Hypnotherapy employs the use of hypnosis—an altered state of consciousness caused by little more than the power of suggestion—to help facilitate behavioral and emotional change. A trained hypnotherapist can cause a trancelike state in clients by using auditory, visual, or other perceptual cues. Once the person enters the hypnotic state, he or she is much more suggestible, making it easier to discuss memories, gain insight, and alter behavior.
In the mid-19th century, as psychology was emerging as its own field, and neuropsychiatrists began to study psychological conditions in earnest, hypnotism was a common method of study. Pioneers in the field of hypnotherapy include Hippolyte Bernheim, Jean Martin Charcot, Ambrose August Liebault, and Pierre Janet.
Hypnotism was one of the earliest psychoanalytic techniques employed by Sigmund Freud, who was introduced to the technique by physician Josef Breuer. Freud and Breuer believed that traumatic memories that were not accessible to the waking mind could be revealed while a person was under hypnosis, thus facilitating a “cure.” Freud eventually abandoned hypnosis in favor of forced association, and then free association, after he found that not all of his patients responded to hypnotism.
There are varying theories throughout both the medical and psychological arenas as to how the process of hypnosis works. Some experts believe that people who practice hypnosis effectively are predisposed to this therapy or have developed enhanced cognitive and interpersonal abilities that allow them to respond accordingly to hypnotic cues and conditions. Recent studies have shown that this form of communication actually alters elements of a person’s neurological and physiological mechanisms.
In a hypnotherapy session, after identifying client goals for the session and reviewing how the session will proceed, the practitioner will use guided imagery and soothing speech to help the person to feel relaxed and safe. When the recipient of hypnosis has achieved a more receptive state, the practitioner will provide suggestions that could help the person reach his or her goals. The person in the trancelike state remains aware and is usually able to return to a more alert state independently once the session is over. Some people find that just one hypnotherapy session is sufficient, and others may attend several sessions.
Although hypnotherapy can seem strange, perhaps even implausible, it is regarded as potentially effective in treating a variety of ailments, particularly phobias, addictions, and problematic habits. Hypnosis may also be used to help patients cope with stress, smoking cessation, and chronic pain, and some women even opt to use hypnosis to manage the pain of childbirth. In patients with trauma-related conditions such as posttraumatic stress (PTSD), therapists may attempt to talk to clients about their traumatic memories under hypnosis.
Additionally, hypnosis is often utilized in a manner that allows deep self-exploration and discovery of unconscious intentions, motivations, or events and experiences that result in symptoms undesirable to a person. Hypnosis circumvents conscious thought processes, allowing a person to gain better insight into a particular problem. Individuals achieve different results with hypnosis, as they do with other forms of therapy. However, it appears that some people are more receptive to this form of treatment than others and achieve increased benefits.
So long as the therapist is trained and follows basic ethical norms, hypnotherapy is safe. Some people may feel dizzy or nauseous during or after being hypnotized. People who discuss traumatic memories may be subject to feelings of panic, flashbacks, or general feelings of anxiety, and the clinician or client may elect to discontinue treatment when symptoms are severe.
When therapists attempt to uncover so-called repressed memories, they may create false memories in their patients. In the 1980s and 1990s, the notion of uncovering repressed memories via hypnotherapy was very common. Because people are highly suggestible while they are under hypnosis, they may be more likely to “remember” things that did not actually occur, and then fervently believe them when they come out of the hypnotic trance.
- Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Luborsky, Ellen; O’Reilly-Landry, Maureen; and Arlow, Jacob. (2008). Psychoanalysis. In Raymond Corsini and Danny Wedding (Eds.), Current Psychotherapies, 8th edition (pp. 15–62). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
- Hypnosis. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hypnosis/MY01020/DSECTION=what-you-can-expect
Last updated: 12-02-2015
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