The Power of Suggestion
Can hypnotherapy help your subconscious cure your ills?
A professorial-looking man with a goatee peers over his glasses and ominously waves a pocket watch back and forth, putting an unwitting subject into a zombie-like state. The subject, now seemingly devoid of free will, feels compelled to obey strange, possibly unseemly demands: “Yes, Master,” she responds in a droning monotone.
Such a stereotypical image of the malevolent hypnotist and his helpless subject bears no resemblance to hypnosis in the 21st century. Doctors, psychologists, dentists and therapists of all kinds use hypnotherapy to help their clients try to conquer physical or psychological health problems or phobias.
Under hypnosis, a subject is not under the control of the hypnotherapist and does not surrender free will, lose consciousness or experience amnesia. A hypnotized individual is more open, more focused, more responsive to suggestions and less skeptical. Consequently, he or she is likely to respond to ideas, such as believing cigarettes are distasteful or that consuming smaller meals is a good idea, or the person may find relief from a painful malady.
Just how hypnosis works is still something of a mystery: This mental state appears to affect how the brain communicates with the body through nerve impulses, hormones and body chemicals such as neuropeptides. Under hypnosis, changes in skin temperature, heart rate, intestinal secretions and immune response occur. Acting like a trap door between the conscious and subconscious minds, calming alpha waves produced by the hypnotized brain allow the therapist to submit suggestions directly into a person’s subconscious.
In hotel lounges and nightclubs, showroom hypnotists find ideal subjects in those overeager audience members who will jump onstage to sing like Elvis. The subjects of clinical hypnotherapists, however, are people seeking help with overcoming an addiction, anxiety or chronic pain.
Erin Miller, a magazine sales representative for Energy Times, has long had an uncontrollable fear of flying, but couldn’t avoid a plane trip for her honeymoon. A hypnotherapist happened to be on the flight, saw Erin shaking like a bobblehead doll and approached to offer some help.
“I was open to the idea and she spoke to me in a low, calm monotone,” Erin recalls. “I stared at her hand as she told me what a pleasurable experience the flight would be; that I would be completely calm and relaxed. I was alert the entire time, but I do remember that my eyes kept rolling. It was like feeling that you’re exhausted but you have to stay awake. It turned out to be a great flight and now I contact a hypnotherapist a few days before I have to fly.”
Some individuals, like Erin, are more hypnotizable than others: Those well-versed in meditation or able to get “lost” in movies, books or daydreams are highly responsive to hypnosis, though the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis believes that any highly motivated person who wants to be hypnotized—and who feels comfortable and relaxed—is likely to benefit from this therapy.
Techniques and Treatments
A hypnotherapist may use gentle, soothing tones and images that create a sense of security, then suggest ways to achieve specific goals, including eliminating cravings or reducing physical pain. Practitioners may also use a method known as mental imagery when making hypnotic suggestions, such as asking the subject to imagine the parts of the body causing pain or visualizing a physical or emotional goal. An individual learned in achieving a hypnotic state can then employ self-hypnosis, and may make use of audiotapes provided by the hypnotherapist.
The most widespread use of hypnosis is habit-control treatment, in which the clinician focuses on one particular habit, most notably smoking or overeating. A negative response may be associated with the bad habit, such as nausea or disgust. In medical hypnotherapy, hypnotic suggestions ease pain during surgery, chemotherapy and other procedures. Clinical reports suggest that thousands of women have made it through childbirth with little or no pain using only hypnotic suggestion.
The World Hypnosis Organization reports that convincing evidence shows hypnosis can alleviate anxiety, panic disorders and insomnia. Hypnosis is also successful in treating migraine headaches, asthma and gastrointestinal disease. A group of 200 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) underwent one-hour sessions of hypnotherapy for 12 weeks. Six years after completing the course, 71% reported reduced severity of IBS symptoms, and significantly less anxiety and depression (Gut 10/03).
Many health organizations support the use of hypnosis in treating a range of disorders. The American Medical Association (AMA), the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the British Medical Association (BMA) all recognize hypnosis as a viable therapeutic tool. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a consensus statement noting the scientific evidence in favor of the use of hypnotherapy for chronic pain, particularly pain associated with cancer. In the January 2005 issue of Pediatrics, the Stanford University School of Medicine reported that hypnosis reduces pain and stress during medical procedures in children.
Skeptic or believer, there is no denying that hypnotherapy plays an important role in modern medicine. “All hypnosis is self-hypnosis,” says Dr. Judith L. Allen, PhD, founder of the American Psychotherapy and Medical Hypnosis Association (www.APMHA.com). “The therapist is only acting as a guide, assisting the client in the use of relaxation, concentration and imagination.”