Hypnotherapy: Poppycock or Phenomenon?

Hypnotherapy has long been misunderstood from the false portrayals of Hollywood to the comical showman on stage who turns his audience into a laughing stock of chickens. The efficacy of hypnosis as a therapeutic intervention however is recognized as a viable, versatile and powerful modality today (Douglas 2014). What then is effective hypnotherapy, how does it work and how can it be applied in modern day treatment to create long lasting changes and the breakthroughs one desires?  The state of hypnosis has many theoretical views and is tied to various neurobiological processes in the brain (Yapko 2015), (Douglas 2014), (Jensen et. al. 2015). These states tap into one’s deeper ability to cope and focuses on a client’s innate strengths rather than on what is going wrong with the client and focuses on what is right within them (Yapko 2015). When used correctly, hypnotherapy can be a strong healing modality for various concerns from physical pain to PTSD and alcoholism (Ahmadi et. al. 2018), (Wahbeh et. al. 2018), (Janer 2009), (Haefner 2017) .  The importance of the induction process is crucial in facilitating a successful experience in hypnotherapy treatment.  The skills of the clinician and motivation of the client are all important factors in the healing process and producing successful outcomes (O’Keefe et. al. 2017).

     Hypnosis per Dr. Michael Yapko in his book Essentials of Hypnosis is “a means of focusing one’s attention in meaningful ways to achieve self-defined goals for developing the best and most adaptive parts of ourselves” (Yapko 2015, pg. 2).  Hypnosis then being a deeper focus into oneself, amplifies what is right with a person and not what is wrong. In essence it helps one to grasp onto their innate strengths and abilities to overcome their current concerns. This view suggests that the client does not need to learn new skills, but already possess a set of skills making them capable of achieving their desired outcome. Hypnosis acts as a liaison, tapping into those strengths, magnifying, and ultimately applying them (Yapko 2015).  

     This ability does not just apply to the emotional being, but to the physical as well. Hypnosis has been used to increase one’s control over their immune system and even used for chronic pain, giving one the power over their physical responses  (Yapko 2015), (Mottern 2010), (Ahmadi et. al 2018).  One research study took 36 participants with symptoms of severe headaches defined as either a tension headache or a migraine and experimented with using hypnotherapy as a drug therapy. This study wanted to compare the efficacy of hypnotherapy versus pharmacology in treating severe headaches. The study showed that hypnosis had a significant impact on headaches and can be effective in relieving these headaches just as much as drug treatment (Ahmadi et. al. 2018).  Hypnotherapy therefore has great potential to unleash an endogenous power that has been shown to be as strong as pharmacology.

     In examining what this power in the mind is to relieve even the severest of headaches, there are several theories that exist to define the science behind hypnotherapy. Hypnosis researcher, Ernest Hilgard, P.h.D, defines the process in the mind as a dissociated state in his Neodissociation Model. His model is based on the view that humans have multiple cognitive processing systems in the brain and hypnotherapy allows them to tap into these other systems dissociating from the control of the executive functioning system.  This in turn allows the person to access deeper subsystems to command the body and psyche to respond in desired ways (Yapko 2015).

     Another theory, defined as the Sociocognitive Phenomenon, focuses on the cognitive makeup of the person, specifically their beliefs, attitudes, expectations etc.,  influencing their cognitive interpretation which influences their emotions, mood, and responses to the world around them. Psychologist Theodore X. Barber, P.h.D. has written and researched hypnotherapy extensively from this perspective. He considers hypnotherapy as part of the client's innate development to fantasy proneness and imaginative ability as key in the process to work through their core concerns during hypnotherapy (Yapko 2015).  

     One more very popular view on the hypnotic state is the theory that hypnosis is an Altered State of Consciousness.  In this altered state, it is considered to be a separate state of consciousness from everyday functioning where one’s thoughts processes reduce defenses and judgment and increase one’s access to emotions and responses allowing them to cope with concerns beyond their usual capability (Yapko 2015).
There are many other theories, and in reality whichever theory the therapist chooses to operate from, will frame the experience the client gains from the treatment.  Research done on post hypnotic attitudes shows that persons themselves described the process as a non-intellectual, non-dreamlike, increased sensory and spiritual transformative state (Douglas 2014).

     Achieving slow brain wave patterns are desirable in order for a person to be induced into this alter state, or dissociated state of consciousness.  Brain oscillation patterns show that hypnosis is most powerful in the theta brain wave band and gamma activity.  Brain oscillations refer to the combined electrical activity of neuronal frequencies such as the slower frequencies of delta, theta, and alpha, which are represented in the sleep cycle, rather than the faster frequencies such as beta and gamma, which are present in a waking and executive function state of thinking. These slower brain oscillations are also correlated with memory recall and influence on the emotional limbic circuits in the brain, which could contribute to the efficacy of hypnotherapy treatment (Jensen et. al. 2015).  

     Theta brain wave state is accomplished from a deep relaxed state such as when one is relaxing to fall asleep or before rising to full wakefulness in the morning. Research on lavender and siberian fir essential oil show that when inhaled, they promote relaxation and increase theta brain wave activity via electroencephalography measurements (Matsubara 2011),  (Sayorwan et al. 2012). Lavender oil was shown specifically to cause a significant decrease in blood pressure, heart rate and autonomic arousal plus increase the power of theta brain activities (Sayorwan et al. 2012).  Combining these two essential oils into a diffuser during the hypnotherapy session could improve the efficacy of inducing hypnosis and maintaining a client in a relaxed state.

     Science also shows a multi-stage process that shifts in the frontal lobe of the brain when in an hypnotic state. The frontal lobe is where primary executive functioning takes place, which is where organizing, thinking, strategizing, decision making etc. happens. The attentional processes in the frontal lobe decreases and depending on where the hypnotic state focus is, different areas in the brain show activity is experienced in the areas that regulate emotion or motor, depending on what one is experiencing during hypnosis (Yapko 2015).  

     Other neurobiological research shows that the anterior cingulate cortex is activated during hypnotherapy and plays a role in the imaginative process (Douglas 2014). More studies are needed on the brain during hypnosis to gain a deeper and more conclusive understanding of the state one is in during hypnosis as it is still a well misunderstood phenomenon.

     Hypnotherapy is becoming more prevalent for treating drug and alcohol abuse because of the success reported from clients. Most clients have turned to hypnotherapy after years and years of immersing themselves in traditional treatment programs with little to no improvement. Success in hypnotherapy for drug and alcohol cessation is dependent upon various factors such as the client motivation, the treatment method, the ability of the individual to tolerate intense therapy and the skill and experience of the hypnotherapist (O’Keefe et. al. 2017).  One article found clinical hypnotherapy to be highly effective with four different drug addicts who were treated with hypnotherapy, and quit their long term methamphetamine and cannabis use. The subjects common variables for their success were self-motivation, compliant to treatment protocols and homework assignments as well as listened to daily hypnosis recordings at home between treatments (O’Keefe 2017).  Hypnotherapy for treating depression and PTSD has also been found effective as mentioned in various studies (Wahbeh et. al. 2018), (Janer 2009), (Haefner 2017).

      The next question to consider about hypnotherapy is can all people be hypnotized and receive effective treatment outcomes? The same therapist may use the same techniques for the same issue with a different person and find that one responds significantly well while the other shows little progress. A variety of factors contribute to the ability to be hypnotized and receive effective outcomes.  One factor is the client's ability to fantasize and use their imaginative ability (Douglas 2014).   Imagery formation is the ability to visualize scenes whether they are true or false, meaning past experiences or creating new experiences in one’s mind particularly when using the age regression technique during hypnosis. Neurobiological research shows certain brain sectors are activated during hypnosis that play a role in the imaginative process (Douglas 2014). Client expectations influence the outcomes as well as an effective induction method used by the therapist are all factors in efficacy of hypnotherapy (Douglas 2014). These factors are important to consider with clients when setting up realistic and effective treatment plans that may involve hypnotherapy.

     Hypnotherapy can be a promising treatment modality for many individuals. Because the client is an active participant in the hypnotherapy practice, their willingness to participate is a key factor. Hypnotherapy does not subject a person involuntarily to do or say things outside of their own will.  The hypnotherapist in turn acts as a guide to coach the person into a hypnotic state through a relaxative induction (Yapko 2015). The induction is the process of guiding the client to the desired theta brain wave state to deepen their connection to the subconscious mind, allowing their innate abilities and strengths to be accessed in order to cope with their concerns in the desired way (Yapko 2015).  

      In an interview with a client of the Theta Wellness Center in Sandy Utah, client Chris Smyres agreed to share his success journey through the healing power of hypnotherapy. Eighteen years ago, Chris was taken and held at gunpoint and then forced to do things to save his own life that he would never have thought of doing before. He dealt with years of guilt and fear which ultimately from this traumatic encounter led him to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which then spiraled into alcoholism. Chris experienced high anxiety, nightmares, and panic from this traumatic event and self-medicated with alcohol for years getting him into much trouble in school and the law.  After many years of different types of traditional therapies Chris never truly got better and in the summer of 2017 Chris hit rock bottom by attempting to take his own life. He was found almost unconscious and rushed to the hospital to save him. This was when Chris was introduced to the Theta Wellness Center and through the power of hypnotherapy he experienced true hope and healing for the first time, leaving him now inspired to share a story he for years felt ashamed of and kept hidden, in order to empower and instill hope in others. Chris no longer experiences anxiety, panic nor nightmares after his 28 day program at the Theta Wellness Center and says that now even the scent of alcohol makes him sick where before he was waiting for his next moment to binge. To watch Chris's video about his story click here

       In conclusion, hypnotherapy provides an effective tool to access one’s innate strengths to cope and produce the desired changes that improve one’s emotional or physical well being.  The induction process of the therapist is an important variable to successful hypnosis as well as the clients self-motivation and application. The essential oils of lavender and siberian fir could be valuable complements to increasing  theta brain activity for a more successful hypnotherapy session. Various brain regions are involved in this altered state of relaxed consciousness suggesting that the imaginative processes of the brain play a role in a successful hypnotic state. This imaginative process is linked to memory recall and re-writing experiences in the brain for emotional well being.  Hypnotherapy can be one of the most effective treatments for certain individuals and oftentimes it provides phenomenal results that can significantly change forever the quality of a person’s life.


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