Although the word 'hypnosis' is derived from the Greek hypnos, meaning 'sleep', hypnosis is, in fact, a wake-ful state of increased concentration and awareness. A hypnotic trance-characterized by focused attention, bypassing of the usual critical nature of the mind and heightened receptiv-ity to suggestion-causes distinct changes in the brain (Ann Acad Med Singapore, 2008; 37: 683-8; Mayo Clin Proc, 2005; 80: 511-24).
While its precise mechanisms are still a mystery, it's becoming clear that hypnosis has a key role to play in modern medicine. Indeed, hypnosis is showing promise as a therapy for a range of difficult-to-treat emotional and psychological problems.
Not only can hypnosis help to reduce common symptoms of major depress-ion, such as agitation and rumination, it also facilitates the learning of new skills, a core component of all proven treatments for depression (Am J Clin Hypn, 2001; 44: 97-108).
In a study of cognitive hypno-therapy (CH), hypnosis combined with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), 84 depressives were randomly assigned to 16 weeks of treatment by either CH or CBT alone. At the end of the treatment, both groups improved, but the CH group enjoyed 6 per cent, 5 per cent and 8 per cent greater reductions in depression, anxiety and hopelessness, respectively. These results were still evident a year later (Int J Clin Exp Hypn, 2007; 55: 147-66).
Hypnosis can treat various forms of anxiety, such as phobias, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Just two 50-minute sessions helped medical practitioners overcome examination anxiety (fear of failing a test), which was signif-icantly affecting their lives (Am J Clin Hypn, 1993; 35: 198-204). The anxiety associated with medical procedures can also be reduced by hypnosis (J Natl Cancer Inst, 2007; 99: 1280-1).
One new technique in this field is called 'hypnotherapeutic olfactory conditioning' (HOC), which uses the ability of scents to arouse powerful emotional reactions. Under hypnosis, the patient links pleasant smells with feelings of security and self-control. The patient then uses this association to overcome or prevent anxiety. Indeed, Israel's Defense Forces Mental Health Division describes three patients-with needle phobia, panic disorder and combat-induced PTSD, respectively-who were suc-cessfully treated by HOC (Int J Clin Exp Hypn, 2009; 57: 184-97).
Hypnosis may be useful for insomnia, nightmares, sleepwalking, bedwetting and other sleep-related disorders (Ann Acad Med Singapore, 2008; 37: 683-8). In 75 school-age children with insomnia, hypnosis reduced the time taken to fall asleep and the number of night-time awakenings in most of them. In fact, more than half of those with nighttime awakenings more than once a week were completely cured
of the problem (BMC Pediatr, 2006; 6: 23).
As hypnosis is a form of concen-tration, it may seem paradoxical to use it to help people to fall asleep. Yet, it induces physical relaxation that is compatible with sleep, diminishing the sympathetic arousal usually found with anxious preoccupation. More-over, hypnosis can help establish good sleep habits and a bedtime routine (Ann Acad Med Singapore, 2008; 37: 683-8).
In a trial of 286 smokers, researchers compared hypnosis with standard behavioural counselling to determine which was more effective in helping them to quit. All participants also used nicotine patches.
After six months, 26 per cent of those in the hypnosis group had stopped smoking compared with 18 per cent in the behavioural group.
At 12 months, the abstinence rates were 20 per cent vs 14 per cent, respectively (Nicotine Tob Res, 2008; 10: 811-8).
Hypnosis has also proved to be a useful treatment for alcoholism (Am J Clin Hypn, 2004; 47: 21-8).
Hypnosis has even been used to treat conditions that are not believed to be primarily psychological.
- Allergies. Hypersensitivity reactions were suppressed in 8 of 12 patients given brief direct suggestions under hypnosis (Br Med J, 1963; 1: 925-9). Also, self-hypnosis added to standard treatment was helpful to hayfever sufferers (Psychother Psychosom, 2005; 74: 165-72).
- Skin conditions. Acne, dermatitis, psoriasis, lichen planus, herpes simplex and a variety of other skin problems have all responded well to hypnosis (Arch Dermatol, 2000; 136: 393-9).
- Digestive problems. 'Gut-focused hypnotherapy' can help in severe inflammatory bowel disease, allowing patients to stop or reduce medication and enjoy a better quality of life (Int J Clin Exp Hypn, 2008; 56: 306-17). Peptic ulcer disease and dyspepsia (indigestion) are also improved by hypnosis (Lancet, 1988; 1: 1299-300; Gastroenterology, 2002; 123: 1778-85).
- Pain. Hypnosis is a powerful pain-reliever (Mayo Clin Proc, 2005; 80: 511-24). Self-hypnosis was even able to help women cope with the pain of labour and childbirth (Int J Clin Exp Hypn, 2009; 57: 174-83).