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Hypnosis - What is it, Who can do it?

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Updated November 25, 2003

Hypnosis has a strange reputation.   Stage hypnotists put a group of people on stage and get them to do goofy things.   Traveling hypnotists claim to hypnotize auditoriums full of people to help them stop smoking.  Other hypnotists claim to uncover memories of past child abuse, past lives, and UFO abductions.  Major medical centers use hypnosis as a treatment for burn patients in acute pain and for other patients who have chronic pain.    What is this strange technique?  Can it be helpful for people with mental health problems?

Hypnosis has been defined in different ways by different people.  A hypnotic trance is a form of dissociation.  A trance is a natural state which we all experience from time-to-time.  Day-dreaming is an example of trance.  When we daydream we are focused on some internal event, and we have decreased awareness of the things around us. Hypnosis has been studied since at least the 18th century.  Similar phenomena have been seen throughout recorded history, as far back as the ancient Egyptians.

Franz Anton Mesmer used magnets in his early explorations of trance, and the phrase "animal magnetism" was coined.  His work inspired both healers and entertainers.   Both groups used the term  "mesmerism."  Serious health practitioners continued to study hypnosis, and surgeon James Braid is credited with bringing that term into the English language in 1843.  The split between hypnosis as entertainment/spiritual mystery and hypnosis as treatment for mental and physical disorders continues to this day.    

There are still several theories about what is happening in hypnosis.  Most theorists believe that a trance is an altered state, although it is often noted that it is a natural state like daydreaming.  In a trance one's attention is focused narrowly - on imagery, on internal events, on a spot on the ceiling,  on the voice of the hypnotist, etc.   A state of relaxation and heightened suggestibility is often seen under these conditions.

Health practitioners use hypnosis for different sorts of problems.  There is a great deal of research demonstrating that it is helpful to relieve and cope with pain.  David Patterson, Ph.D. teaches nurses to use hypnosis to relieve the pain of burn patients who are receiving painful treatments.  I teach patients with chronic pain to put themselves in a trance in order to reduce their chronic pain and cope with it better.  Hypnosis seems to help the brain work more closely with the rest of the body under certain circumstances.   There is even serious research which demonstrates that hypnosis can increase breast size.

Hypnosis can also be used to help people lose weight or stop smoking, although the research is not quite as strong for these uses.   It might be best to view hypnosis as an "adjunct" treatment for these problems.  Eating less and exercising more are still the most crucial ingredients in any weight loss program, and one's motivation to quit is the best predictor for success at stopping smoking.

Most states do not regulate the term "hypnotist" or "hypnotherapist."  Almost anyone can market themselves as a hypnotist, and many do.  The term "lay hypnotist" is often used to describe someone who is not a licensed mental health professional, but who practices hypnosis.  These persons have often taken courses in hypnosis, and may claim to be "certified."   This certification is often just a certificate that states that they completed the course.  To protect yourself, always go to a licensed health professional or mental health professional if you are interested in hypnosis for a health problem.

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