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David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Taking the Hype Out of Hypnotherapy
Jan. 23, 2007
By E.J. Mundell, HealthDay

It can ease pain, anxiety and addiction, but beware of false claims

TUESDAY, Jan. 23 (HealthDay News) -- Forget those movie images of Svengali-like hypnotists waving pocket watches.

Today's hypnotherapy is practiced by qualified physicians and has long been recognized by leading medical organizations -- including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the U.S. National Institutes of Health -- as an adjunct therapy useful in easing a range of ailments.

"It's a tool we use in our clinical work -- regardless of whether you're a dentist or psychologist or physician," said Marc Oster, a clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist based in Arlington Heights, Ill.

Dr. David Spiegel, an expert on hypnotherapy and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University in California, agreed.

"Hypnotherapy is just a form of highly focused attention, and there are therapeutic strategies that you employ using that highly focused attention," he explained.

For that reason, both experts stressed that patients who want to try hypnosis as a treatment tool should consult a practitioner licensed in some other form of medicine -- an M.D., a psychologist or a dentist, for example.

Their reasoning: "If you don't have clinical training, how can you work with clinical problems?" Oster said. While hypnosis can help people stop smoking, for example, a mere hypnotist may not be able to spot and treat underlying problems.

"Maybe the person is using smoking to help manage their anxiety," Oster said. "So then you're not treating the problem, just a symptom." In the case of psychiatric woes, especially, poorly guided hypnotherapy may even worsen the situation, experts say.

What is hypnotherapy? According to Oster, patients are usually "talked" into a state of highly focused, suggestible attentiveness where they are able to clear away mental "clutter" and focus on whatever problem it is that concerns them. In most cases, practitioners teach patients self-hypnosis techniques they can use at home.

Patients do not relinquish self-control, Oster said.

"Actually, from a clinical perspective, that's the opposite of what we do with people," he explained. "People come to see us to develop greater willpower and have more self-control, more confidence in themselves. You don't help that by taking it away."

Using electroencephalogram [EEG] and other methods, science is beginning to determine what happens to the hypnotized brain. "We're getting to the point where we can see that the hypnotic brain looks different from the resting or sleeping brain," Oster said. Hypnotized individuals are usually physically at ease, with lowered blood pressure and heart rates, while feeling fully awake and mentally attentive.

Studies have shown hypnosis can be a useful adjunct therapy against many ills, including:

  • Gastrointestinal problems. "For irritable bowel syndrome, especially, hypnosis has been demonstrated to be about 80 percent effective in reducing or eliminating symptoms. Medicine cannot do that," Oster said.
  • Pain. "It's been clearly helpful there for hundreds of years," Spiegel said. In many cases, patients with chronic pain use self-hypnosis techniques to "turn down" pain, like lowering the volume on a radio. Spiegel said patients can also use the technique to help get through invasive or painful medical procedures, such as dentistry or even cardiac catheterization.
  • Smoking and other addictions. "Half of people will typically stop smoking after a single [hypnosis] session, and half of those won't have a cigarette for two years," Spiegel said. In the world of smoking-cessation, a 25 percent long-term success rate is considered impressive, he said.
  • Weight loss. "There's some pretty good research that says hypnosis is helpful," Oster said. "It seems to help people stay focused on their goals."
Finding an effective, qualified hypnotherapist is easy if one consults one of two recognized associations: the practice-oriented American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, and a more research-oriented group, the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. Both groups mandate that hypnotherapists also be licensed in some form of clinical training.

Oster said consumers should be wary of claims that seem exaggerated or too good to be true. "If someone says their success rate with smoking is 90 to 95 percent, for example, I'd stay away," he said.

Both experts stressed that hypnotherapy is really directed by the patient, anyway, not the practitioner.

"It's a collaborative relationship between two people," Oster said, "you and I. It's something I do with you, not to you." A good hypnotherapist simply teaches techniques that allows a patient to fulfill his or her goals, he said.

"Patients look at it as, 'I'm doing this -- I'm learning to help myself,' " he said.

More information
For more on hypnotherapy, visit the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis.

SOURCES: Marc Oster, Psy.D., clinical psychologist, clinical hypnotherapist, Arlington Heights, Ill.; David Spiegel, M.D., Willson professor and associate chairman, department psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.
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