Hypnosis is the only complementary therapy to be recognized officiallyby the British Medical Association and General Medical Council and included in the syllabus for basic medical training — even if it only amounts to less than a day’s study in six years. About a thousand doctors and dentists have extended that limited training and now use hypnotherapy in their work. There are, in addition, about as many more hypnotherapists who are not medically qualified.

Hypnosis is any procedure used by a hypnotist for inducing in a subject an entranced state of consciousness in which that person is exceptionally suggestible. It is as if his or her will has been suspended temporarily and been placed at the disposal of the hypnotist. Whatever attitudes the hypnotist suggests to the subject during hypnosis will be powerful motives when they return to normal consciousness, but the subject will not know what has been suggested to him — the encounter is buried in his subconscious mind.

Something related to hypnotism has been practised for various purposes for centuries. Its best known exponent in modern times was the Austrian Franz Mesmer, who created a sensation in late eighteenth century Paris with his elaborate theatrical demonstrations. Mesmer believed he was working with ‘animal magnetism’ but one of his pupils later showed that the same results could be obtained quite simply without apparatus. Hypnosis quickly became established as a therapy in France and spread to England where it was used (among other things) to provide pain relief during surgery until the development of anaesthetics.

Hypnotherapy comes into its own as a short cut to the treatment oftension, disturbances of behaviour and psychoneurotic illness in general; its place in psychotic illness is much more limited. More positively it provides a convenient wayto teach stress management in otherwise healthy people who handle stress badly. Most psychiatrists and psychologists would acknowledge that their usual methods of working are far more laborious, and that hypnotherapy is much more appropriate in dealing with common minor mental ailments. The established services are in any case too heavily preoccupied with major mental illness to devote much attention to minor functional problems and this state of affairs can only increase. So there is, on the face of it, every case for developing hypnotherapy as the major tool for dealing with minor mental illness.

There are however two problems about this. One of is that only a minority of people are susceptible to full hypnosis — the deep trance in which suggestibility is high. The technique can be used to relax anyone, but more straight forward relaxation techniques would then be more suitable. Although not so effective in these cases, hypnotherapy can at least do little harm. That is not true for some deep trance subjects, in whom the second problem may without warning become serious.

Anyone can induce a hypnotic trance, but not everyone can handle what it reveals. Mature people protect painful parts of their mental life with resistant layers of defensive personality, the kind of obstinate or illogical characteristic that we blame on human nature. This may include strong attachment to eating, smoking or some other habit which the victim may, in rational moments, wish to be without.

If such a person accepts hypnotherapy as a means to get rid of the irritating symptom, two possible risks arise. At best, they may find themselves losing one symptom but developing another to replace it, since their main problem remains unsolved and still needs a safety-valve. At worst, the protective layers may burst open under hypnosis revealing a chaotic mass of painful immature feelings which the therapist cannot cope with. This can drive a patient to the edge of suicide, if he or she is left in this condition by an embarrassed therapist unequal to dealing with it.

Nothing in the present training opportunities for non-medical hypnotherapists quite overcomes this serious difficulty. Some training courses are very good, but students can qualify more quickly and less expensively through easier courses. It is almost impossible from advertisements to distinguish therapists according to the quality of their training and experience.

Here are some precautions you can take to reduce the risk that you will fall into inexperienced hands.

What to do

1. Ask your doctor whether he thinks hypnotherapy would help you and whom he would recommend. There may be a psychiatrist, psychologist or community psychiatric nurse near you who is accustomed to hypnotherapy, which is ideal.

2. Never rely on newspaper or magazine advertisements. Personal recommendation by a professional or friend is a far safer basis for selection.

3. Contact therapists in whom you are interested and ask to see them without obligation, to discuss qualifications and experience and to form an impression.Willing openness is a good sign, but expect to be charged for it.


  • British Hypnotherapy Association
    67 Upper Berkeley Street
    W1H 7DH

    Tel: 0207 723 4443
  • British Society of Medical & Dental Hypnosis
    PO Box 16
    42 Links Road
    KT21 2HT
  • National Register of Hynotherapists & Psychotherapists
    12 Cross Street
    BB9 7EN

    Tel. 01282 699378

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