From Kipling’s Kaa to swinging pendulums, popular culture has been fascinated by the ancient practice of hypnotism for hundreds of years. This pseudoscience survived (and grew) during the enlightenment of the 18th century. It was widely used in the Civil War and later in the wars of the 20th century. Today it’s often associated more with entertainers trying to make volunteers bark like a dog and cluck like a chicken than as a field of psychological study.
However, psychologists use it today, and hypnotherapy has become a leading form of alternative medicine. Hypnotherapy is popularly used in the pursuit of smoking cessation and addiction treatment.
Though practitioners and patients widely tout its benefits, there is very little scientific evidence to support hypnotherapy. So what is hypnotherapy and does it work or is it simply a placebo?
What is Hypnotherapy?
Hypnotherapy is a field of alternative psychological medicine that relaxes and focuses the mind of the patient. Hypnosis puts a person into a heightened state of suggestibility, which is said to give clinicians the psychological leverage to ease pain and calm the mind. It may also give psychologists insight into underlying mental problems.
These applications are broken into two primary methods of hypnotherapy:
- Suggestion therapy. The suggestible state of hypnosis is used to help people change certain behaviors. This method is commonly used in patients who want to stop bad habits or compulsive actions like nail biting or smoking. This is also gaining popularity in addiction treatment.
- Analysis. When in a relaxed state brought on by hypnosis, a patient is asked questions to get to the root of psychological problems or disorders. It’s believed that this is useful for unlocking buried traumatic experiences that would be difficult to access in a normal state.
Not everyone can be hypnotized; only about 10 percent of the population is susceptible to hypnotism. There are a few proposed explanations for why hypnotizability is a rare trait. Some believe that a person’s preconceived ideas about hypnotherapy will affect his or her experience. Since many exploited hypnosis as entertainment or fraud in the 19th and 20th century, hypnosis has a sordid reputation in the minds of many people today.
According to a study by psychologist David Spiegel and colleagues, highly hypnotizable people show increased connectivity between the executive-control network and the salience network (which is responsible for determining which stimuli are deserving of your focus). They suggest that hypnotizability may have to do with unique brain function rather than preconceived ideas about hypnotism.
History of Hypnotherapy
By name, hypnosis has only existed since the 1880s, but it has been around since ancient times as a concept. The instance of what is thought to have been a type of hypnosis was in ancient India, where hypnotic suggestion was used as a healing practice.
An early predecessor to hypnosis was magnetism, or the practice of using magnetic forces to promote healing. Magnetism was a widely accepted medical specialty in the late 1700s and was an influential area of study up to as recently as 1925.
In 1770, scientist Franz Anton Mesmer brought magnetism into Western science when he developed the idea of animal magnetism. He believed that an invisible natural force possessed all living beings and that this force could have healing effects. He coined the word “mesmerism” to distinguish animal magnetism and other magnetizer theories.
By the 1800s, James Braid, a Scottish surgeon, became vocally skeptical of mesmerism. He rejected the idea of an invisible force in all organisms and the popular notion that patients could develop powers like telepathy. He claimed that fixation on a bright moving object (something that mesmerists did) caused the brain to “fatigue” and go into a “sleep of the nerves” that he called neuro-hypnosis. Later he revised his theory, saying that hypnotism was more like a trance of singular focus rather than a kind of sleep.
Hypnosis was first widely applied in mainstream medicine during the Civil War. Battlefield doctors would use it in the absence of hypodermic needles or anesthetics in the field.
In the late 1800s and into the 20th century, hypnotism became more of a subject of psychological study rather than a tool for medical treatment. In 1958, the American Medical Association encouraged more research into hypnosis and, in 1960, the American Psychological Association endorsed it.
Hypnotherapy in Addiction Recovery
The most common use of hypnotherapy for addiction treatment is used for the most common addiction: smoking. Hypnosis is widely promoted and applied as a way to help stop nicotine addiction. The goal is to address base impulses that contribute to a person’s perceived need to smoke. Ideally, this will weaken subconscious impulses and strengthen the desire to stop.
However, a 2010 study could not find any evidence to suggest that hypnotherapy is definitively more effective than traditional therapy or no therapy at all. The study acknowledges that hypnosis may help some people quit smoking, but there isn’t enough evidence to prove it.
In 1966, researchers looked at the possibility that hypnotherapy might be more definitively helpful in conjunction with other therapies. However, they too couldn’t find any inherent value in any method of hypnotherapy.
While the value of hypnotherapy hasn’t been proven in clinical tests, there have been incredible cases where hypnotherapy has done what it claims to do. In 1992, a report of a girl who had recovered from a $500 per day cocaine addiction raised some interest. The girl had no formal treatment or intervention. In fact, she had no support group of any kind. What she did have was a hypnotherapeutic tape recording designed to aid in weight loss.
The girl had previously used the tape to quit smoking, help her sleep, and help her come down from cocaine highs. After eight months of addiction, she decided to try to stop using cocaine. She listened to the tape and whenever it mentioned weight loss or overeating, she would mentally input the word “coke.” Her attempt was successful and resulted in long-lasting recovery.
Stories like this one are why hypnotherapists continue to promote hypnosis despite a lack of clinical evidence.
Does Hypnotherapy Work?
If you are wondering if hypnotherapy will work for you, it’s difficult to say. If you are part of the small percentage of people who are susceptible to hypnotism, it may do you some good. However, your hopes for addiction recovery shouldn’t rely solely on hypnotherapy. High-quality addiction treatment centers that offer hypnotherapy will also offer traditional treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy in conjunction.
If you are in need of addiction treatment, call California Highlands Addiction Treatment at 888-969-8755 today to learn more about your options.