Hypnosis can help alter unwanted behaviors

March 20, 2019

Q. Can hypnosis help me quit smoking?

Hypnosis is one of several relaxation methods deemed useful by an independent panel of the National Institutes of Health. The panel found it may be helpful for treating chronic pain, alleviating anxiety, reducing frequency and severity of headaches, and controlling bleeding and pain during dental procedures. 

Hypnosis is also promoted to change undesirable behaviors, such as smoking, alcohol dependence, and bedwetting. It is used along with other methods by some mental health professionals to help patients overcome common fears, such as fear of flying or of meeting new people. 

Hypnosis achieves focused attention. It is like using a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun and make them more powerful. When our minds are concentrated, we are able to use them more powerfully. 

Hypnosis, also known as hypnotherapy or hypnotic suggestion, has been a healing practice for thousands of years. The term comes from the Greek “hypnos,” which means sleep. The use of trance-like states and positive suggestion were important techniques in the early Greek healing temples. Variations of those techniques were practiced throughout the ancient world.

Modern hypnosis can be traced to the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who believed that imbalances in magnetic forces in the human body were responsible for illness. Mesmer applied a therapy which he called mesmerism; it involved the use of tranquil gestures and soothing words to relax patients and restore the balance to their magnetic forces. 

The evolution of Mesmer's ideas and practices led Scottish neurosurgeon James Braid to coin the term hypnosis in 1842. Called the "father of modern hypnotism," Braid rejected Mesmer's theory of magnetic forces and instead ascribed the "mesmeric trance" to a physical process that resulted from prolonged attention to an object of fixation. 

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychotherapy, found hypnosis useful for treating hysteria, but later abandoned the practice after observing that he stirred up powerful emotions within his patients.

Eventually, the notion of using a state of altered awareness gained greater acceptance in conventional Western medicine. Today, hypnosis is used widely in the United States and other Western countries. People who practice hypnosis are generally licensed and are often trained in several psychological techniques.

Under hypnosis, you're more open than usual to suggestions, and this can be used to modify your perceptions, behavior, sensations and emotions. Therapeutic hypnosis is used to improve your health and well-being; it is different from so-called stage hypnosis used by entertainers. Although you're more open to suggestion during therapeutic hypnosis, your free will remains intact and you don't lose control over your behavior.

Some people are not able to enter a state of hypnosis fully enough to make it effective. Certain qualities  may mean you're more likely to have success with hypnosis. These include the ability to be so engrossed in an activity that you aren't aware of your environment, the capacity to recall vivid memories through the sense of smell, and the ability to recall physical sensations of past events.

Adverse reactions are rare but may include headache, dizziness, nausea, anxiety, and creation of false memories.

[More on hypnosis is our next column.]

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