Intrigued by the concept of hypnotherapy? Here’s what it involves and how it might help you.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Claire Chamberlain
Proponents swear by it to help cure everything from phobias and addictions to skin conditions and tummy troubles. But how can hypnotherapy treat such a wide range of ailments and, importantly, does it really work?
We spoke with Rapid Change expert Howard Cooper, a qualified hypnotherapist and master practitioner in neurolinguistic programming (NLP), who explains the theory behind the practice and reveals what you can expect during your first session.
What is hypnotherapy?
If your understanding of hypnotherapy is based purely on the antics of televised stage show hypnotists, you’d be forgiven for approaching the idea with some trepidation. After all, no-one would wish to reveal their innermost fears and anxieties to a practitioner, only to find themselves later clucking like a chicken at inopportune moments.
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In fact, the entertainment industry has a lot to answer for, as stereotypes surrounding hypnotherapy abound even today, when its role as a therapy is becoming more widely accepted. But what is it? And how does it work?
‘For me, hypnosis is essentially the act of becoming so absorbed in some imagined narrative that your body responds as though it’s real,’ explains Cooper. ‘When imagination becomes incredibly vivid and you become absorbed in it, there will be a real physiological response.’
Find that hard to believe? Here’s an example.
‘Have you ever had the experience when someone takes a blackboard and reaches across, and then runs their fingernails slowly and deliberately down it?’ asks Cooper. ‘You know that scratching, scraping noise? As I said that, it’s likely you had some kind of internal squirmy feeling. Now, if I ask what the squirming was about, some people will reply, “The blackboard, of course. It was the sound of the nails down the blackboard!” But there weren’t really nails and there wasn’t really a blackboard – it was all going on in the mind.’
Hypnosis and relaxation
If you picture a session of hypnotherapy, you may well imagine a person lying back on a leather couch in a totally relaxed state. While Cooper says that this kind of formal hypnosis can often be helpful, it’s not the only option available in the hypnotherapy toolkit.
‘There’s this idea that someone has to be in a very relaxed state to be in hypnosis, as though it’s a special place,’ he says. ‘But it’s not a place – it’s simply that natural ability we all have to get lost in thought. To become absorbed in something, so that we begin to feel our body responding differently to it.
‘It’s not a place – it’s simply that natural ability we all have to get lost in thought.’
‘In many ways, people are often hypnotising themselves – in fact, this is a very naturally occurring phenomenon. So someone who’s afraid of spiders, for example, might start freaking out if I ask them, “How would you feel if there was a spider in that corner of my office over there?” But if they can freak out about the spider when there is no spider, it can’t be the spider that’s giving them the fear: it’s the thought about it.
In other words, they become so absorbed in the internal narrative of, “Spiders are going to hurt me,” that their body responds with fight, flight or freeze, in order to protect them from the imaginary spider. In this example, the job of the hypnotist – and the way I work – can be twofold: one, it’s to help them become absorbed into a much more positive narrative. Because if they can get absorbed into the narrative of, “I feel totally calm around spiders”, then that will change the pattern. And two: it can be to de-hypnotise them from their original negative associations; to show them the function that’s been going on in their brain, and then give them the skillset to be able to realise it’s just images in their mind.’
What can hypnotherapy help with?
Hypnotherapy is purported to be able to help with an array of problems and conditions. Typical issues associated with the practice include:
- Smoking cessation
- Nail biting
- Breaking other unwanted habits
However, Cooper explains its benefits are much wider ranging, and can also help with:
- Obsessive compulsive-related issues
- Skin conditions
- Irritable bowel syndrome
‘People talk about the mind and the body as though they’re separate things, but really they’re part of the same system,’ explains Cooper. ‘For example, if someone very vividly imagines eating a lemon – imagines the citrus taste of the lemon; imagines the bitterness and the sourness – then often they begin to salivate, because as you think about those things, your body naturally responds. In this way, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests people who imagine smooth flowing rivers, and then picture their digestive system as a smooth flowing river, have a physiological response to this, outside of conscious awareness and conscious thinking.’
Hypnotherapy: what to expect
Because hypnotherapy is not a regulated industry (more on this later), you may find session lengths and frequency varies between practitioners.
‘Personally, my first session is 90 minutes,’ says Cooper. ‘My job over that 90 minutes is, first, to find out as much as I can about how a client “does” a problem. Not about the problem, but how they do it. What I mean by this is, what pictures are they making in their head? What things are they telling themselves? Essentially, it’s the stories: what’s the narrative that they’re becoming too absorbed in? We will explore these stories and then I’ll help them, either with formal hypnosis, where I get them to absorb into a narrative that’s opposite to the one they’ve been telling themselves, or I’ll give them the skills to de-hypnotise themselves. Either way, we’re always working with the idea that imagination – when you get absorbed into it – can create real responses.’
‘About 60% of people come back and say there’s been a significant improvement’
Cooper books clients in for two sessions. ‘About 60 per cent of people come back after the first session and say there’s been a significant improvement,’ he reveals. ‘Then we simply dot the ‘I’s and cross the ‘T’s during the second session. About 20 per cent will say there’s been no change, and that’s OK. This gives me a little wiggle room about what to do next, and we come at it a different way. The final 20 per cent of people say they’re totally fine – the problem is completely sorted.
‘Obviously there have been a few times when it’s run to three sessions, but I won’t take someone for a further session unless they’ve seen some very real improvement.’
Hypnotherapy and mindset
The big question, of course, is whether hypnotherapy is simply a placebo effect: does it only work if you really believe in it? Cooper reveals that, actually, it will still be effective even if you remain skeptical – although you do need to adopt a more open mindset.
‘You don’t have to believe it will work, but I would say that hypnotherapy is sometimes viewed as, “I’m going to a hypnotherapist for them to fix me,” as though I do something to you,’ he says. ‘That’s a mindset that doesn’t lend itself to good collaboration, and it’s a collaborative process. The client has some responsibility to turn up and to be engaged. You don’t have to believe, but it’s important that you come with an open mind and a willingness to get stuck in, play and collaborate.’
‘You don’t have to believe it will work, but it’s important that you come with an open mind’
In fact, there is scientific backing to suggest that those who are openminded to the suggestive qualities of hypnosis are likely to see the best results: a 2014 study published in the journal, PLOS One, found that, via neuroimaging techniques, those who were highly suggestible to hypnosis exhibited higher brain activity levels during the various phases of hypnosis.
Because its a therapy that requires interaction between client and therapist, you may think sessions must be undertaken face-to-face. But not so.
‘I’ve worked with people all around the word very successfully via online platforms, such as Skype and Zoom,’ reveals Cooper. ‘I’m also helping people online learn how to achieve peace of mind during the current Coronavirus uncertainty, which is designed to help many people change their thinking, using my knowledge of hypnosis outside of the face-to-face context.
‘While you could in theory work over the phone, I choose not to, as I don’t believe I can be as effective. Much of my interaction, my responses, my questions and the way I navigate a session is not just based on what people tell me – it’s also based on the non-verbal responses I get. So it’s always easier if I can see them. This is why online video platforms can work just as effectively as face-to-face.’
Finding a qualified hypnotherapist
Because hypnotherapy is not a regulated practice, it’s important to do your research.
To ensure the hypnotherapist you are looking to work with is qualified, check they are listed:
Also important, says Cooper, is to check they can offer testimonials from previous clients and to ensure it’s someone with whom you can build a rapport.
‘Are they down to earth? Are they reasonable? Are they pragmatic? Do you have good communication with them? Do they have certification to prove their qualifications? These are all useful steps when researching practitioners.’