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Hypnotherapy employs the use of hypnosis—an altered state of consciousness caused by little more than the power of suggestion—to help facilitate behavioural and emotional change. A trained hypnotherapist can cause a trance like 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 behaviour.
What is hypnotism?
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.
How does hypnotherapy work?
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 trance like 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.
Risk of hypnotherapy
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.