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With a new year coming up, people are making resolutions to stop smoking, lose weight, break unwanted habits, etc. Hypnotherapy could help.

Hypnosis and hypnotherapy are similar but different. The old perception of hypnosis may be the stage hypnotist who puts audience members into a trance and then has a group of hypnotized subjects perform comical things on stage for the amusement of the unhypnotized audience. In situations like this, there are those who are willing and able to be hypnotized so they become the entertainment. Those who are determined they cannot and will not be hypnotized become the audience.

Clinical hypnotherapy is a serious, medically approved method of dealing with issues such as smoking cessation, weight loss, nail biting, insomnia, pain, dermatology problems, gastrointestinal problems and other mental and physical health concerns. The person seeking hypnotherapy for help is totally in control and is, in fact, in a highly alert and focused state, even though he/she may appear to be asleep.

On a very basic level, what happens is the therapist interviews the client about what he/she wants to accomplish, then gets the person into a relaxed state by leading the client through some form of relaxing spoken visualization and, when the client is relaxed and focused, offers suggestions to help accomplish what he/she wants to do. Different therapists may use different techniques to do this, but in general this is the way it works.

Before seeking hypnotherapy for a medical problem, a person should always see their doctor for a diagnosis. Hypnotherapy isn’t going to cure cancer, for example, but it can help a client deal with a medical problem in a relaxed way that can reduce pain, itching and other symptoms.

“Diseases like eczema and psoriasis often involve intense itching,” said Dr. Robert London, a New York psychiatrist who has used hypnotherapy, guided imagery and cognitive behavior in treating patients for four decades. “Scratching the itch only makes things worse. But with hypnosis patients can learn to relax and substitute a light touch for scratching.”

Another myth about hypnosis is that the client is asleep, immobile or unconscious. In fact, many clients in a hypnotic trance claim they “weren’t hypnotized” because they were aware of everything going on around them. This may be the case, but almost always the client has relaxed to the point where their brainwaves are at the level they are just before falling asleep, and therefore their unconscious mind is open to the suggestions offered.

The majority of people are hypnotizable, and the client is the one in charge. They are not going to do anything they would not do in a nonhypnotic state. The fact that they have sought the help of a hypnotherapist is, in itself, a huge step toward working with the problem. Essentially you “gotta wanna” get help for it to work.

I’ve had clients who were sent by their doctors for smoking cessation who loved smoking and didn’t want to give it up. There was no point in proceeding because the client must want it. You can’t want it for somebody else – not even your doctor.

Hypnosis and guided imagery have a lot in common. Under hypnosis a client can visualize what they wish to accomplish as having already happened. This helps turn imagination into reality. Hypnotherapy has, at times, been written off as “imagination,” and imagination is a big component, but unlike what some of us may have been taught as children, imagination is a good thing.

Everything begins with imagination. Every book, every painting, every piece of music was in someone’s imagination before it became reality. Visualizing oneself as a nonsmoker, being thinner, reducing the size of a tumor and other goals is the first step toward that goal becoming a reality.

When suggestions are given in the relaxed state, where the brainwaves are at the same level as they are just before a person falls asleep, they are accepted by the unconscious. No one really knows exactly how hypnosis works, even though it has been studied over the years since it was introduced by a Scottish surgeon, Dr. James Braid, in 1843 when he was attempting hypnoanesthesia for his surgical patients.

“Definitions of hypnosis are many,” said Dr. London. “Theories as to what it is are varied from the physiologic to the psychological as well as a combination of both. The exact type of substrate – biological, physiological or psychological – has not been clearly elucidated. But one clear message emerges: The hypnotic phenomenon is a real mental event and appears to include some form of relaxation and intense concentration. It does not appear to be sleep.

“During hypnosis many therapeutic strategies can be used to treat psychological or physical problems as well as certain chronic pain syndrome such as headache and musculoskeletal pain.”

Two societies are dedicated to hypnosis – the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis and the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis.

Most hypnotherapists will either offer a recording of the session or allow the client to record it on a device of their own. This is good because the repetition helps. It’s like getting extra free sessions. Sessions last about an hour, and usually whatever is being worked on can be accomplished in one to four sessions.

Occasionally a person may need more. An example might be if one is doing well with smoking cessation except for giving up that first cigarette with a cup of coffee in the morning. Then they might want to return to work more on that specific issue.

Hypnotherapy is very subtle. Often it isn’t the session itself that “solves” the problem but the fact that it tunes the client in to awareness about what they can do about that problem. Sometimes the needed information will come in something like a broadcast on the radio or an article in the newspaper. Even overheard conversations have provided answers. After hypnotherapy the client is “tuned in” to solutions.

In the mid 1950s, the British Medical Association and the American Medical Association recognized hypnosis in a policy statement as a legitimate treatment in medicine and dentistry.

“More psychiatrists should be trained in hypnotic techniques,” Dr. London said. “Hypnosis should be part of general psychiatric education because these strategies add a valuable dimension to the psychiatric toolbox.”

Arlene Shovald, Ph.D., is a registered psychotherapist, certified clinical and past-life regression therapist, owner of Fresh Start Therapies LLC and author of the book “Let Your Dreams Be Your Doctor.” She can be reached at 719-539-3139 or arlenephd@yahoo.com.

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