The word “hypnosis” may conjure up images of a party magician making his subjects quack like a duck and other outrageous scenarios. But in reality, hypnosis is the basis of a medical treatment that can be extremely powerful in helping people cope with a variety of conditions.
“The history of hypnosis is like a two-edged sword,” says Gary Elkins, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “Most people have heard about it, but the misconceptions have created a barrier preventing it from being utilized to its full potential in medicine.”
When used medically, the technique is called clinical hypnosis or hypnotherapy. It is a simple, non-invasive, inexpensive and effective therapy commonly enlisted to treat pain, anxiety, bad habits, obesity, depression, phobias, digestive issues, hot flashes, skin conditions, post-operative recovery, and more.
“There are many different applications for hypnosis, and physicians generally use it in relation to their specialty,” says Dr. Philip Shenefelt, a Tampa, Florida-based dermatologist and current president of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis.
Shenefelt says he uses hypnotherapy to alter sensations, such as itching or pain. One of his patients suffered debilitating pain from shingles-spawned postherpetic neuralgia.
“He had to retire, couldn’t play golf, and was pretty miserable,” Shenefelt recalls. “Hypnosis turned his life around. The pain wasn’t any less intense, but he could control it better, and that allowed him to live more normally.”
Hypnotherapy involves putting patients into a serene state of focused attention. Usually, they relax in a reclining chair and are asked to focus on something like a spot on the wall or their own breathing. As peripheral thoughts melt away, the practitioner makes suggestions in the form of guided imagery, and they not only have powers to alter attitude but actually change physiology.
Elkins has conducted studies with menopausal women experiencing hot flashes. They were put into hypnotic trances and presented with imagery representing coolness, such as walking along a snowy path or standing under a waterfall. After just five sessions, he says hot flashes were reduced on average by 70%.
One of the best things about hypnotherapy is that you can learn to do it on your own.
“Individuals in our studies were taught how to practice self-hypnosis and given an audio recording of the guided imagery,” says Elkins, editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. “In a follow-up three months later, their hot flashes had decreased by 80%. The women had learned self-hypnosis and didn’t need the therapist anymore.”
Elkins notes that hypnotherapy works best with symptoms that are involuntary, things people feel are happening to them rather than something they are doing. It’s less effective in treating problems that involve voluntary behavior, such as smoking.
“The research on hypnosis for smoking cessation is mixed, with about a 20% to 40% success rate,” he said. “That’s because smoking is a conscious, voluntary behavior. It reacts better to a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and hypnosis rather than either type of treatment alone.”
Hypnotherapy practitioners come from many different medical fields and represent a variety of personnel, including physicians, psychologists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, naturopaths, chiropractors, physical therapists and others. Basic training through organizations like the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis lasts about 20 hours and is often augmented by specialty sessions.
Hypnotherapy can be beneficial even for people who don’t suffer from chronic health issues.
“I would recommend that most people learn how to shift into a trance, whether they call it self-hypnosis, mindfulness, or meditation,” says Shenefelt. “It’s a life skill that has value in many situations. Calming down helps one to think more clearly and improve performance.”
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