Hypnosis may seem an attractive option to deal with one’s unproductive behaviours. But, it isn’t really so.

If you are a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist, you are asked, much more frequently than one would imagine in the last decade or so, whether you could hypnotise your client in order to arrive at the root of the problem. Also, I’m often requested to hypnotically regress the client to a past life, so that the origins of a chronic and intractable symptom or a maladaptive behaviour can be rooted out once and for all. And since I don’t practice hypnotism, I do see a lot of fallen faces in my office.

Typically, requests for hypnotism (some older people still refer to is as mesmerism) are made in two situations. The first of these is for some long-standing ailment for which treatment has been unsuccessfully sought from the best specialists, and therefore it is concluded that the problem must be in the mind. The general belief in such a situation is that the symptom is caused by some deep-seated trauma that the individual must have undergone and because the traumatic event must have been very emotionally painful, the individual has repressed all memories associated with it and converted the emotional pain into a physical or behavioural symptom. As a result, the belief goes, cure can take place only when the exact origin and nature of the trauma is identified, and the individual has had the opportunity to re-experience and purge the negative emotions surrounding the traumatic event.

This thinking owes its origins to Sigmund Freud and the early days of the psychoanalysis movement, when the re-experiencing of the traumatic event, referred to as abreaction, and the process of purging oneself of emotional negativity, called catharsis, was considered essential for a cure. In his early days, Freud was a votary of hypnosis to facilitate this process, but gave up its practice when he realised that the more imaginative of his patients came up with a lot of dramatic repressed material, possibly arising from their rich fantasy worlds, and went on to develop psychoanalysis which eventually metamorphosed into psychotherapy. Modern day psychotherapists realise that mental health problems, except in the case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, are rarely caused by one repressed emotional trauma, but by a concatenation of factors, events and circumstances that need to be carefully and patiently teased out of the recesses of the human mind.

Unfortunately, most of us, particularly the younger among us, cannot abide the waiting and the effort that goes into psychotherapy. Quick fixes are what everyone wants and this gives rise to the second situation in which quick hypnotic interventions are often sought for a specific problem like say cessation of smoking, enhancement of sleep, increasing self-confidence and so on. Sometimes, I receive extraordinary requests to hypnotise a spouse to be more loving and emotionally expressive or to become more thrifty or to flirt less with office colleagues.

On the surface, hypnosis seems a very attractive option to deal with one’s unproductive behaviours. In essence, hypnosis bypasses the conscious filters that one has, over the years, constructed in one’s mind, perhaps to drown out painful memories of unpleasant experiences. In the second half of the 18th century, Franz Anton Mesmer, a German physician first demonstrated what later came to be described as mesmerism until the Scottish surgeon, James Baird, rechristened it as hypnotism in the latter half of the 19th century. It was a sensational process for it put an individual into a trance, during which the individual felt compelled to do and say things that seemed to come from a dim and distant past. Therein lay its use in uncovering repressed memories, and psychotherapists of the time took it up with gusto.

Subsequently hypnosis came to be used in a wide variety of medical situations. Based on the principle of mind controlling matter, it has been used in lieu of an anaesthetic to conduct surgeries by inducing analgesia (a state of painlessness). It has been used in psychotherapy to facilitate abreaction and catharsis, and in recent times, the almost esoteric technique of hypnotic past-life regression, something which resonates very well with the Indian belief in reincarnation, has captured public imagination based on best-selling literature and hugely followed television shows.

Despite all of this, hypnosis has not entered the mainstream of medicine and psychiatry, still occupying the “alternative space”. The usual argument offered for this centres around a conspiracy theory between medical professionals, the pharmaceutical lobby and the health care industry that are believed to have together marginalised this “panacea” for medical and psychiatric problems. I find this line of reasoning very specious, for it ignores the fact that if indeed hypnotherapy were such a catholicon, the all-powerful health insurance industry, which is always on the lookout for inexpensive interventions of which hypnosis is certainly one, would have overridden the “conspirers”, and guaranteed its induction into the health care pantheon.

The way I see it, whether or not hypnotherapy is effective is not the issue at hand. It is our search for quick-fix solutions and panaceas that is. Hypnosis does have a role as an adjunct to other interventions, but only if delivered by a trained hypnotherapist (all hypnotists are not hypnotherapists). But believing that hypnosis is the nostrum that will free us of all our suppressed traumata in this life and earlier ones too, might well be more traumatic than one could imagine.

vijay@vijaynagaswami.com

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