Ancient Art, Modern Science: An Introduction to Modern Hypnotherapy


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The setting is a tastefully decorated office. “Sally, " a thirty-two year-old entertainment executive, leans back in a comfortable recliner and takes several slow, deep breaths. Her therapist dims the lights then begins speaking to her in a lulling, dulcet tone of voice.

Within a few minutes, it is obvious that Sally is deeply relaxed; in fact, she appears to be asleep. Observing subtle physiological reactions in response to his patter, the therapist completes the induction— “five, four, three, two, one, zero, deep sleep. " Sally exhales with almost a sigh, signaling a final release into deep hypnosis. The therapist begins to work.

Hardly the stuff of a Las Vegas stage show, this. There is no cheering audience, no group of willing volunteers eager to have the hypnotist “change" them into human cartoons. The hypnotherapist will spend the next twenty to thirty minutes simply talking to Sally in a quiet, almost conversational voice.

It is a monologue rich with stories, images, and metaphor— language designed to match Sally’s personal linguistic learning patterns, and intended to connect directly to her subconscious mind, the source of most human behavior; good and bad, desired and otherwise.

Sally’s reason for seeking hypnotherapy was to overcome an almost paralyzing fear of public speaking that was becoming increasingly detrimental to a very promising career. She also wanted to reduce and control the stress that comes with her job. After only four sessions, she now conducts most presentations with ease and assuredness. Speaking to large audiences is still somewhat intimidating, but given her rapid progress, her fear will likely soon be a mere memory.

At the end of the session Sally ‘awakens’ on cue, feeling refreshed and relaxed. Ask her and she will tell you that beyond the fact that she is successfully conquering her fear, in general she feels significantly better about herself than she did before she began her therapy.

These are common side effects of therapeutic hypnosis— improved self-image and confidence, and a profound sense of achievement and empowerment. Not surprisingly, Sally likes the feeling, as do most who experience contemporary hypnotherapy— a unique combination of an ancient art with modern behavioral science.

The use of hypnosis as a catalyst for behavioral change and physical healing dates back to the earliest periods of recorded history. From the time of the ancient Indian and Egyptian cultures, hypnotherapy has ebbed and flowed in popularity, sometimes flourishing, sometimes almost disappearing, but always surviving— across cultures, geographies, technologies, and time itself.

In the era of modern healthcare— over the past hundred years or so, and continuing today— hundreds of studies conducted at many of the most prestigious academic and medical institutions around the world have repeatedly and empirically verified the efficacy of hypnotherapy for many clinical situations.

For example, a keyword search for hypnosis or hypnotherapy on the Websites of the American Medical Association, the National Institutes for Health, the American Psychological Association, or the World Health Organization will lead to scores of articles, abstracts, and reports on clinical studies regarding the use of hypnosis in modern medicine and psychotherapy. Hypnosis is utilized in leading institutions like the Mayo Clinic, integrated into the practices of thousands of physicians and psychologists, and practiced by tens of thousands of lay hypnotherapists worldwide, and with good reason.

Hypnotherapy is extremely versatile. It can be applied to great effect across a considerable variety of vocational, avocational, and clinical situations. It helps people eliminate fears and phobias; eradicate bad habits, negative emotions and attitudes; and improve their performance at work, in athletics, or in virtually any other area of their personal, professional, or recreational lives; and often very quickly.

In clinical settings, where lay hypnotherapists must work under the referral and supervision of licensed physicians, hypnotherapy is often an effective adjunct to conventional treatments for a variety of conditions like Obesity, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Lupus, Migraine, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Tinnitus, Asthma, Allergies, Warts, HIV, infertility, and even some cancers. Dr. Joan Friedrick, PhD, MA, writing on clinical hypnosis for ABC News Online’s Healthology: “It is estimated that 94 percent of patients benefit from hypnotherapy, even if it is only linked to improved relaxation. "

Hypnotherapy can help patients prepare for and heal faster from dental procedures, surgery, and childbirth. It is used successfully to control chronic pain, and as an adjunct to, and sometimes a replacement for, chemical anesthesia. Many patients also find relief from discomfort associated with harsh treatments like chemo and radiation therapy. Under referral from licensed psychotherapists, hypnotherapists also provide adjunctive treatment for a variety of mental health issues that exceed the scope of vocational/avocational self-improvement. At the same time hypnotherapy still exists in a sort of netherworld between mainstream healthcare and metaphysical quackery, fenced in neatly by myths, fears, and misconceptions around what it is and how it works. These misgivings are most likely born of the fact that most people’s only exposure to hypnosis is through stage shows and bad melodramatic plot devices that may entertain, but also utterly misinform.

Certainly, watching a group of hypnotized stage-show volunteers go through their paces might lead any rational individual to conclude that the subjects’ have indeed lost control of their minds, unequivocally the number one fear regarding hypnosis. After all, who in their right mind would act like that?

The answer lies in the fact that while we can all experience induced hypnosis if we so choose (and we must choose to or we won’t) a small percentage of the population is by nature especially suggestible to the hypnotic state. A trained stage hypnotist spots these types in the audience, then simply picks volunteers from the likely candidates and invites them to the stage.

These natural somnambulists, as they are called, also happen to be the most likely personality types to want to be part of a show— but they never lose control of their minds, nor can they (or anyone) be forced to do anything they don’t want to, or wouldn’t normally do.

In fact, hypnotherapy is more than anything else about helping clients increase control over unwanted emotions, behaviors, and issues in their life. So if those folks we see on stage flap their wings and quack like ducks it is because they want to. It takes all kinds after all.

Second only to the fear of losing control is the fear of getting stuck in hypnosis if something incapacitates the hypnotherapist— a common ploy in B movies— and again absolutely untrue. Should that unfortunate circumstance arise, the hypnotized subject will simply ‘wake up’— and hopefully call 911.

Many people also believe that seeking help to change behaviors or overcome emotional challenges reflects some sort of personal weakness. Ironically, virtually everyone depends on many others to help us live our lives— barbers, doctors, dentists, farmers, butchers, mechanics, plumbers, etc. Yet when it comes to mental well-being, perhaps the most important aspect of our lives, many of us shun professional assistance, fearing we’ll be looked upon as weak. We think we should be able to do it ourselves, and that may be a huge misconception.

There are many theories around personality and behavioral development, yet it is generally accepted that most behavioral and emotional patterns are set fairly early in life. Once ingrained, most behavior also becomes largely automatic. We experience a stimulus or trigger and react without conscious thought. So, for most people, trying to change behaviors, emotions, or improve physical performance through the sheer dint of conscious intent or willpower is often, if not always, futile. It has nothing to do with lack of desire, character, or personal weakness. Our minds just don’t work that way.

For instance, asking Sally to will herself out of her fear of public speaking would have been akin to thinking that she had willed herself into it. Upon hearing her name called to speak she certainly didn’t think, “okay heart start racing, palms get sweaty, throat tighten up, voice get squeaky, panic set in. " No— it just happened. It was an automatic response. So, how do we change that response?

Hypnosis places the mind in a condition of focused receptivity. Being in hypnosis may feel as benign as simply sitting with one’s eyes closed, or it may feel profoundly trancelike— a feeling of very deep relaxation while always completely awake and aware of what’s happening.

Regardless, while we are in hypnosis, it is believed that the inner critic of our conscious mind is held in abeyance, thus giving our unconscious mind a chance to accept suggestions for the changes we wish to effect. In other words, while in hypnosis, we re-teach the unconscious mind to react to given behavioral or emotional triggers in a new and desirable way.

In Sally’s case the subconsciously-generated feelings of fear and anxiety toward public speaking were replaced with feelings of calm and confidence. With reinforcement the new response of calm soon became every bit as automatic as the old response of fear had been. If the process sounds fairly simple, it largely is— at least in the hands of an experienced and well trained practitioner. And regardless of the precise mechanism of hypnotherapy, which like most mental health protocols is subject to debate, it works; people get results.

There are of course limitations to the uses and applications for hypnotherapy— it is not a magic bullet. Success requires a client’s conscious desire and commitment to change, a willingness to experience the state, and a belief in the possibility for success. Otherwise, hypnotherapy may not work very well, if at all.

Dr. Friedrick also reports in Healthology that, “according to the World Health Organization (WHO), hypnosis should not be performed on patients with psychoses, organic psychiatric conditions, or antisocial personality disorders. " Hypnotherapy is also not considered effective for treating addictions to mind-altering substances like drugs or alcohol, except perhaps when combined with a twelve-step program. Even then its use is probably best limited to building motivation and promoting active participation in the program rather than actually trying to change the addictive behavior.

Finally, it is important to reiterate that for any medically-related or psychogenic conditions, hypnotherapy is an adjunctive therapy; it is not medicine, nor psychotherapy, and using it as such or as a replacement for such is both contraindicated and against the law. There are many beneficial medical and psychological applications, but a lay hypnotherapist must first obtain a written approval/referral from the client’s physician or licensed psychotherapist to legally and ethically work on such cases.

For anyone interested in trying hypnotherapy, finding a good hypnotherapist is much like finding a good physician or psychotherapist— it’s wise to do some shopping. For best results an individual must feel comfort and rapport with the therapist and have confidence in the therapist’s abilities, training, and experience.

Since most states have no standards for training, certification, or licensure of hypnotherapists, obtaining this sort of information is important, and a well trained, experienced practitioner should be quite willing to provide a prospective client with credentials and references. This offers consumers some protection from incompetents, false expectations, or illegal practices. If not offered this information it might be prudent to look elsewhere for treatment.

Of course legislation that prescribed standards for the training, certification, and licensure of hypnotherapists would obviously lend further legitimacy to the profession. It would facilitate the acceptance of hypnotherapy by health insurance providers, help rid the profession of incompetents, and help move hypnotherapy even more firmly into the mainstream of modern healthcare. In the opinions of those practicing hypnotherapy as dedicated professionals and the thousands of “Sallys" who literally transform their lives through its help, this powerful combination of ancient art and modern science deserves no less a position in today’s healthcare system.

John McGrail, C. Ht. is a Los Angeles-based clinical hypnotherapist with additional certifications in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic-Programming), Timeline Therapy, Therapeutic Imagery, and EFT, (Emotional Freeing Techniques). His private practice focuses on personal growth and spiritual development, behavioral modification, and performance improvement in career, athletics, and academics. He also works on a variety of health issues under appropriate medical/psychological referral. Helping people acquire personal peace, abundance, and success is his passion

John is frequently interviewed and cited in major publications, periodicals and broadcast media. He has published numerous articles on hypnosis and behavioral change, and is writing a new book entitled, “Who’s Driving Your Bus. " He is a member of the American Counseling Association, the American Hypnosis Association, and serves on the executive board of the Hypnotherapists Union, whose standards are among the most rigorous in the field of clinical hypnotherapy. He can be contacted through his website at


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