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Updated 10 May 2013

Healing through hypnosis

Wilma Stassen set off to a hypnotherapy session expecting to find a starry-eyed freak with a swinging pocket watch. Instead, the session turned out to be truly insightful.

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The word 'hypnotist' brings to mind visions of a starry-eyed freak clucking like a chicken, or an old-fashioned pocket watch swinging to and fro.

With those exact expectations I set off to a hypnotherapy session, only to be shocked out of my ignorance by a truly insightful therapy technique.

Hypnotism is often commercialised by individuals that use it to manipulate behaviour for entertainment value, but it is a powerful tool when used correctly by psychologists and other practitioners that deal with mental health to - as in my case - get to the root of a behavioural, or psychological, issue.

The behavioural problem I wanted to address with hypnotherapy was nail-biting – something I've been doing involuntarily for as long as I can remember. That was until, compliments of hypnotherapy, I was taken much further down memory lane than I thought possible. But more about that later…

So what is hypnotherapy?

According a HealthDay News report, Marc Oster, a clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist from Arlington Heights, Illinois, explained that patients are usually "talked" into a state of highly focused, suggestible attentiveness where they are able to clear away mental "clutter" and focus on whatever problem is concerning them. In most cases, practitioners teach patients self-hypnosis techniques that they can use at home.

Patients do not relinquish self-control, Oster told HealthDay News.

"Actually, from a clinical perspective, that's the opposite of what we do with people," he explained. "People come to see us to develop greater willpower and have more self-control, more confidence in themselves. You don't help that by taking it away."

Experts stress that hypnotherapy is really performed by the patient; the practitioner merely acting as a 'guide' that navigates the process.

Using electroencephalograms [EEG] and other methods, science is beginning to determine what happens to the hypnotised brain. "We're getting to the point where we can see that the hypnotic brain looks different from the resting or sleeping brain," Oster said. Hypnotised individuals are usually physically at ease, with lowered blood pressure and heart rates, while feeling fully awake and mentally attentive.

What it helps for

Studies have shown hypnosis can be a useful adjunct therapy against many ills, including:

  • Gastrointestinal problems. "For irritable bowel syndrome, especially, hypnosis has been demonstrated to be about 80 percent effective in reducing or eliminating symptoms. Medicine cannot do that," Oster said.
  • Pain. "It's been clearly helpful there for hundreds of years," Dr David Spiegel, an expert on hypnotherapy and a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford University in California said. In many cases, patients with chronic pain use self-hypnosis techniques to "turn down" pain, like lowering the volume on a radio. Spiegel said patients can also use the technique to help get through invasive or painful medical procedures, such as dentistry or even cardiac catheterisation.
  • Smoking and other addictions. "Half of people will typically stop smoking after a single [hypnosis] session, and half of those won't have a cigarette for two years," Spiegel said. In the world of smoking-cessation, a 25 percent long-term success rate is considered impressive, he said.
  • Weight loss. "There's some pretty good research that says hypnosis is helpful," Oster said. "It seems to help people stay focused on their goals."

How does it feel?

There are different methods of getting the patient into a state of hypnosis, and therapists use the technique most suitable to the patient and his or her circumstances.

Contrary to belief, you do actually know what is going on around you while in a state of hypnosis. In my case, my body felt completely relaxed - like a limp ragdoll – practically incapable of movement. I could hear music playing, a little water fountain bubbling, and of course the therapist's voice instructing and guiding me.

Although my body felt practically asleep, my mind was clear and focussed. Almost like a spotlight focussed on a small area - everything around it is forgotten, irrelevant and unnecessary – all its power and attention concentrated on a small area of importance.

And that, in my understanding, is exactly what hypnosis is: a state of higher awareness, where everyday distractions are dimmed and attention is concentrated on a specific subject or issue. (This intense concentration is quite taxing on the mind and, after about two hours in this state, I was utterly exhausted.)

What happens?

The therapist used a technique called regression on me - a process employed to recollect old memories - to hopefully get to the experience in my childhood that caused me to start biting my nails.

Although most people's first memories are from the age of 2- or 3-years-old, psychologists believe that the mind absorbs every experience you ever had - even as far back as the womb. Regression enables you to tap into those deeply buried memories, and with the guidance of a trained professional, deal with whatever negative effects were caused by this experience.

So the journey began. Slowly she took me back a couple of years at a time, recalling experiences of importance from the various life stages. I experienced more than just 'remembering', I also had a sense of being back there again – déjà vu, if you like.

This, as you can imagine, has the potential to open up a nasty can of worms should a person have had some traumatic experiences – especially experiences that may have been suppressed by the psyche and now surface for the very first time. (That's why it is imperative to visit a trained and registered hypnotherapist, should you decide to take the hypnotherapy route.)

Luckily my therapist lead me on a safe passage back in time until we reached, what we assume, was the root of my nail-biting habit.

Once 'there' I re-experienced the scene (which, I might add, was quite emotional for me). The experience evoked a lot of fear (of punishment) and guilt in the mind of a 2-year-old, who, at that tender age, was not able to put the events into perspective.

Then the therapist introduced my adult self into the scenario to try and make sense of it all. The older and wiser self could admit that all 2-year-olds probably make the same mistake, and that similar events (but completely unrelated to this specific incident) were actually not my small-self's doing at all.

Such an experience will, theoretically, help one shed the burden (in this case guilt) that has been deeply rooted in the psyche, ultimately removing the cause of the behavioural pattern (in this case nail-biting).

The verdict

One week after undergoing the therapy and I have not bitten my nails again. I've wanted to, and in fact just talking about it makes me want to do it right now. But I suspect that's just the force of habit, because every time I lift my hand to my mouth an inner voice tells me: "you don't have to anymore", and I lower it again…

Obviously my case is a very good example of what hypnotherapy is capable of doing, but experiences vary from individual to individual.

In fact, testimonials from others who have undergone hypnotherapy claim that they did not have such a powerful experience as the one I have described, while others believe they cannot be hypnotised at all.

TAKE NOTE: Hypnotherapy is offered as part of psychotherapeutic counselling by trained psychologists or psychiatrists, registered with the Health Professions Council, or alternatively by trained hypnotherapists registered with the South African Institute of Hypnotism. For more information, contact the South African Institute of Hypnotism at 0861 102 318 or visit www.hypnotherapy.co.za

 
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