
to 10 sessions. Together, you and your hypnotherapist will monitor and evaluate
your progress over time. Children (aged 9 to 12), because they are easily
hypnotized, tend to 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
- to relieve conditions with an emotional or
psychological component. Studies suggest that hypnosis may improve immune
function, increase relaxation, decrease stress, and ease feelings of anxiety.
Hypnotherapy is effective in reducing the fear and anxiety that accompany
pain and uncomfortable medical or dental procedures. For example, when used
during an operation, hypnosis may improve recovery time and decrease anxiety as
well as pain following the surgery. Clinical trials on burn patients suggest
that hypnosis decreases pain (enough to replace pain medication) and speeds
healing. Generally, studies indicate that using hypnosis can lessen 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 be told that he or she can turn down pain like the volume on
a radio. Hypnotherapy can also be an effective tool for managing chronic
illness. Self-hypnosis can enhance a sense of control, which is often eroded by
chronic illness. Children may benefit the most from hypnosis, probably because
they are most easily hypnotized.
Studies on children in emergency treatment centers show that hypnotherapy
reduces fear, anxiety, and discomfort and improves self-control and cooperation
with medical personnel.
In another study, 83 percent of children significantly or completely
recovered from the following:
- fecal incontinence
- problematic habits (sleep walking, thumb sucking, nail biting)
Other problems or conditions that respond well to hypnotherapy
- inflammatory bowel diseases (namely, Crohn's disease and ulcerative
- sleep disorders, including insomnia
- irritable bowel syndrome
- labor and delivery
- skin disorders (such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema [atopic
- migraine headaches
- tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- cancer related pain
- weight loss
- eating disorders, namely anorexia and bulimia
- indigestion (dyspepsia)
Are there any risks associated with hypnotherapy?
Before considering hypnotherapy, you must obtain a proper diagnosis from a
physician to understand what is being treated. This is especially true if your
condition is psychological in nature (for example, a phobia or anxiety), in
which case it is important to first be evaluated by a psychiatrist. Without an
accurate diagnosis, it is possible that hypnotherapy may exacerbate your
symptoms. Also, very rarely, hypnotherapy leads to the development of
"false memories" fabricated by the unconscious mind; these are called
How can I find a hypnotherapist?
Most hypnotherapists are licensed medical doctors, registered nurses, social
workers, or family counselors who have received additional training in
hypnotherapy. For example, members of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis
(ASCH) must hold a doctorate in medicine, dentistry, podiatry, or psychology, or
a master's level degree in nursing, social work, psychology, or marital/family
therapy with at least 20 hours of ASCH-approved training in hypnotherapy.
Similarly, the American Psychotherapy and Medical Hypnosis Association provides
certificates for licensed medical and mental health professionals who complete a
six to eight week course.
To receive a directory of professionals practicing hypnotherapy near you,
- The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis on the Web at
http://www.asch.net/ or call 312-645-9810
- The Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis on the Web at
or by phone at 509-332-7555
- The American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists on the Web at
http://www.aaph.org or by phone at
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