What is hypnotherapy?
Hypnotherapy, or trance work, is a group of techniques that allow practitioners and patients to take advantage of the mind-body connection to foster healing. Essentially, trance is an altered state of consciousness marked by decreased breadth and increased intensity of awareness. What distinguishes hypnotherapy is that it involves a deliberate choice to enter this state of consciousness for a goal beyond relaxation: to focus concentration and use suggestion to promote health and healing. Individuals can not only experience hypnosis from a licensed practitioner, they can also become comfortable practicing and eventually mastering the techniques themselves. While the practitioner serves as a teacher or guide, the only person who can hypnotize you is you, since trance is a latent potential of your own mind. Therefore, all hypnosis is really self-hypnosis.
What conditions is hypnotherapy used for?
Hypnotherapy can be used effectively to treat a remarkable range of health conditions. Dr. Weil's colleague, Steven Gurgevich, Ph.D., a psychologist affiliated with the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine who specializes in clinical hypnosis, says he's seen the most dramatic results with dermatological and gastrointestinal problems, as the skin and gut are areas of the body where stress is commonly expressed. He has seen hypnotherapy be effective in dealing with weight loss, as mind-body techniques can often help reinforce motivation, self-discipline and willpower. They can also help people change their behavior and attitudes about eating, physical activity, shopping for food and restaurant dining.
Suggestions offered to your subconscious mind during a hypnotic trance can remove psychological obstacles and strengthen the ego, as well as encourage changes in body image, metabolism and the body-mass set point (the weight at which a person tends to remain).
In addition to these uses, Dr. Weil has recommended hypnotherapy to help ease chronic pain, lessen the side effects of chemotherapy, alleviate symptoms of autoimmune disease, and counteract anxiety and sleep disorders. Hypnotherapy can also be used to improve performance, as a form of analgesia or sedation for medical and dental procedures, and even to help stop bleeding in accident victims.
The American Society for Clinical Hypnosis also recommends hypnosis for burn therapy (to reduce inflammation and promote healing in addition to pain control), pregnancy-associated nausea and vomiting, childbirth, allergies and asthma, high blood pressure and Raynaud's disease.
What should one expect on a visit to a practitioner of hypnotherapy?
Typically, your first session will begin with a great deal of talking. A good therapist will ask you questions to get some insight into what motivates you and what your beliefs and expectations might be. When that's done, you'll be taught some type of "induction technique." This is the use of a focal point, either internal or external, to concentrate your attention (Hollywood's version is the swinging pendant). The technique often used by Dr. Gurgevich is to have you close your eyes while sitting upright in a chair, pressing your thumb and forefinger together, holding your breath for a count of five, then releasing your breath and fingers while letting your mind drift, developing pictures and images to accompany the words you hear him speaking. Some 20 percent of the population may go into trance very easily, while an equal percentage show great resistance. The therapist may need to work extensively with the latter group to develop trust that allows them to drop their psychological defenses.
Once you're in a state of trance (but still fully aware of where you are and what you're doing), the therapist offers suggestions specifically geared to the goal of the therapy. For example, he may suggest that a person with irritable bowel syndrome picture the wave-like motions of her digestive system slowing down and becoming smoother, or have a patient with disfiguring warts imagine traveling inside his body to the roots of the offending growths and depriving them of nourishment. Your unconscious mind can then transmit these thoughts and images throughout your mind and body, setting the healing process in motion.
A typical course of hypnotherapy may require from one to five visits (lasting 45 minutes to an hour each), depending on your individual response to hypnosis, the medical condition involved, and your response to treatment. The therapist's role is to teach you how to access the trance state on your own. Once you've learned how to do this, you can start using self-hypnosis on a regular basis to maximize your healing potential.
Your insurance may cover hypnotherapy if it is performed by an M.D., a Ph.D., a dentist, or a licensed social worker.
To learn more, Dr. Weil suggests reading the works of Dr. Gurgevich, including his most recent book, "Hypnosis House Call: A Complete Course in Mind-Body Healing" (Sterling Ethos, 2011).
Are there any side effects or conditions for which hypnotherapy should be avoided?
Hypnotherapy should never be used when the client is opposed to using it for personal reasons - when it is contrary to their spiritual beliefs, for instance. Mind-body techniques, including hypnosis, should never be used alone but as adjuncts to other therapies that are clinically indicated.
While hypnotherapy has proved an invaluable technique when used properly, it has also drawn its fair share of critics over the years, many of whom claim it has produced results that are artifactual - complete creations of the therapist. Two of the areas in which this has been suspected are multiple personality disorder and repressed memory syndrome. These can be areas of potential abuse, in which the hypnotherapist may be primarily responsible for eliciting his or her own desired responses and planting them into susceptible individuals. Dr. Weil suggests taking care to find licensed, credentialed hypnotherapists to avoid such circumstances. He also recommends that individuals who are actively abusing drugs or alcohol, or who are delusional or hallucinatory, seek other kinds of care to address and alleviate their conditions before beginning hypnotherapy.
Is there a governing body that oversees or credentials practitioners in hypnotherapy?
Members of The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) are licensed healthcare workers with at least a master's degree in their respective field. They also must be eligible for their clinical organization, such as the American Medical Association, National Association of Social Workers, American Dental Association, etc. All of these healthcare workers are licensed, credentialed and trained in an accredited field of study. The ASCH offers two levels of certification in clinical hypnosis: "Certification" (CE) and "Approved Consultant" (AP). Those at the "Approved Consultant" level have extensive training in clinical hypnosis and are qualified to instruct those seeking "Certification." Though there are other institutions that offer certification in hypnosis, certification through the ASCH ensures that the practitioner is a licensed and trained advanced level healthcare professional.
How does one get in touch with a practitioner of hypnosis/ hypnotherapy?
The ASCH website has a referral search engine that enables you to identify a professional certified in clinical hypnosis by their medical specialty. This search gives the location, telephone number and state of certification if the practitioner is CE or AP.
It is important to make the distinction between a licensed professional that uses clinical hypnosis to address conditions for which they are trained, versus "lay" people who have merely taken training in the techniques of hypnosis but do not possess the credentials, skills or experience to treat clinical diagnoses. One rule of thumb is that no practitioner should offer clinical hypnosis to remedy a condition unless they are also capable of treating that condition without hypnosis.
Aside from seeking a certified practitioner, Dr. Gurgevich also recommends being wary of therapists who ask for a set number of sessions in advance, as achieving one's desired goal may in fact occur in one session. Beware also of those individuals who promise a cure or say they are going to "hypnotize you," as this passive scenario is not optimal for the patient's long-term well-being. The goal of the therapist should be to teach you how to harness the mind-body skills you need, so that you can employ them on your own in the future.
Are there other therapies that might work well in conjunction with hypnotherapy?
Like most mind-body therapies, hypnosis can work as an excellent adjunct to most conventional or alternative therapies. Hypnotherapy can often be used with manual therapies like manipulation and massage as well as various systems of medicine like Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, or homeopathy. Oftentimes, hypnosis can be used with other relaxation techniques, like meditation, and with various forms of psychotherapy to facilitate behavioral change.
What is Dr. Weil's view regarding hypnotherapy?
Dr. Weil feels it is important to dispel some common misconceptions about hypnotherapy. For some people who have never tried it, the idea of going into a hypnotic trance may seem odd or frightening. But the fact is that we all experience trance states in everyday life, such as daydreaming, watching a movie, driving home "on autopilot," or practicing meditation or other relaxation techniques. Parlor tricks and stage shows aside, a clinical hypnotherapist will never make you quack like a duck or sing like Elvis. The person in a hypnotic trance is always in control, just as someone who is daydreaming can decide to go on or stop at any time. As stated before, all hypnosis is self-hypnosis.
In general, Dr. Weil believes that no health condition is out of bounds for trying hypnotherapy under the guidance of a skilled practitioner with whom a trusting relationship has been established.