When working with aspects of the mind, at some stage the question arises, does hypnosis work? Those suffering with long-standing issues such as anxiety, stress, sleeplessness, various addictions, chronic pain or nausea understandably want a quick and easy cure. So, can the mind itself help in overcoming such issues?
Hypnosis in general seems to have a bad rap as a 'cure' or even a management strategy. Does this come from struggling to believe that what we think matters? Or is it more to do with a mistrust of imagination in a world rooted in the rational and material? To make matters worse, hypnosis has been described as working with ‘controlled imagination’. But could focused visualisation, the ability to disconnect from reality, and openness to suggestibility provide a powerful tool for shifting habits and unlocking biochemical cascades within the body?
There is nothing like a bit of evidence to help answer questions. The Cochrane library comes in handy here. It is a great resource to interrogate for any medical-related treatment we might be wondering about. Then there are the discipline-specific journals.
In taking stock of these resources a story starts to unfold. Apart from showing promise with reducing anxiety, overcoming insomnia and dealing with low self-esteem, hypnosis seems well suited to alleviating certain system-related symptoms. A big one here appears to be the gut, which is perhaps not surprising considering how much anxiety affects this system.
There is an 80% beneficial outcome for hypnosis over other medical and support treatments for alleviating symptoms of that tricky problem called irritable bowel syndrome. Other gastrointestinal conditions also seem to benefit: pain and nausea are experienced as less severe for dyspepsia, oesophageal issues, and ulcerative colitis, although the data are a bit thin as yet.
Pain is very much a mind-based phenomenon so perhaps it is no great surprise that this too, is an effective target for hypnosis. Admittedly, assessing initial cause seems like a good idea here. However, pain during childbirth and labour seem unrelated to physical cause or even a successful outcome. Perhaps for many such a non-chemical way of minimising suffering may be a relief! The issue then becomes how to achieve its use in the busy and often distracting labour wards around the world.
Cancer, a condition of cell-overgrowth, can also be challenging. Although newer treatments are much more targeted, chemotherapy often comes with the side effects of nausea and vomiting. There appears to be strong evidence that hypnosis can supply relief here too.
For relief from chronic headache, pain associated with cancer, osteoarthritis, various chest conditions, and temporomandibular issues (jaw trouble), combining hypnosis with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a fusion known as cognitive hypnotherapy, seems promising. Less common conditions, such as sickle cell disease and fibromyalgia also respond.
Are there conditions for which hypnotic suggestion does not work? Well, there is poor evidence for pain alleviation in chronic spinal injury and pain in multiple sclerosis. As for quitting smoking, the picture for the usefulness of hypnosis is mixed. And for long-term management of body weight, hypnosis also seems less well supported. This is not to say that working with the mind is ineffective. Finding the subconscious issues that act as triggers and need shoring may be a powerful approach to changing eating patterns. If you are interested in this you may like to investigate NeuroSlimming: Let Your Brain Change Your Body.
Of course, there will always be those amongst us who want a do-it-your-self approach. For this there are plenty of apps. These usually target anxiety, stress and sleep issues. Which ones are the best? That I cannot tell you this because there is so little evaluation available. Although, we do know that data harvesting occurs, so tread carefully if you value your privacy.
Videos and books also exist as aids for exploration in this area. One that I have used is Trance-formations: neurolinguistic programming and the structure of hypnosis, a book by John Grinder and Richard Bandler. These authors are the fathers of this field and their text devotes a chapter to the topic of self-hypnosis.
So, does hypnosis work? Perhaps a better question to ask is whether changing a response to a trigger or relaxing the body is likely to change anything?
Till next time – B.W. Cribb