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How hypnotherapy can heal you

Contrary to popular belief, hypnosis isn’t a magician’s stage act. It is increasingly being used by psychologists to treat disorders like phobias and addiction. Reshmi Chakraborty tells you more.

health and fitness Updated: Jul 24, 2010 16:42 IST
Reshmi Chakraborty

"There’s nothing much to photograph you know," jokes Dr Vanit Nalwa, when asked if she could be photographed in the chamber where she conducts her hypnotherapy sessions. “No candles or swinging pendulums!”

Dr Nalwa, well-known Delhi-based hypnotherapist and neuropsychologist, isn’t far off the mark. For many people, the word hypnosis conjures images that have more to do with magic than medicine.

HynotherapyBut the truth is that hypnotherapy is a scientifically-acknowledged discipline that can be used by itself or in combination with other types of therapies to help patients achieve their goals, says Reema Shah, Mumbai-based psychologist and hypnotherapist. Approved by the American and British Medical Associations, hypnosis is "scientifically researched and can even be seen on a brain scan," claims Dr Dayal Mirchandani, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist.

Using the subconscious
According to Shah, hypnotherapy is very effective with anxiety disorders, phobias and traumas. Addictions like smoking and drinking and even kleptomania can also be cured effectively through hypnotherapy, though results may vary from person to person. Dr Nalwa, who trained in the UK and has had patients ranging in ages from six to 60, says that generally people come for various phobias as well as marital and work-related problems. She encourages people to try hypnotherapy only if they have an open mind about it and says that often, people approach hypnotherapy as a last resort due to lack of awareness.

Dr Mirchandani says that hypnotherapy can work very well for pain control. “It has been used during labour and works very well,” he says. He mainly uses hypnotherapy for medical conditions like asthma, painful arthritis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, etc. “It could also be used on people who are grossly overweight to help them lose their appetite,” he adds. Shah says it’s also an effective therapy for insomnia.

Hypnosis is a state of relaxation. “It’s the state between being fast asleep and being alert,” Dr Nalwa says. Shah tries to explain it. “It’s like a daydream, where you are conscious and aware, yet you are oblivious to external distractions.”

A daydream-like state may sound magical but most hypnotherapists would suggest it only if required. “If clients specifically ask for hypnotherapy, the first session is spent assessing whether they really need it,” says Shah. Therapists usually decide if hypnosis is required depending on the kind of problem, the extent of it and also their assessment of the client’s personality.

It doesn’t always work, says Dr Nalwa who restricts her sessions to six. “If it’s not working with six sessions, then it is not the therapy the client needs,” she believes. Shah says hypnotherapy can take anything from three sessions to 10 to be effective, particularly if it’s a deep addiction.

Working it
Hypnotherapy works with the subconscious mind. According to Shah, the brain operates on four measurable frequency cycles: Delta, Theta, Alpha and Beta. Theta is the subconscious part where all emotional experiences are recorded, while Alpha is where dreaming and daydreaming takes place. Beta is the conscious region for reasoning and daily activities. When we sleep, the brain automatically cycles down from Beta to Alpha and hypnosis takes advantage of this natural phenomenon. “It causes the brain to cycle down into Alpha without going to sleep. The subconscious mind is open to suggestive input and unlike the conscious mind, it doesn’t think or reason and responds to what it is told. Suggestions are then made into real behaviour changes by the mind,” Shah says.

Dr Nalwa says hypnotherapy goes into stored memories in the brain. “It’s like accessing your database in the brain and making changes at that level.” Dr Mirchandani thinks that most people go into a naturally occurring state of trance without realising it, while reading a book or watching an interesting movie. He teaches self-hypnosis to people with chronic painful conditions or those with anxiety disorders, an area where hypnosis is very effective. “It helps them calm down, whether before a meeting or an interview,” he says.

Bangalore girl Subha Narayan would sweat before interviews and group discussions and be anxious to the extent of walking out rather than go through the ordeal. “Hypnotherapy helped me to deal with my fears and techniques I learnt from my counsellor helped me calm down before an interview session,” says Narayan, who now works for a pharmaceutical company and is comfortable giving a presentation to a roomful of people, a fearsome prospect earlier.


The mythbuster


But misconceptions still abound when it comes to hypnotherapy. One of the biggest myths is that people can be hypnotised and made to do things against their will, perpetuated largely thanks to stage hypnosis and B-grade movies. “No one can be hypnotised against their will,” says Shah. “The subject must be hundred per cent cooperative.” No person gets ‘stuck’ in a hypnotic state either.

And this is what all hypnotherapists tell you. No person can be made to do anything under hypnosis that they wouldn’t normally do in a completely alert state. In other words, you wouldn’t go against your normal value system even under hypnosis. “The subject can choose to accept or reject the suggestions given even when under hypnosis,” asserts Shah. “You exercise your personal free will even in that state,” says Dr Nalwa. “There’s always a small percentage of highly susceptible people, but most people would not do anything under hypnosis they wouldn’t do normally.”

There’s also the general impression that strong-willed people cannot be hypnotised. Those who practice hypnotherapy will tell you it’s actually the opposite! “Strong-willed people have fewer fears and more confidence and they usually find it easier to go into a trance-like state,” says Dr Mirchandani. Dr Nalwa concurs, “People who respond best are usually intelligent and articulate.”

But some people do not respond to hypnotherapy very well. “That’s because their defences are very strong and they don’t allow themselves to relax easily,” says Shah. So if it isn’t mumbo jumbo why isn’t hypnotherapy used more extensively? In the last few years, though attitudes have been changing, it is still not as widely known as counselling.

One reason could be the lack of proper regulation. It has resulted in the number of lay hypnotists far outweighing certified therapeutic hypnotists. Shah and Dr Mirchandani agree that many debatable institutes now offer short-term courses in hypnotherapy. “People become counsellors but do not have proper psychological knowledge,” says Shah.

So if you’re wondering how to select a good hypnotherapist, the answer would be to visit someone who is qualified, preferably with a degree in psychology or a related branch.

But Dr Nalwa, who started practicing hypnotherapy in Delhi in 1996 thinks there’s a positive shift. “People are more open and forthcoming and certain techniques are even becoming part of corporate training.”

Session lessons

Everyone’s curious. What happens in a hypnotherapy session? Well, if it’s a first session, the hypnotherapist will usually give you an introduction to the therapy, and also tell you about other available options for treatment (e.g., cognitive therapy or medication), as well as find out about your background, the problems you face and other issues that may be related.

Once hypnosis begins, the hypnotherapist helps you relax. This could be by talking to you in a particular manner, by storytelling, by asking you to focus on something particular, by using a mental image that’s soothing or even by chanting mantras. Basically, you are guided to a hypnotic state using whatever you are comfortable with. Once you have achieved a state of true relaxation, the hypnotherapist uses different techniques to address the subconscious and find the root of the problem. Suggestion therapy, visualisation, age regression and neuro-linguistic programming are commonly used. “It’s difficult to describe but overall, hypnosis is a pleasant sensation,” says Bangalore girl Subha Narayan who was cured of her fear of public speaking through hypnotherapy. “My limbs felt numb but I was aware of my therapist speaking.”

Depending on your personality and the depth of your problem, a session can last between 10 minutes to half an hour. Once you’re brought out of hypnosis, you may or may not be able to recall what went on.

True life story
From solving marital problems to curing phobias, addictions and chronic pains, hypnotherapy has proved effective in many cases. Dr Vanit Nalwa mentions a man who came to her with a serious marital conflict. The couple had a small daughter and therefore, her patient did not want a divorce as it would disrupt the daughter’s life. Dr Nalwa was the only professional who offered to help him even if his wife was not ready to participate in the process.

“I helped him change his attitude towards his wife, so that he did not feel the need to react to all she said or did,” explains Dr Nalwa. The couple remained married and raised their daughter, despite living in different cities for a period of time.