Hype and hypnotherapists: can they really do the things they claim?

    20 October 2016

    Would you like to ‘stop smoking in one hour’, ‘watch the weight fall off’, or ‘transform your life’? Step this way to a hypnotherapist, who, after a few magical, mesmeric incantations — hey presto! — will uncover an exciting new you, free of addictions, harmful thought patterns and bad habits.

    That, at least, is the impression given by the thousands of websites for UK hypnotherapists, from which all of these claims were drawn.-Hypnotherapy is a booming business, increasingly popular for treating long-term conditions such as phobias and anxiety and to break habits such as overeating and smoking.

    A typical initial session lasts around an hour, costs from £50 to £100 and features three elements. Firstly, there is a therapist-client conversation to discover the background to the issue. Then the therapist uses-induction techniques to put the client into a ‘trance state’. This might involve asking the subject to imagine floating in a warm sea or walking in a beautiful garden. Once this has been established, the therapist makes suggestions which the client, with the rational part of their mind relaxed, embraces more readily than they-otherwise might have done.

    That is the theory, anyway, and websites are awash with testimonies from satisfied customers. Yet the treatment is not available on the NHS, which maintains that there is ‘no strong evidence’ that it works. And it is easy to find highly dissatisfied customers who spent hundreds of pounds and achieved nothing.

    Emma Glen, a publishing PR, had hypnotherapy in her late thirties while trying to get pregnant. ‘It was one session at a fertility clinic,’ she says. ‘It’s not like you imagine, which is that you “go under” and don’t know what is happening. I was aware of what the therapist was saying to me the whole time.

    ‘She painted a scenario which had me going into a control room to change some dials to tell my body it was ready to conceive. It just didn’t feel very logical because I didn’t think the fact I wasn’t conceiving was anything to do with my mind; more likely that it was something to do with my body or my age. Afterwards, I felt it had been pointless.’

    Civil servant Kevin Graham sought treatment for a complex post-traumatic stress disorder which had its roots in a childhood trauma. ‘I was a little bit sceptical but thought I’d see what it was like,’ he says. ‘In the first session I asked if the hypnotherapist had direct experience of working with people like me. She talked to me about the brain and I felt that she knew a bit more than I had expected her to.

    ‘However, in subsequent sessions she used her guided relaxation technique. I said, “I’m not sure I’m in the trance state — I don’t really feel like I am.” She said, “I can tell you are, because of the way your eyes are moving and your eyelids.” I went away thinking “Hmmm — not so sure about that.”

    ‘After five sessions I started to think it could make things worse to focus on things that were unpleasant — the causes of my PTSD — with someone who I felt lacked the expertise to process the experience with me, as well as doing this supposed relaxation thing where I didn’t really feel relaxed. I stopped going.’

    Another subject described taking part in a tele-vision show in which she had a session with a celebrity hypnotist in order to change her drinking habits. Although she knew it hadn’t worked, she felt pressured into saying it had to avoid embarrassing the celebrity and ‘letting down’ the filmmakers.

    She was shocked when the programme was edited in a way ‘which completely misrepresented what had happened and greatly exaggerated the impact of the treatment which, in truth, was nil’. She adds: ‘It left me feeling cynical not just about hypnotherapy but all about sorts of therapy and counselling.’

    Even people who believe hypnosis can be an effective treatment for certain issues will concede that it doesn’t work for everybody. ‘It is person-dependent,’ says Dr Peter Naish, president of the British-Society of Clinical and Academic Hypnosis and a visiting reader in psychology at the University of Sussex. He suggests that one in ten people are highly responsive to hypnosis, the same number non-responsive and everyone else is somewhere in between.

    Steven Lynn, professor of psychology at Binghamton University, New York, who has a special interest in hypnosis, puts the figure higher. ‘About 15 per cent of people respond to the great majority, if not all, the suggestions provided,’ he says. ‘Fifteen per cent respond to few or no suggestions, and the rest respond to some but not all or the majority of suggestions.’

    Those are not great odds for anyone considering parting with so much cash (a typical course of treatment might be three or four sessions). However, some therapists offer a free consultation in which they will assess a potential client’s ‘hypnotisability’.

    ‘Consider smoking,’ says Alan Redman, a psychologist who also practises hypnotherapy. ‘I think hypnotherapy can be very effective in helping people to quit but you know quite quickly in a conversation with a client whether it’s going to work, because you explore their motives. If this amounts to no more than, “Well, I think I probably should quit”, it doesn’t matter how brilliant the therapist’s technique is, it’s unlikely to stick. A lot of the skill of the hypnotherapist lies in trying to establish clear and powerful motives for wanting to stop or start the thing that you hope hypnotherapy will help with.’ But if a subject already has ‘clear and powerful motives’, then it is unclear exactly what the hypnotherapy is adding.

    There is in fact no agreement among-researchers and practitioners about what hypnosis is, how it works or whether a ‘trance state’ actually constitutes an altered state of consciousness. Some believe it works only because of the placebo effect.

    The lack of industry regulation is a concern. ‘Speaking as a psychologist, it is slightly horrifying that anyone can call themselves a hypnotherapist and you don’t really know whether they’ve had a weekend workshop or been properly trained,’ says Redman. ‘It can be a lot more Wild West than some therapies.’

    In other words, if your job flipping burgers is not all you hoped it would be, you could legally set up shop as a hypnotherapist tomorrow. And to get a professional diploma for your wall all it takes is a course at an accredited school involving around 15 to 20 days of classroom teaching at a cost of about £2,000.

    Four weeks’ training does not seem a lot for a job that involves, as one celebrity hypnotherapist puts it, ‘reprogramming the brain’. And there is-another worry. Dr Naish says: ‘There is a certain class of therapist who appears convinced that whatever your problem, it will be down to abuse in childhood. If a client says, “I had a decent upbringing; nothing like that happened,” then the therapist will reason that the memory has been repressed. It’s a very Freudian idea for which there is scant evidence. Whereas there is a lot of evidence, which you can reproduce in a-laboratory, that people can remember quite striking things that didn’t actually happen.

    ‘These therapists, in the belief that hypnosis is some kind of royal road to hidden memories — which it’s not — proceed to “take the client back”, as they call it, and it’s very easy to lure people into believing something happened that never did. People can end up in court for fictitious crimes. I’ve been an expert witness in many court cases of this sort.

    ‘You get a sort of folie a deux where the client and therapist play off each other and in no time they can be beguiled by the seeming veracity of the “memory”.’

    Yet hypnotherapy’s reputation as a powerful and mysterious tool for changing behaviour continues to grow, burnished by the feats of celebrity hypnotists such as Derren Brown and Paul McKenna and the endorsement of celebrities. Singer Lisa Stansfield used it to quit smoking. It helped broadcaster Evan Davies conquer insomnia when he was on the Today programme. Jennifer Saunders said it rid her of her ‘backpack of-negativity’. Lily Allen used it for weight loss.

    Despite her disappointment with the fertility session, Emma Glen went on to try hypnotherapy to lose weight and that course of treatment, with several sessions over a number of months, has been successful.

    So if you are the right sort of person with the right sort of motivation to deal with the right sort of issue, and you choose the right sort of therapist (ideally one with a background as general practitioner, psychiatrist or psychologist), hypnotherapy might work for you, too. But don’t believe the hypno-hype.

    Names of hypnotherapy subjects have been changed.