Unlike the majority of comparable therapies, hypno psychotherapy measures its history not in years or decades but centuries. Therefore, if the provenance of a therapy is to be determined by its longevity, hypno psychotherapy has stood the test of time.
Throughout much of that history, the discipline has been hampered by the absence of a single theory to explain the medium through which it works – hypnosis. The usually acknowledged forerunner of modern hypno psychotherapy, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), believed in the existence of a universal fluid – animal magnetism – an imbalance of which in the human body caused illness.
He, and others trained by him, sought to control the distribution of this fluid, restoring balance, and health, to those who sought his help. Mesmer was careful to confirm whether any given presenting problem were organic or functional, and worked with the latter, functional psychosomatic illnesses. (This same caution is observed by competent practitioners today.) Mesmer was convinced that a cure might only be achieved when a patient experienced a crisis, typified by convulsions and related phenomena. In 1784, a Royal Commission in France, where Mesmer was then resident, decided against the existence of magnetic fluid. The Commission attributed Mesmer’s undoubted successes to his manipulation of a patient’s imagination; that is, by suggestion.
In an age not familiar with the power of suggestion alone, outside of a religious context, the significance of the Commission’s findings was overlooked. But if there were no universal fluid, with nothing physical being transmitted between Mesmerist and subject, related phenomena must be psychological in origin. The blind regained their sight, for instance, through the power of imagination and suggestion, rather than animal magnetism. Since Mesmer would not allow his theory to be displaced by such a concept, and the Commission discounted it, the emergence of modern psychology and hypno psychotherapy was postponed. Discredited by the findings of the Commission and other enquiries, and the bizarre nature in which he chose to conduct therapy sessions, Mesmer eventually returned to his native Austria.
These events, along with the convulsions of the French Revolution, Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic Europe, scattered Mesmer’s followers throughout Europe and abroad. Attempts to carry forward Mesmer’s medical applications met with considerable opposition. British doctors who advocated the use of Mesmerism, for instance, made little progress because of the attitude of the medical and scientific establishments. John Elliotson (1791-1868) was obliged to resign his post as Professor of Surgery at University College, London. James Braid (1795-1860), who substituted the word “Hypnotism” * for Mesmerism, was refused permission to read a paper on the subject to the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
James Esdaile (1808-1859), who performed over 300 major surgical operations in India using hypnosis as the anaesthetic, was denied access to the medical press to publish his findings. (* From Hypnos, Ancient Greek god of sleep, since Braid thought a form of sleep was involved. The name persists, though the sleep theory has been discarded.)
The often legitimate suspicions aroused by the extravagant claims and behaviour of mesmerists and hypnotists – some of whom exploited, and exploit, related phenomena for “entertainment” – relegated the legitimate applications of hypnosis to the fringe of respectability. The advent of chemical anaesthetics and growth of the drugs industry impeded the study and use of hypnosis in medicine. In much the same way as chemical agents had served to displace hypnosis in the practice of medicine, so Freudian psychoanalysis tended to displace it in psychotherapy. Despite sporadic revivals of interest, such as after and during the First and Second World Wars when short term psychotherapy was needed, its present popularity is comparatively recent.
Mesmer’s student, de Puysegur (1751-1825), had quietly relegated the importance of the crisis in favour of the trance-like state typical of his therapeutic practice. Modern therapy, too, recognises the significance of the trance and, when we speak of somebody being “mesmerised”, we do not suppose that person to be convulsed. Although emotion may be released – most particularly when the technique of hypno-analysis is used, based on the Freudian view that repressed material may be recovered from the unconscious mind – it is a sense of calm detachment, rather than crisis, which typifies the great majority of hypnotherapy sessions.
A typical modern hypno psychotherapy session, influenced by research and refinement in numerous countries since Mesmer’s day, comprises induction, treatment strategy, and termination. In the induction, the therapist may, for example, speak slowly to the subject about the subject’s becoming imaginatively involved in an experience of focussed awareness, whilst peripheral distractions fade – hence the subject may, with eyes closed, concentrate upon the progressive relaxation of his/her muscles to the exclusion of external events and stimuli. A good subject, well-motivated, optimistic about the therapy and confident in the therapist (criteria in which he/she may be educated in and out of hypnosis) is then ready to engage in any therapy intended to change inappropriate behaviour, thought or feeling. This means that virtually all, if not all, psychological techniques may be delivered via the medium of hypnosis. Because imaginative involvement, selective attention, and suspension of the critical process are all characteristic of the hypnotic state, hypno psychotherapy may often be the treatment of choice. The subject may move forward or backward in time, rehearse coping techniques, learn to correct types of thinking and feeling prejudicial to emotional well-being, and behaviour prejudicial to physical health, confront, but not exaggerate, life’s problems whilst reappraising its potential, develop the ability to use self-hypnosis and perform “homework” tasks emphasising modern hypno psychotherapy’s stress upon a subject’s active involvement in the desired therapeutic outcome. At the termination, cues for subsequent positive thoughts, feelings or behaviour (post-hypnotic suggestions) may be introduced or re-iterated. Finally, the subject is gently returned from what has been described as an altered state of consciousness – the hypnotic state – to the everyday state of consciousness with its diffuse and distracting stimuli. Now discussion takes place (possibly an extension of dialogue whilst the subject was in hypnosis) and the hypnotic experience is examined in order to inform and enhance future therapy sessions i.e. the therapist defers to the source of expertise and control which lies not with the therapist, but with the subject.
Given a comfortable environment, a sympathetic and empathetic therapist who inspires confidence, and the subject’s optimism about a realistic outcome, that outcome may be achieved. Because hypnosis is so fundamental, and universal, even if not recognised as such, it should not be withdrawn from the public domain, either in terms of training or availability as therapy. Rather, we should be aiming to widen such training and availability. Whilst hypnosis can stand alone as a form of therapy or form an adjunct to any other profession, it should become the property of no single profession.
Virtually any book on the subject deals with the numerous theories of hypnosis. Essentially, the debate centres upon whether or not hypnosis is a special state. “State” theorists might argue that the subject’s appearance and subjective reports of the hypnotic experience alone would support their theory. “Non-state” theorists might argue that hypnotic behaviour is the result of motivation, attitude and expectancy resulting in the subject’s willingness to follow the therapist’s suggestions. Perhaps the outcome will be some sort of compromise: ‘Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, the achievement of which is greatly influenced by factors such as the subject’s motivation, attitude and expectancy promoting a willingness to follow the therapist’s suggestions’.
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