Other common name(s): hypnotherapy, hypnotic suggestion, self-hypnosis
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Hypnosis is a state of restful alertness during which a person uses deeply focused concentration. The person can be relatively unaware of, but not completely blind to, his or her surroundings, and he or she may be more open to suggestion. It is considered to be a type of complementary therapy.
Hypnosis is one of several relaxation methods that was evaluated and found to be of possible benefit by an independent panel convened by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The panel found it may be useful for treating chronic pain when used with standard medical care. Hypnosis may also be effective in reducing fear and anxiety, reducing the frequency and severity of headaches, and controlling bleeding and pain during dental procedures. Available scientific evidence does not support the idea that hypnosis can influence the development or progression of cancer. However, it may help to improve quality of life for some people with cancer.
How is it promoted for use?
Practitioners say that hypnosis creates a state of deep relaxation, quiets the conscious mind, and leaves the unconscious mind open to suggestions that can help to improve health and lifestyle. People who are hypnotized have selective attention and are able to concentrate intensely on a specific thought, memory, feeling, or sensation while blocking out distractions.
Hypnosis is commonly used to reduce stress and anxiety and create a sense of well-being. It is also promoted to change undesirable behaviors, such as smoking, alcohol dependence, and bedwetting. It is used along with other methods by some mental health professionals to help patients overcome common fears, such as the fear of flying or of meeting new people. Hypnosis is sometimes used to help relieve pain caused by cancer. Supporters generally do not claim that hypnosis can cure cancer or any other disease or that it always attains the desired results. However, they say that it can be a useful addition to conventional therapy for some conditions.
Hypnosis is occasionally used instead of anesthetic drugs during minor surgical and dental procedures and during childbirth. Some supporters also believe hypnosis speeds recovery after operations, reduces the amount of surgical bleeding, and enhances the body’s immune system.
What does it involve?
There are many different hypnotic techniques. One method involves leading patients into a state of hypnosis by talking in gentle, soothing tones and describing images meant to create a sense of relaxation, security, and well-being. People under hypnosis may appear to be asleep, but they are actually in an altered state of concentration and can focus intently when asked to do so by the hypnotherapist. While a patient is under hypnosis, the hypnotherapist may suggest specific outcomes, such as pain control, more peaceful emotions, and less stress, fear, or anxiety.
Contrary to what many believe, people under hypnosis are not under the control of the hypnotherapist. They cannot be made to do something they do not want to do. Quite the opposite is true. Hypnosis is used to help patients gain more control over their behavior, emotions, and even some physical processes that cause problems for them. People cannot be hypnotized unless they wish to be, and not everyone can be put into a hypnotic state. Success depends upon whether the patient is willing and receptive to the idea of hypnosis. Some people can enter into a deeper hypnotic state than others and are said to be more hypnotizable. With training, many people can learn to hypnotize themselves. This is called self-hypnosis or autohypnosis.
What is the history behind it?
Hypnosis and hypnotic suggestion have been a part of healing practices for thousands of years. The word comes from the Greek word hypnos, which means sleep. The use of trance-like states and positive suggestion was an important feature of the early Greek healing temples. Variations of those techniques were practiced throughout the ancient world.
Modern hypnosis can be traced back to the German physician, Franz Anton Mesmer, who believed that imbalances in magnetic forces in the human body were responsible for illness. Mesmer applied a therapy, which he called mesmerism, involving the use of tranquil gestures and soothing words to relax patients and restore the balance to their magnetic forces. The evolution of Mesmer's ideas and practices led the Scottish neurosurgeon James Braid to coin the term hypnosis in 1842. Called the "father of modern hypnotism," Braid rejected Mesmer's theory of magnetic forces and instead ascribed the "mesmeric trance" to a physical process that resulted from prolonged attention to an object of fixation. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychotherapy, found hypnosis useful for treating hysteria, but later abandoned the practice after observing that he stirred up powerful emotions within his patients.
Eventually, the notion of using a state of altered awareness gained greater acceptance in conventional Western medicine. Today, hypnosis is used widely in the United States and other Western countries. People who practice hypnosis are generally licensed and are often trained in several psychological techniques.
What is the evidence?
Many reports demonstrate that hypnosis can help patients reduce blood pressure, stress, anxiety, and pain. Hypnosis can create relaxing brain wave patterns, although reports on how much it helps to change behaviors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and overeating are mixed. Most researchers who reviewed clinical trials on the use of hypnosis to help people stop smoking found that the evidence did not support its effectiveness.
Hypnosis can be used by therapists as a tool to help eliminate phobias or decrease their strength. Research has also shown that hypnosis can help reduce anticipatory nausea and vomiting. (Anticipatory or conditioned nausea or vomiting occurs when, after a few doses of chemotherapy have caused nausea or vomiting, some people have nausea or vomiting just before the next dose is to be given.) Hypnosis appears less likely to help nausea and vomiting that happen after the chemotherapy dose is given. According to a report from the NIH, there is evidence that hypnosis can help reduce some kinds of cancer pain. In 2006, researchers reviewed studies of children with cancer and found that hypnosis appeared to help reduce pain and distress from medical procedures. In one study published in 2008, giving breast cancer patients a brief hypnosis session before surgery reduced the pain, nausea, fatigue, discomfort, emotional upset, and cost of the procedure.
Another NIH report, which reviewed several scientific studies, showed that women under hypnosis before childbirth had shorter labors and more comfortable deliveries. According to the report, hypnosis may also enhance the immune system. The report looked at one study that found that hypnosis raised the levels of immunoglobulin (an important part of the immune system) in healthy children. Another study found that self-hypnosis led to an increase in white blood cell activity. The NIH report also looked at twelve different controlled studies: One showed that hypnosis reduced the intensity or frequency of migraine headaches in children and teenagers. Another study on chronically ill patients found a 113 percent increase in pain tolerance among highly hypnotizable subjects versus those who were not hypnotized. According to the NIH report, the reasons why hypnosis causes these changes are not well-understood.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
Hypnosis done under the care of a professionally trained hypnotherapist is generally considered safe when used with standard medical treatment. Emotional distress may happen in some situations. People who have certain types of mental illness should not be hypnotized.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
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Hypnotherapy. Aetna InteliHealth Web site. Accessed at http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/8513/31455/346706.html?d=dmtContent on May 27, 2008.
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National Institutes of Health. Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons: A Report to the National Institutes of Health on Alternative Medical Systems and Practices in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; 1994. NIH publication 94-066.
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Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 11/01/2008