How powerful is hypnosis?

By | Monday 2 March 2015

One type of question sometimes asked is, “What can you do with hypnosis?” What are the limits?

Medical help

A few renegade hypnotherapists have provided much hype, claiming that hypnosis can cure cancer, replace surgical procedures such as breast enhancement, make balding men regrow their hair, and more.

There is no scientific evidence that hypnosis can do any of that. Medical problems are, well, problems for medicine.

But, having said that, here are some counter-points.

Hypnosis, and therapy in general, can certainly help in your progress with any illness. We know, for example, that stress negatively affects your immune system; learning to relax and feel better about life sets your body up for the best possible results when the doctors deal with your problem. If you are losing hair due to stress (not due to male pattern baldness), relaxing and enjoying life might well lead to partial regrowth of your hair.

Hypnosis can help you to change your lifestyle to fit with the doctors’ recommendations. For example, if you need to avoid a certain type of food but find it difficult or impossible to do so with willpower, hypnotherapy can help.

You might also need help in dealing with the effects of illness. For example, I had a client with possibly terminal cancer, and she was filled with bitterness at her condition, the damage that it had done to her body, and the consequences to her life. There is no need to live like that. In this case, although the therapy could not do anything about her cancer, we were able to bring her away from the negative feelings and instead towards a better outlook on life, while improving her diet and her stress levels to maximise her chances of recovery.

There are some anecdotes. For example, a colleague managed to cure a chronic eye problem for which the client was due surgery. This was entirely unexpected; my colleague did not anticipate this. He was simply trying to help the client prior to the surgery. Was this sheer coincidence? Maybe, although the consultant was mystified. But this is a single anecdote, which does not count as science. My colleague does not claim to be able to repeat the effect — and he is as mystified as the consultant!

Finally, placebo. Research has consistently shown that placebo has surprising healing properties beyond the current explanations of the medical profession (although new discoveries are providing hints). Even when people know that they are taking placebo pills, there is still a positive effect. To the extent that hypnotherapy is a placebo (although it is much more than that), hypnotherapy can provide an equivalent cure.

Pain relief and “hypnosurgery”

As already mentioned, hypnotherapy can help with achieving what the doctor wants from you. However, there are other areas.

Imagine that you need important dental work, amputation or other surgical work, but that you are allergic to the required anaesthetic or analgesic drugs (as a few people are). What can you do? In days gone by, people would get massively drunk!

Today, hypnotherapy is the only answer that we know of. To me, pain relief is the most impressive hypnotic achievement. To be able to undergo surgery without any feelings of pain using only hypnosis is incredible. Try this documentary of a hernia operation where the patient had no drugs, just hypnosis.

If you can do this with hypnosis, what else can you do!

Fast cures

In many cases, hypnotherapy (and some other therapies) can cure serious mental problems such as phobias and emotional trauma, even PTSD, quickly.

People are complicated animals with especially complicated brains, and so people respond differently. You will find that some people will be cured in as little as a single session. For example, I once met an office manager in her office (for an entirely unrelated matter); the nature of my work came up, and to demonstrate, I cured her of a long-term phobia in just ten minutes.

But that is in fact the exception. Some people may need several sessions; while others will not respond well to this type of treatment and need to be referred elsewhere.

Psychosomatic problems

Some apparent medical problems and illnesses are in fact not medical. They are physical problems that are caused by the mind. These problems are called psychosomatic, and people suffering from them usually have no way to stop it from happening.

Psychosomatic problems can come in all types, from minor to major, even blindness or partial paralysis. An embarrassing example is blushing — some people suffer terribly from blushing and have no idea how to stop it.

Because the symptoms arise from the non-conscious part of the mind, treating them consciously tends to have little or no effect. This is where hypnotherapy helps, because it specifically deals with the non-conscious part of you, often called the subconscious (“underneath the conscious”).

Can a hypnotist make me do anything?

The short answer is: “Maybe.”

If you have been successfully hypnotised, you can be made to do all sorts of things. However, your subconscious is always aware, listening and watching, and its job is to protect you. If you fully trust the hypnotist not to do anything unethical, the chances are that you can be made to do anything — within the remit of the ethics of the profession.

But, if the hypnotist steps out of bounds, you are likely to snap out of hypnosis. Past studies have come to this conclusion, and newspapers have also reported this happening. However, at this point there is a fair amount of controversy surrounding this issue.

What are the limits? They depend on a few factors.

  1. You. Some people are simply more susceptible than others to being hypnotised. We don’t know why, although there are several theories. For example, one study reached the (tentative) conclusion that susceptibility is related to the size of your rostra (two small organs inside your brain).
  2. The hypnotherapist. For reasons unknown, some people respond better to one hypnotherapist than to another. It is not consistent; I may find that I can hypnotise someone that a colleague couldn’t, yet another person may be the other way around.
  3. Experience. Some people will take a few attempts, or even a few sessions, before being successfully hypnotised. Again, the reasons why some people need this are unknown.
  4. Something else. Other factors appear to play a role, but again we do not know which factors. It is possible that trust plays a part.

Being in control

Most people see hypnosis as being out of control. This is obviously because of stage hypnosis shows, where the elements of entertainment, particularly comedy, depend on the hypnotist being in control and the subject being out of control.

Therapy differs in that it is quite the opposite. A client comes to therapy because he is out of control — in one way or another, he is not in control of his emotions or his body. Our job, as hypnotherapists, is to give control back to the client.

A great example is blushing, as mentioned above. The hypnotherapist will take control of this in order to give control back to the client.

A hypnotherapist takes control so that you take control of yourself.

In short…

You can see that there are plenty of unknowns in knowing how and why hypnosis works, although MRI scans are helping researchers to find new answers.

All we do know is that hypnosis can do wondrous things.