Originally known as “mesmerism,” hypnosis is an artificially induced state of intense concentration. Mysterious as it sounds, hypnosis only seeks to copy similar states we all achieve naturally, perhaps several times a day.
Although shamans and other healers undoubtedly used hypnosis unknowingly, it was not until Franz Mesmer, a German physician, began “mesmerizing” patients in the 1700s that the phenomenon began to be studied.
By the mid-1800s, hypnosis was being used to relieve pain, and as an anesthetic for surgery. And Sigmund Freud used it to treat psychological conditions, such as convulsion hysteria, long before he discovered psychoanalysis. The American Medical Association has approved of the use of hypnosis since 1958, and today some 15,000 medical doctors use hypnotherapy as an adjunct to their more traditional therapies, as do numerous licensed psychologists.
Hypnosis is used to help treat a variety of conditions, ranging from obesity to chronic pain. Medical doctors, psychologists, dentists, chiropractors and other healers may use hypnosis in their practices, but certified hypnotherapists specialize in hypnotherapy alone.
There are numerous ways to induce a hypnotic trance, but most hypnotherapists use some norm of the “talking induction.” With the patient seated or lying down comfortably in a quiet office, the hypnotherapist simply talks in a calm voice, suggesting that the patient feels very relaxed and his or her eyes are heavy, or that he or she is drifting away to a favorite place, or that he or she is slowly going down into “nothingness” on an escalator.
Many variations of the “talking induction” are effective. Hypnotherapists speak of “conscious” and “unconscious” minds. The critical, analytical conscious mind tends to reject suggestions. The less critical subconscious mind tends to accept what it is told as reality. Getting to the subconscious mind, it is reasoned, allows healers to implant healing suggestions where they will do the most good.
Hypnosis is similar to guided imagery and other forms of therapy that involve “seeing what you want to be.” People cannot be hypnotized against their wills. Neither do they “lose control” or do anything they would not want to do. Hypnosis is entirely dependent upon the cooperation of the patient. Most people can be put into at least a light trance; a smaller number will reach deep, somnambulistic states.
Hypnosis is believed to help fight off illnesses via the mind/body connection. “Positive thinking” helps the body to heal itself. (See the section in this introduction on Psychoneuroimmunology.) Many of us find it especially difficult to be positive and optimistic in the face of serious illness, however. That’s where hypnosis comes in. It can help keep the mind focused on the positive, thereby strengthening the health promoting aspects of the mind/body system.
Because illness can make one fearful, anxious or otherwise emotionally upset, and because emotional distress, acting through the mind/body cOnnection, can weaken the immune system, hypnosis can also be used to help reduce the patient’s negative thoughts. One technique is to have the patient describe a place that he or she considers to be peaceful and beautiful. It may be a tropical island, a waterfall, a rolling plain or his or her own backyard.
Under hypnosis, the patient would be asked to imagine being in this beautiful place, feeling very calm and healthy, enjoying good health. Post hypnotic suggestions would help the patient to mentally “return” to this wonderful place several times a day. This helps to drive some of the negative, fearful thoughts that have been harming the immune system from the patient’s mind.
Patients can also be taught relaxation techniques, and can then be hypnotized. While hypnotized, they can be given post hypnotic suggestions telling them that when they feel themselves slipping into negativity, fear or anger, they will automatically enter into the relaxed states they achieved while practicing the relaxation techniques.
In other words, the hypnotic suggestions will direct their minds from negative feelings toward the calm, relaxed state. Some hypnotists may attempt to change their patient’s physiology. They may suggest, for example, that cancer is actually shrinking.
There are no studies showing that this works, although it is related to what one attempts to achieve in biofeedback. There is no agreed upon length of time before hypnosis brings results, if any are to be found. Several factors affect the length of treatment: how open to hypnotizing the client is, the rapport developed between the hypnotist and the client and the severity of the problem.
Many people have been helped in just one session. For some, several sessions are required.