Does hypnotherapy work or is it all in the mind?

Monday, June 26, 2006
Is hypnotherapy a useful method in treating certain problems? Or is it just a big con?

People with addictions and phobias are increasingly turning to hypnotherapy to solve their problems. But the sceptics, and there are still many, believe it's just a con, a voodoo science.

So we've put hypnotherapy in the spotlight — does it actually work? Or is it all in the mind?

Stage hypnotists such as Martin St. James are very entertaining — and they're able to get people to do the craziest things under hypnosis, but can the same principle be applied to medical hypnosis?

David Kennedy has been a supervisor and a counsellor for over 40 years and is a supervisor with the Ericksonian Hypnotherapists Association of Australia.

"Someone who goes to a stage show goes to have a drink perhaps, a bit of fun, a bit of entertainment. But in reality there is very little difference except that I as a clinical hypnotherapist want to allow my client to understand that the trance or the hypnosis belongs to them and therefore I conduct a partnership," he says.

By using hypnosis, he claims to have cured everything from phobias and addictions to stress disorders. The problems he deals with most consistently include:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss
  • Stopping smoking
  • Pain management

He believes that in a session, hypnosis is not something that is 'done' to you, but rather a state of mind that your therapist helps you to achieve. In many instances, he teaches his clients how they may take themselves in and out of hypnosis, enabling them to continue work begun in the session at home.

Test one: phobias

Laura Hacche-Doran is a mum of three who lives in Brisbane. She's got a big problem: when she was three, her uncle popped her in a suitcase, just for a laugh, and that single event triggered the condition we know as claustrophobia — fear of confined spaces, making elevators and public toilet cubicles a fearful experience.

This is particularly the case when she tries to take a lift — she begins to feel very nervous and hot.

"The reason why I want to get this problem sorted out is because it's starting to get worse," Laura says. "I can feel my stomach tightening and churning, I feel sick and I'm listening to the mechanics of the lift …"

She's worried that it's starting to affect her children because they're starting to fear being in the lift with her because she starts to panic.

Laura's mother went to see a hypnotherapist in the UK and she suggested Laura see someone too because treatment had worked for her.

David's hypnotherapy sessions at the Brisbane Hypnosis Centre last for about two hours — and it's time to put Laura under his guidance. "I simply want you to stare at the ring on my finger, take three very big, deep breaths … and now focus the attention on the feeling of your eyes and you'll begin to feel a feeling of fatigue on your eyes…"

Laura enters the hypnotic state, a condition not unlike daydreaming, where she's mentally and physically relaxed. Now rather than going directly to the source of her phobia, David wants Laura to first rekindle a sense of achievement.

Laura recalls a time when she was in complete control, as head chef at a top catering firm, wowing her clients with an awesome chicken dish.

David asks Laura to hang onto that image.

Recalling that sense of achievement has brought some happy tears.

But things aren't quite as pleasant when she's forced to go to a darker place — stepping into a lift.

"The door hasn't opened and you feel yourself tightening up. Feel it as fully as you can", says David to Laura.

David gets his patients to re-enact in the hypnosis an event that's significant to them. Then he'll desensitise them to that, which is how phobias are dealt with using hypnosis. He's desensitising her fear of claustrophobia by replacing it with a different emotion: joy. And this comes from none other than her catering triumph.

After an emotional session, David's work is done.

Test two: smoking

But what about a smoker — can he overcome his addiction?

John Lazarou, aged 42, has been smoking since he was 14 years old and he associates smoking with almost every emotion in his life — which is the one thing he wants to get away from.

"I don't know if I'm addicted to smoking the tobacco or if I'm addicted to the procedure of having a cigarette or addicted to the feeling that you get when you're having a cigarette," says John.

His last attempt at quitting crashed and burned. He gave up for 18 months, but found he gained 24 kilograms in weight, so took up smoking to lose the weight again.

But John is desperate to kick this nasty habit once and for all.

"I have a five-year-old son Sebastian, who comes around close to me when I'm smoking and I'm saying 'go away' and he goes, but I like the smell. So I don't want any of my children smoking, I don't want any of those children to be in a predicament that I'm in now," says John. This has driven John to try hypnotherapy to quit his smoking addiction.

For John, it's the desire to take away the thought that by quitting smoking he's going to gain weight.

Hypnotherapist David Kennedy is again the man for the job.

David says that at his clinic they see around 500 to 700 smokers every year with excellent results.

David puts John into a trance state, which is where he can best access John's unconscious mind.

"You have no desire to draw in poisonous tars or poisonous substances, toxic substances into your lungs. That's part of the past. That's over, that's done with," says David. "You will watch to see that you do not eat more than you did before you stopped smoking. Your appetite will not increase."

David's not playing games. He's slowly changing this smoker's mind by reinforcing John's subconscious desire to quit.

"Behind you is your past as a smoker. In front of you is a future of health and wellbeing," continues David. "There will be no craving there will be no desire for cigarettes, you will be free."

After the treatment John says he's in such a positive frame of mind and the willingness for all the right reasons to give up smoking is there. He says that David just brought everything to the surface because under normal circumstances he probably would've walked out of David's surgery and lit up a cigarette.

"And I certainly don't feel like doing that now."

Test one: claustrophobia

Laura seemed good and well after two hours' treatment in the clinic. But what happens to her claustrophobia when she puts herself in a lift two weeks after the treatment?

"It's really hard to say if hypnosis cured me because I haven't been in the situation yet where I can react, haven't been in a lift. But once I've had a test and gone up in a lift it'll be interesting to see how I go," says Laura.

Previously, Laura couldn't enter a lift without having a meltdown. This time, her aim is to see how far she can get, if she needs to get out, she will.

She walks into one of the tallest lifts in Brisbane feeling pretty relaxed — the AMP building is 32 storeys high.

"Nothing's coming into my brain to cloud it with fear," she says.

With 15 floors to go Laura's still keeping her cool. Then finally at the top — and she is feeling on top of the world!

"I did it! Let's do it again!"

Test two: smoking

It's been two weeks, but has John's hypnotherapy session worked? How will John go when he's surrounded by smokers? Will he be tempted to light one up? He also faces a grilling from his mates.

"Within four or five days later I noticed I had a little bit of a weight gain and that was one of my major concerns. And because alarm bells started ringing in my little mind, I started to panic and I actually had two cigarettes. But since then I've been back to see David and I have not touched a cigarette since," John says. "This will be a very good test to see if the temptation is still there for me to have a cigarette with my mates."

As any smoker knows, it's easy to quit when temptation's out of sight. But it's a lot harder when it's in your face.

But John succeeds. For John, the temptation to light up with his mates was there but the willpower was also greater, so he chooses not to accept the cigarette a friend tries to hand him.

The chances of hypnotherapy being a success are fairly high depending on the volunteer's motivation to give up smoking or perhaps get over their phobia.

According to the Mayo Clinic, numerous studies have shown that hypnotherapy has the potential to help relieve symptoms of several conditions. However, it is not a 'magic bullet' and is best used as part of a broader, more comprehensive treatment plan than as a stand-alone therapy. Like any other treatment, hypnosis can be very helpful to some people and fail completely with others. It seems to work best with people who are highly motivated and when the therapist is well-trained and understands your particular problem.

For both Laura and John, hypnotherapy has been an astounding success. We've seen hypnosis conquer a phobia and the addiction of smoking.

But how exactly does hypnosis work? Scientists still aren't sure, but when a person's hypnotised, the right side of the brain responsible for emotions and creativity becomes far more active than the left side of the brain, which is responsible for logical thinking.

According to David, what people don't understand is that we experience trance experiences everyday. Daydreaming, driving a motorcar, focusing attention on music or a movie. Any of those things produce some degree of altered states of consciousness. When a person consults a hypnotherapist, all they do is access that capacity right there in the clinic room.

If you think it might work for you, you'll find hypnotherapists in all of Australia's big cities. Just remember, it pays to go in with a positive attitude and a willingness to be there.

  • Need another reason to quit? Within 15 years of giving up smoking, your risk of coronary heart disease is that of a person who's never smoked and your risk of lung cancer would've been reduced by a whopping 80-90 percent.

  • Did you know that pregnant women are using hypnotherapy to block out the pain of childbirth? Women are learning relaxation techniques under hypnosis, allowing them to take their mind off contractions and to focus on the birth instead.

  • Most people quit smoking by going cold turkey and they have the best chance of not suffering a relapse. Less successful are those who use nicotine patches, gum, and counsellors. Clinical hypnotists claim about a 30 percent success rate in treating smokers.

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