Updated: Jan 27
At last, hypnosis is shedding its bad reputation, and entering mainstream medicine as a viable alternative to sedation, regulating anxiety and even lessening pain.
When we think of illness and disease, most of us speak in terms of our bodies letting us down. We detach the physical, uncooperative or defective side of us from our conscious control. We consider these dysfunctions as being a purely mechanical breakdown. It’s almost as though our bodies have total autonomy over themselves, while characters, thoughts, and emotions are simply guests within.
Given that many feelings, both positive and negative, have a known cascade effect on hormone release, I find it harder than most people to differentiate between the physical and consciousness aspects. There have been too many sensational media stories, where strong will power alone has overcome massive physical limitations or injury; such as the tiny mother who lifted the rear of a car from her trapped child, or Tom Cruise who continued with a dangerous stunt, despite having broken his leg.
The adrenalin rushes experienced during extreme situations can account for the suppression of pain, but not for summoning massive strength. That can only be an instance of mind over matter. A dismissal of our own limitations to achieve the impossible.
It turns out, that how we deal with sensory information is the key to all physical endurance. When your brain learns to expect discomfort from a sequence of events, it will lower the threshold for pain reception in sensory cells, priming them for the inevitable. If your cerebral cortex anticipates intolerable levels of that pain, it will activate defence patterns of behaviour in response, encouraging you to mitigate the effects with drugs.
These learned behaviours are not always consciously evoked. They are the result of repetitive negative feedback, most of which happens without our awareness. It stands to reason, therefore, if we could re-train these negative patterns of sensory feedback, we could gain a degree of control over our perception of pain and perhaps much more.
There are regions of the brain that actively discourage risk-taking. Let’s call it our Inhibition Pathway. When your mind receives a request to do something new and daring, this region talks you out of it, releasing fear chemicals and triggering nice, safe patterns of behaviour to comfort you. Obviously, a certain amount of fear is necessary for survival, or we’d all be throwing ourselves from aeroplanes without parachutes in the hope of finding a haystack in which to land.
Our problems start when this Inhibition Pathway gains an unhealthy level of control over us. This risk aversion can prevent new brain connections being formed, reinforcing fear pathways instead. At this point, a brain’s neural plasticity becomes compromised, making us less able to adapt to changes in life.
We become hardwired to certain behaviour patterns, thus making habits incredibly difficult to break. That’s where hypnosis can help.
In recent years, hypnosis has taken a battering in medical circles, being likened to popular theatre or relegated to magician’s shows. In fairness, the discipline has been damaged by hucksters and charlatans who make unsubstantiated claims and charge huge fees to help you quit smoking or lose weight, but in the hands of qualified medical practitioners, its power can be immense.
Hypnotic states render the Inhibition Pathways in our brains mute, in a similar way that alcohol and drugs can. By dampening our risk centres, we become amenable to new learning. While in this state, it is possible to keep the conscious mind so deeply distracted, that all other sense reception, including pain, is dulled.
You have probably already experienced this state of being without realising. It’s when you are entirely engrossed in a thought or activity that you have not noticed the passing of time. Perhaps you were absorbed in reading an incredible book and by the time you’ve snapped out of the final scene, you suddenly realise that you’re starving hungry and your backside is numb. We’ve all been there.
If you can learn how to harness that state and strengthen its power over your physical body, then you can control the intensity of pain at will or your cravings for cookies and ice cream. The list of potential factors to regulate is endless.
At last, physicians, specialists and research scientists are redefining hypnosis and considering its benefits in mainstream medicine. The UK's Royal College of Midwives, now offer fully funded and accredited courses in hypnobirthing.
Anaesthetists are beginning to include hypnosis in some procedures, to lessen the quantity of drugs required and therefore reducing the side effects of chemical sedation. There are even scientists who now claim that hypnosis could be instrumental in vastly reducing the world’s opioid addiction crisis.
In the US, the American Psychological Association and National Institute of Health, actively promote hypnosis as a part of their pain management protocols. In Paris, France, the Curie Institute gives patients local anaesthetics and a mild sedative in conjunction with hypnosis for procedures such as biopsies, laparoscopies, and plastic surgery. With fewer drugs entering the patients’ bodies, they report quicker recovery times and fewer side effects and complications than when a general anaesthetic is used.
You may be wondering why it has taken so long for the medical profession to accept hypnosis after spending years debunking its effects. It’s partly due to the lack of conclusive evidence to support the benefits, which in turn has led to poor funding and badly organised studies. By publishing unreliable data in the past, hypnosis became a media punching bag, accentuating the failures while playing down any anecdotal successes.
Just imagine what could be achieved if proper, rigorous trials into the true efficacy of hypnosis were conducted by celebrated and respected institutions. This is not some Nineteenth-Century parlour trick or a theatre show made famous by the German physician, Franz Mesmer. Hypnosis has been documented in treatments since 1550BC. During that time, it has wavered in its popularity, never quite gaining approval from the medics of the day.
The ability to dial down sensory overload is not just important in pain management, but critical to those who suffer from chronic anxiety, depression, OCD, and many other crippling neurological conditions.
Given proper research, we could discover that something as simple as self-hypnosis could cure a vast array of disorders, but until we stop disassociating our physical and psychological selves, we will go on believing that mind over body control is a myth. Our consumption of damaging drugs will continue as we cycle around in our risk-averse patterns of behaviour, until the only happy and pain-free people in our world, are the CEOs of large pharmaceutical companies.
It’s time to rebrand hypnosis and give it a fair chance.
If you are feeling stressed right now and need a few minutes to clear your mind, why not listen to the short session recorded at the bottom of this post?