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Understanding the Truth Behind Hypnotherapy

What if there were a quick and simple way to access the deepest parts of your mind, allowing you to alter thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are not serving you? What if a trained professional could help you use your own mind to control pain, stop smoking, lose weight or cope with depression and anxiety? Hypnosis has been used by humans since the 18th century and in recent times this technique has been adopted into hypnotherapy, a method used by physical and mental health practitioners around the world. Read on to learn more about this captivating phenomenon.

Hypnotherapy: What is it?

Hypnotherapy is a technique used by trained health professionals to improve the health and wellbeing of their clients. Hypnotherapists use hypnosis, which is the technique of guiding someone into a trance-like state of calm and suggestibility. Hypnotherapy is not exactly a form of therapy – rather, it’s a technique or skill that trained professionals may use to enhance their practice. This means that hypnosis is best used as an adjunct to other forms of psychotherapy or medical practice.

Is Hypnosis Real?

We’ve all seen TV shows where a self-proclaimed “hypnotist” waves a pendulum and gets volunteers to quack like ducks or dance like ballerinas. With a snap of the hypnotist’s fingers, the volunteers apparently awaken and have no memory of having made a spectacle of themselves. This depiction of hypnosis, however, is little more than a media-driven myth.

But that doesn’t mean that hypnosis doesn’t exist. It’s just that hypnosis looks a lot subtler than grown adults acting like farm animals! In fact, brain science research has reinforced the idea that hypnosis is real. For example, researchers found that during hypnosis the brain behaves differently, with those areas that are linked to focus and bodily self-awareness being more active.

Despite this, many people continue to think of hypnosis as being a magic trick rather than a medical tool. But the idea of hypnosis is not as far-out and enigmatic as people tend to assume. In fact, hypnosis is a common and natural phenomenon. Chances are, you experience hypnotic states as a part of your day-to-day life without even realizing it.

What is a Hypnotic State?

A hypnotic state is a mode of consciousness in which a person is very relaxed, highly focused and more suggestible than usual. Suggestibility is a state of mind in which you’re more open and accepting of suggestions and other information coming from another person.

We’ve all experienced hypnotic states. For example, have you ever been so deeply involved in a task – such as reading a book, watching a movie or driving to work – that you seem to get lost in what you’re doing? In this state, time tends to fly by and you’re largely unaware of what’s going on around you because of how deeply focused you are. This, essentially, is a hypnotic state – the same mindset that a hypnotherapist helps you to tap into during therapy.

Hypnotherapy Theory

We do not yet know exactly how hypnotherapy works or why it is effective. Nonetheless, several theories have been put forward to try to make sense of the phenomenon. One of the more popular theories is known as the ‘neo-dissociative’ theory, proposed by the psychologist Ernest Hilgard.

According to this theory, hypnosis divides a person’s consciousness into two separate streams. Between the two streams there is a barrier. This barrier means that the therapist’s suggestions affect the thinking part of the brain. The rest of the mind assumes that these suggestions come from the thinking mind itself rather than an external party, making it more likely that they’ll be accepted by the person being hypnotized.

How Does Hypnotherapy Suggest the Mind Works?

Hypnotherapy is based on the assumption that a part of our mind operates below our level of awareness. This part of the mind is called the subconscious, which is said to house dreams, thoughts, feelings, memories, and associations. We’re able to access the subconscious during hypnotic states.

Let’s say, for example, that you become inexplicably anxious whenever you’re around people who have big muscles. Through hypnosis, you may remember a series of traumatic experiences which you have forgotten: as a child, you were repeatedly bullied by a boy with large muscles. These experiences are housed as memories within your subconscious.

As a result, you developed the belief that people with big muscles are bullies. As you grew older, you let go of that belief by telling yourself that there are many people with big muscles who are not bullies. Nonetheless, when you see someone with big muscles, you still feel anxious. This is because you still carry that belief – that big muscles equal bullying – deep in your subconscious.


How Does Hypnosis Work?

Hypnotherapy allows you to access and explore the parts of yourself which you might not otherwise be entirely aware of. By bringing you into a state of calm suggestibility, a hypnotherapist can guide you to connect with your subconscious mind. Any distressing experiences, memories or emotions that are causing your symptoms can then be identified and worked on using hypnotherapy or other forms of psychotherapy.

How Does Hypnotherapy Cause Change?

By accessing your subconscious mind, you’re also better equipped to change your perceptions and experiences in a way that serves you. In the case of someone who wants to stop smoking, for example, you might be guided to re-interpret cigarettes as being disgusting rather than desirable. This is different from simply choosing to think about smoking in a different way, which any person can choose to do consciously. Through hypnosis, you’re granted access to the deeply held ideas and emotions which you attach to behaviors such as smoking.

What Happens in a Hypnotherapy Session?

Just like any therapy session, hypnotherapy begins with a conversation about what the client would like to achieve in the process. Once the goals have been clarified and the therapist has learned a little bit more about who you are a person, the hypnosis can begin.

The therapist is likely to use specific techniques – talking in a calming voice or asking you to visualize relaxing imagery, for example – to bring you into a calmer and more receptive state.

Once you are sufficiently calm and focused, the therapist will make statements and ask questions which are designed to guide you toward achieving your therapeutic goals.

Many people are hesitant about seeing a hypnotherapist because they fear embarrassing themselves or coming under the control of another person. Fortunately, these fears are unfounded – that’s not how hypnosis works. During hypnotherapy, you’re in control of what you’re doing, and you will have a clear memory of the session once you emerge from the hypnotic state. In other words, you cannot be made to do anything that you don’t want to and you’ll be completely aware of what’s happening throughout the process.

Does Hypnotherapy Work?

While some scientists and medical professionals remain skeptical about hypnotherapy, there is a growing body of sound scientific research that attests to the fact that this technique can truly help people. While more research of this nature is needed before we can be completely certain about the exact strengths and limitations of hypnotherapy, the evidence that exists is promising. As a result, the medical community is gradually starting to embrace this exciting technique as a safe and effective way of improving people’s lives.

What Kinds of Concerns is Hypnotherapy Best For?

Hypnotherapy is used to help people with a wide range of health concerns. These include anxiety disorders and phobias, depression and sleeping problems, trauma, grief and everyday stress. On the other hand, hypnotherapy is also used to help people change unwanted behaviors such as smoking, nail-biting, overeating and substance use.

Finally, hypnotherapy is used as an adjunct to medical procedures. It can help with anesthesia during surgery or dentistry, for example; as well as with pain management more generally. Additionally, hypnotherapy may be used in the management of irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, allergies, and eczema.

How Are Hypnotherapy Specialists Trained?

Hypnotherapists are typically doctors, psychologists, social workers or family therapists who have done additional training in hypnotherapy through a reputable facility or with experienced practitioners. The hypnotherapist should have completed a certified course with a significant number of practical hours.

Concerns/Limitations of Hypnotherapy

Generally, hypnotherapy is considered an extremely safe technique. However, at times it can leave you with a headache or feelings of dizziness and nausea. Furthermore, hypnotherapy should not be performed on people who have ever experienced symptoms of psychosis. These typically occur in the case of disorders such as schizophrenia, brief psychotic disorder, and bipolar disorder.

It’s also important to remember that hypnosis should be used to complement other forms of medical or psychiatric treatment, rather than being used instead of them. Finally, hypnosis has been criticized for potentially creating ‘false’ memories when it’s used to uncover repressed experiences from your early life.

This is because the person under hypnosis is in a suggestible state and may sometimes develop a belief that certain events occurred, even if they didn’t necessarily happen. In the case of uncovered memories, it’s important to acknowledge that these may hold symbolic or metaphorical value, rather than representing literal events.

Important Practitioners in Hypnotherapy

Sigmund Freud – Credited as the father of psychoanalysis, Freud was enthusiastic about the use of hypnotism to recover repressed memories. Freud adopted this technique due to the influence of his mentor Josef Breuer, who believed that hypnotism could be used therapeutically. Later, however, Freud stopped using hypnosis, focusing rather on the use of free association.

Franz Mesmer – Mesmer lived from 1734 until 1815. He believed that the movements of the planets influenced human behavior and that an energy exchange existed between animate and inanimate objects. He also proposed that moving one’s hands across a person’s field of vision could induce this energy change. This technique, still used by hypnotists to this day, was named mesmerism.

James Braid – Braid was a Scottish doctor who discovered that fixing his own gaze on an object could put him in a state of therapeutic calm and relaxation. Skeptical of the phenomenon of mesmerism, Braid coined the term hypnotism as it is known today. He is credited with giving hypnosis a greater degree of credibility within the medical community.

How to Find a Therapist

Find a hypnotherapist by speaking to your doctor or asking friends and family members for a recommendation. Alternatively, an online search may yield results or you could visit the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis for more options.

What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?

First and foremost, ensure that the therapist is adequately trained and certified as a hypnotherapist above and beyond their psychological or medical training. Ideally, they should also be registered with the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis or the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. It’s also important that you trust your therapist and that they provide a space in which you feel sufficiently safe.

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

  • Are you trained as a psychologist or other health professional?
  • Where did you train as a hypnotherapist?
  • Have you used hypnotherapy to treat my condition before?
  • Are you registered with any professional boards?
  • How many sessions do you think I will need?
  • How long are the sessions?
  • Will I have the same session time each week?
  • What is your cancellation policy?
  • Will my insurance cover my sessions?

Final Thoughts on Hypnotherapy

The word ‘hypnosis’ conjures images of volunteers on stage at a magic show, being tricked into behaving like chickens or speaking in a foreign language. But, as we have discussed, hypnotherapy is a medical treatment, not a magic trick! Nonetheless, the aura of enchantment and mystery that pervades this subject means that many health professionals remain skeptical.

Rightly so: despite all of the research that has been done, we still don’t understand exactly how or why hypnotherapy works. Perhaps, with time and developments in brain-imaging technology, we will get a better understanding of this phenomenon. But even in the absence of that sort of an in-depth understanding, researchers and clinicians are showing again and again that hypnotherapy can be a safe and effective adjunct to psychological or medical treatment.

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