You are getting sleepy...

Posted by Jason Newland on

By Michael Lallo

Hypnotherapy is unregulated, mysterious and best known for making people cluck like chickens. But business is booming.

I'm being rocked back and forth gently by a man telling me to stand up straight and stare at a black dot. "Do you see any movement?" asks Dr Bruce Alexander, a hypnotherapist I'm hoping will help rid me of my insomnia.

I tell him I see ripples in the pattern surrounding the dot, which seems to please him. Soon, I'm reclining in an armchair while he draws the curtains and dims the lights. What follows are some common relaxation techniques, such as feeling each part of my body become heavy and visualising myself walking down a flight of stairs.

But then something unusual happens: I stop analysing his every word.

He tells me I'm relaxed and I find that I am. He tells me my arms are as heavy as lead and I realise I can't lift them. Every distracting thought, not least the fact that he looks remarkably like Melbourne weatherman Steve Jacobs, has evaporated.

As I drive home, feeling calm despite the peak-hour chaos, I realise I can't remember what happened after I descended the imaginary staircase. But I didn't nod off - I actually felt focused and in control throughout the entire process. That evening, after listening to the relaxation CD he gave me, I have the best night's sleep I've had in ages. I've already booked another one-hour, $130 session.

What's more, I wasn't even meant to visit a hypnotherapist. "It won't work if you've already decided that it won't work," says my editor, who knows I'm a science-worshipping uber-sceptic. But it didn't take long to find enough evidence to rein in my doubt and give it a go.

And it seems I'm not the only one. Courses at Australia's three government-accredited hypnotherapy schools can cost more than $20,000, yet enrolments have doubled over the past five years, reflecting growing consumer demand. The Australian Medical Association recognises hypnotherapy as a valid treatment for some disorders and most private health funds have rebates for approved treatments. It seems that hypnotherapy has shaken off its voodoo image and become mainstream.

There's little doubt that hypnosis is a real phenomenon and an effective therapeutic tool. According to a Scientific American report, it can alleviate pain, insomnia, anxiety and phobias. A few sessions are usually all it takes.

There is also some evidence that it can be useful in treating obesity, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and many other conditions. The jury's still out, however, when it comes to tobacco addiction. And most health experts say hypnotherapy should be used in conjunction with other treatments.

But how does it work? Researchers have been trying to unravel the mysteries of hypnosis for more than 200 years and, thanks to neuro-imaging technology, we now know a lot more about what happens to a hypnotised mind.

In 1998, Henry Szechtman of Canada's McMaster University monitored volunteers' brains as they listened to music. Then he hypnotised them and told them they could hear music, even though none was playing. In both cases, he found that the level of activity in the right anterior cingulate cortex was the same. But this part of the brain remained inactive when subjects were asked to simply imagine listening to music.

"It's almost like the brain's fact-checking system is being temporarily suspended," says Dr Graham Jamieson, a leading hypnosis researcher at the University of New England. "That active, alert, rational part of the brain effectively becomes disabled, which allows a very different form of self-control. It's a feeling of letting go; of simply flowing and happening."

Essentially, this makes you more responsive to the hypnotist's suggestions. So when he tells you that you're not afraid of spiders or that you'll be satisfied with smaller meals, you're more likely to accept what he says. It doesn't work for everyone, though - some people simply don't respond to hypnosis. A small percentage are highly hypnotisable, and most of us fall somewhere in between.

Our capacity to be hypnotised is influenced by our genes and the environment and is strongly linked to a trait known as "absorption". Basically, if you have the ability to become "lost" in a novel or a beautiful sunset - or even just to daydream - you're a good candidate for hypnosis.

And don't be deterred by the myth that you'll be become a zombie-like slave to your hypnotist. Those people you see clucking like a chicken on TV? They're effectively "permitted" to act silly. Indeed, the audience expects it. But a hypnotist wouldn't be able to elicit their credit card details with such ease. We become more suggestible under hypnosis, though we can't be made to do anything we fundamentally object to.

"What a hypnotist does is create a situation where a person can bring to the fore the abilities they already have," Jamieson says. "It's like coaching an athlete." Most of us can even learn to hypnotise others through simple techniques that focus and relax the mind. But not everyone can be a good hypnotherapist, although almost anyone can claim to be.

The industry is virtually unregulated, meaning that someone who does a one-day hypnosis seminar can claim the same skills as someone who completes an expensive, two-year government-accredited course. Complaints are rare (Victoria's health commissioner can't recall the last time her department received a hypnosis-related complaint) but hypnotherapy is not without its dangers.

Jamieson warns that we ought to steer clear of anyone purporting to use hypnosis to "recover" certain memories, because such "memories" are unreliable and often false.

Similarly, there's no evidence that humans have past lives, let alone any proof that hypnotherapy will reveal them.

Also consider whether a hypnotherapist should be your first port of call. If you have a minor complaint, one or two hypnotherapy sessions might be helpful. If you're suffering from a major disorder such as depression, however, visit your GP first or make sure your hypnotherapist is also a registered doctor or psychologist.

And remember that hypnotherapy won't fix all your problems.

"It's not a magic wand," Jamieson says. "It works well for some conditions in some people. Consider it like any other therapeutic option."

Ask your hypnotherapist

* What are your hypnotherapy qualifications?

* Do you have any other qualifications?

* Did you train at a government-accredited school?

* Are you a member of a professional association and how many

members does it have?

* What experience do you have in treating my condition?

* What evidence is there that hypnotherapy will help my condition?

* How many sessions will it take?

* What will it cost?

https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/health-and-wellness/you-are-getting-sleepy-20070913-gdr34l.html

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