By Susanna Sweeney, MSc, MBACP, CHT
“Does hypnotherapy work?” In reality there are two parts to this question.
The first one is whether hypnotherapy is a valid form of therapy, or, alternatively, whether hypnotherapy is all down to charlatanry.
Maybe you have heard people be doubtful or negative about hypnotherapy and you want to check the facts.
The second part to that question is: “Does hypnotherapy work FOR ME?” Maybe you would like to give it a try but you want to be sure before you book hypnotherapy to help you change the issue in your life that you wish to change.
These are the questions that I will attempt to answer in this article. Bear with me throughout the arguments I will make. They might not be quite what you would expect, but I promise all will become clear in good time.
To start answering this question, allow me first to briefly delve into the history of hypnosis.
From its inception by Mesmer (1734-1815) and his followers in the 18th century, hypnosis has been viewed with suspicion and prejudice by many in the medical establishment.
In 1784, a Royal French Commission was charged with investigating mesmerism. The commission had hundreds of positive testimonials available for inspection by people who were cured of their various complaints through the interventions of mesmerists. But these testimonials were ignored, and in the end, mesmerism was rejected out of hand and even banned.
Similar scenarios replayed themselves in continental Europe and in the US. The medical orthodoxy found mesmerism unpalatable. Why?
For one thing, conservative medical doctors did not like the association between hypnosis and sensational stage performances by mesmerists. Many of these performances used (and to this day use) some deception to make the stage act all the more impressive to the audience. This made it easy to associate mesmerism (hypnosis) per se with charlatanry.
Secondly, conservative medical doctors could not understand how hypnosis worked. There was nothing to see, nothing that could be measured. Ignorance led to prejudice and closed-mindedness.
In the 18th and early 19th century conventional medicine had nothing
much to offer patients. Crude, and- by today’s standards- rather
questionable methods such as purging and bloodletting were the order of the day. As you might imagine, there were very few success stories.
In contrast, patients enthusiastically embraced mesmerism- in Vienna, in Paris, all over France and in the US.
With this in mind, you would expect doctors to be interested in how conventional medicine might make use of what hypnosis had to offer. After all, it should all be about patient care, right?
You would expect a truly scientific approach- for leading doctors to become curious about how mesmerists did achieve the results they did- and to design suitable research projects to get to the bottom of the issue. You would expect that sort of reasonable approach.
But reason did not prevail.
And, it seems, once hypnosis had been tarnished with the brush of suspicion and prejudice the reputation stuck.
To this day, hypnosis is one of the most under-researched fields in psychology- even though it has fascinating benefits to offer. (Find out here how hypnosis is used in a therapeutic context and how hypnosis can help you).
So much about the history behind why hypnotherapy is still viewed in this same light- of something questionable, dubious, or at best, as something that only works in part. This sad piece of history set the course and has contributed much to shaping public opinion of hypnotherapy.
This sad piece of history is the reason you are asking this question in the first place: “Does hypnotherapy work?”
Curious by now? Good. Bear with me, your questions shall be answered in as best as I can.
Before I attempt an answer to this question that is informed by research, allow me to play devil’s advocate by offering an analogy. I want to do this because, I feel, the question of whether or not hypnotherapy works is quite charged.
Therefore, when being asked this question “Does hypnotherapy work?” you are immediately manoeuvred into a defensive position. You are now under pressure having to produce impressive arguments, case studies and research evidence to ‘clear the slate’, to alleviate suspicion that you along with the rest of the professionals working in the hypnotherapy field may be charlatans, after all.
Not really fair, I feel.
Asking “Does hypnotherapy work?” is a little bit like asking “Does surgery work?”
Think about it for a moment.
Surgery is a viable medical intervention, but surgery cannot cure any and every condition. And even when surgery is deemed useful, the outcome of the same surgical procedure won’t be the exact same for everyone, even when the processes are tried and tested.
There are many variables to consider, such as:
You probably get the idea by now. There are complexities to every treatment, and there are individual differences between patients. A whole battery of factors will impact how well someone will take to a treatment, and what the results will be.
I will argue that this very same complexity is true of hypnotherapy (or any form of therapy) as well.
Some of the factors impacting how well hypnotherapy will work for someone are:
There are tens of thousands of people out there who have changed their lives using hypnotherapy. Listen up in your circle and you are bound to pick up on positive testimonials around people losing weight, shedding depression or anxiety or achieving their goals with the help of hypnotherapy.
Hypnotherapy has been in use for over two hundred years. Many well-known historic personalities have benefited from the therapeutic power of hypnosis, see some of them listed on an info graphic here. Many present day celebrities have used hypnotherapy to change their lives and you will find examples on an info graphic in the same article.
Plus, even though there is not a lot of investment in research around hypnotherapy, there is some good research evidence as to the efficacy of hypnotherapy.
As you can see, with the few pieces of research carried out in the hypnosis field, this is still an impressive list of evidence for what hypnotherapy can do.
There has been no comparative research conducted for a quite a while, but I did come upon this classic study (see graphic) which compared hypnotherapy to psychoanalysis and CBT in terms of efficacy of treatment. As you can see, hypnotherapy performed very well.
Another unspoken connotation hidden in the question: “Does hypnotherapy
work?” is an expectation many people have that it must work perfectly,
100%, for any condition, under any circumstances- otherwise hypnosis, by
many people, is deemed not to be working at all.
High standards? Ever so slightly!
Is hypnotherapy such a miracle treatment? No it is not- and no therapy is.
Hypnotherapy seen as a cure all for any and every condition is one of many hypnosis myths which are good to shed before your treatment if you are considering using hypnotherapy for change in your life.
Now on to the second part of your question, the one you have been waiting for patiently all along.
And again, the answer probably won't be what you would expect to hear:
I am afraid I will I have to leave you to find your own answer to this question. You will be the best judge of your own circumstances and of your own experience.
Does hypnotherapy work for you?
In the end of the day the decision for or against hypnotherapy in your case will be a heart decision- it will either feel right or it won’t. Many people swear by hypnotherapy. They have stopped smoking, lost weight, stopped drinking alcohol, or stopped being tormented by anxiety thanks to hypnotherapy.
In the end how you like hypnotherapy will be a matter of personal preference- as it is with any form of therapy. Some people swear by homeopathy- others prefer acupuncture.
But one thing is sure- you won't know how you like hypnotherapy until you try. I am hoping you'll give it a go.
Cyna, McAuliff, Andrew, 2004. Hypnosis for pain
relief in labour and childbirth: a systematic review. British journal of
Anaesthetics. October 2004, vol 93, issue 4
Montgomery, G.H., DuHamel, K.N., & Redd, W.H. (2000). A metaanalysis of hypnotically induced analgesia: How effective is hypnosis? International Journal of Clinical and Experimental
Hypnosis, 48(2), 138–153.
Johnson, Karkut, 1996. Participation in multicomponent hypnosis treatment programs for women's weight loss with and without overt aversion. Psychological reports, October 1996.
Kirsch, Montgomery, Sapirstein, 1995. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Hypnosis as an adjunct to cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy: A meta-analysis.
Spiegel, David, 2003. Hypnosis and Traumatic Dissociation: Therapeutic Opportunities, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 4:3, 73-90
Stradling, Roberts, Wilson and Lovecock, 1998. Controlled trial of hypnotherapy for weight loss in patients with obstructive sleep apnoea. international Journal of Obesity, issue 28
Waterfield, Robin, 2002. Hidden depth. The Story of Hypnosis.Macmillan, London, 2002.
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