Hypnotherapy has fascinated men for centuries. It fascinated the Egyptians several thousand years ago and in the seventeenth century a scientific investigator called Athanasius Kircher started to play around with the idea seriously.
But the practice of hypnotherapy really began with Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian who graduated in Vienna in 1766. Mesmer believed that human behaviour is controlled by some unseen power from the planets – in much the same way that the moon influences the tides. He argued that this strange power was transmitted via ordinary magnets but after doing a number of experiments he gradually came to the conclusion that the magnets weren’t really necessary and that the power could be transmitted – and more important, controlled – with no physical intermediary at all.
Mesmer soon introduced his idea of ‘mesmerism’ into popular medical practice and quickly became enormously successful. He was, indeed, so successful that the Austrian medical establishment didn’t like him at all and when he went too far by curing a young blind girl they accused him of being a cheat and a charlatan and threw him out of Vienna.
Undeterred, Mesmer went to Paris where he established an even more lucrative private practice, using his powerful personality and undoubted presence to attract, dominate and heal his wealthy patients. Unfortunately for Mesmer the French medical establishment didn’t like his success either and they decided to get rid of him. In order to make the whole thing look solid and respectable the French set up a commission (which included Benjamin Franklin, one of the signatories of the American Constitution and Dr Guillotin, who invented the instrument which bears his name) which concluded accurately but unsympathetically that Mesmer’s effects were all produced by the imagination.
Mesmer’s career was not helped by the fact that the French King Louis XVI had been one of his most enthusiastic supporters. When the French Revolution came Mesmer fled to London.
Since then mesmerism has become known as hypnotism (and known to those who practise it as hypnotherapy) and has suffered a number of setbacks. The first major problem has been that a number of authors have written novels in which hypnosis has been used as an evil force. In the book Trilby, for example, George Du Maurier terrified his readers with the evil character Svengali. Many people still regard Svengali as someone quite real.
The second major problem is that hypnosis has always been popular with stage artists. Over the decades this commercialization of the art of hypnosis by thousands of entertainers has, in my view, had a damaging effect on the status of the associated medical speciality. But slowly, over the years, hypnotherapy has attracted more and more followers. Slowly it has become clear that it can be used to help patients suffering from a wide range of physical and mental problems. Psychiatrists and psychologists have used it and discovered that with its help they can aid patients suffering from a broad variety of anxieties and stress-induced problems. In addition, practitioners have shown that hypnotherapy can be used to delve into the unconscious mind and reveal hidden memories, fears, ambitions and suspicions. During the last decade or so hypnotherapy has become one of the most popular and fastest growing of all the alternative forms of medicine. It has become big business.
When practised by a skilled expert hypnotherapy can be used to uncover hidden problems and uncover long-forgotten fears. It can be an extremely useful diagnostic technique.
Hypnotherapy is normally associated with Svengali-like figures, darkened rooms, drawn velvet curtains, leather couches, soft voices, swinging watch fobs and staring eyes.
Apart from the soft voice none of that is really necessary. Hypnotherapy is, in fact, remarkably easy to practise and anyone who has a reasonably soothing and relaxing voice, and is prepared to spend some time with his patients, can become a skilled hypnotherapist. In order to hypnotize someone you need their trust but very little else.
To be a good subject for hypnotherapy you need to have absolute confidence in the hypnotherapist, you need to be able to relax and need to want him or her to help you. The more vivid your imagination the more likely you are to benefit. The best subjects for hypnotherapy daydream a good deal and live fairly rich fantasy lives. People who find it difficult to concentrate are difficult to hypnotize whereas individuals who can easily ‘lose’ themselves in what they are doing are usually fairly easy to hypnotize. It may or may not be of any significance but women are often said to be easier to hypnotize than men.
To induce a hypnotic state the hypnotherapist will usually follow a fairly well-established pattern. To begin with the patient will need to be sitting or lying comfortably in a room where there are few distractions. A hypnotic state is similar to a sleep state and the sort of physical conditions required for the former are similar to the physical conditions required for the latter.
The hypnotherapist will then begin by talking in a slow, relaxing, confident and controlled manner. He will tell his patient not to worry and he will provide as much reassurance as he possibly can. He may ask his patient to concentrate his eyes on a fixed object such as a pencil or a finger or he may ask his patient to close his eyes and to keep them closed, imagining that his eyelids are getting heavier and heavier.
Next, the hypnotherapist may introduce peaceful images such as green fields, rolling countryside, slow moving streams and so on. Or he may ask the patient to imagine that he is walking down a long staircase.
After fifteen minutes or so of this the patient will be in a light trance – a state half way between waking and sleeping. Gradually over the next few minutes the therapist can usually take the patient into a deeper and deeper trance.
To speed up subsequent consultations the hypnotherapist may plant a suggestion in the patient’s mind that will enable him to ‘switch on’ a trance state much more quickly.
After establishing the trance state the technique used by the hypnotherapist will vary from patient to patient. In some cases the therapist may simply tell the patient that his fears or problems are going to disappear. In other cases he may try to build up the patient’s confidence and eradicate long-standing fears.
One of the most sophisticated techniques used by hypnotherapists is regression – a technique in which the therapist takes the patient back through previous months and years in an attempt to unearth problem situations which have led to the development of specific anxieties and fears.
There are a number of specific hazards associated with hypnotherapy.
1. In my view the most potentially dangerous technique offered by hypnotherapists is regression – a technique in which the hypnotherapist claims to be able to take his patient back to his childhood or to a former life.
Scores of hypnotherapists seem to specialize in regression. Some have described their skills in public. But I think this is an exceedingly dangerous ‘trick’ to try. The main problem is that if a patient under hypnosis is taken back to an unhappy or physically uncomfortable experience then he may become seriously distressed or even physically ill. So, for example, a patient who suffered from bad asthma as a child and who is taken back to his childhood by a thoughtless hypnotherapist may well develop a severe attack of asthma. And that can kill. A patient taken back to a time when he was depressed may well become depressed again.
The other problem with regression is that although many hypnotherapists argue that they can draw conclusions from the information they obtain, the evidence suggests that what they gather is just a ragbag of miscellaneous, meaningless memories, ideas, feelings and thoughts. Using the information acquired during regression to create useful conclusions is about as sensible as dipping your hand into a dustbin and drawing conclusions about the mental state of the owner from the material you find. It is extremely difficult to differentiate between the useful and the misleading, the relevant and the irrelevant. The hypnotherapist who claims to be able to see patterns in the information he obtains may be deluding himself and, worse still, his patient.
2. Hypnotherapists often do not realize that the information they acquire from their patients is not always accurate. Some hypnotherapists seem to believe that anything they are told by hypnotized patients must be the truth. This is not the case. Recollections obtained during hypnosis can involve confabulations and pseudo memories. The brain is far more complex than many hypnotherapists imagine. Many memories are not memories at all but products of the imagination. Hypnosis can too often lead to a type of emotional playtime which reveals dreams and fantasies as well as facts, interpretations, ambitions and regrets as much as genuine memories.
3. Hypnotherapy can easily turn a mild depression into a very serious depression. And yet a number of hypnotherapists with limited training claim to be able to treat patients suffering from depression.
4. There is a real risk that patients who are given instructions while under hypnosis may suffer physical damage afterwards. A patient who is frightened of water, for example, may be told, ‘You won’t be afraid of water in future.’ He may then leap into a lake without first taking the precaution of learning how to swim.
5. There is a danger that by helping a patient to stop smoking or give up overeating a hypnotherapist may take away the patient’s much-needed crutch without providing him with an alternative. The patient who smokes to relieve his stress may have a heart attack if he tries to cope with his life without the support of his cigarettes. It is always important to find out why a patient needs a particular crutch before removing that crutch.
6. There is, of course, the risk that a patient may be manipulated by a hypnotherapist.
Good hypnotherapists can help their patients relax, deal with stress and anxiety, get to sleep at night, manage without tranquillisers, drugs or tobacco and deal with panic attacks. Diseases such as asthma, allergy reactions, migraine and eczema respond particularly well to hypnotherapy. Patients who regularly overeat may also be helped by a good hypnotherapist.