I first learned to do hypnosis in 1980, and I have always found it a useful adjunctive treatment for some people, though in recent years I have spent far more tie teaching people to use self-hypnosis.
The research data on hypnosis has also been growing, to the extent that nearly two years ago an article in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, a fairly conservative journal, suggested that the time had come for an expanded role for hypnosis in general medicine as well as a study of different techniques that are in use.
Hypnosis and self-hypnosis may affect an illness directly, or it might reduce a trigger to the illness, say if anxiety triggers an asthma attack, we could use hypnotherapy to treat the anxiety. Hypnosis may improve a person’s subjective responses to the illness. It might also be useful to help counteract side effects in people who just have to be treated with conventional medications.
Many case reports of apparent cures with hypnosis have found their way into the popular press. I have mentioned that over a period of five years I spent one to two days a week going through and checking most of these reports in all the languages that I can read. Sadly some of them turned out not to hold much water.
But now the quality of the research has improved enormously. I have been particularly impressed with some of the studies on allergy: it is very remrakable to think that we can make specific suggestions that produce demonstrable effects on the immune system. I particularly liked a study from Switzerland that was published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.
A team from Basel University taught 66 people with hay fever how to do self-hypnosis and found that it helped them to alleviate symptoms such as runny nose.
The volunteers also took their regular hay fever medicines, but the effect of hypnosis appeared to be additive so that they could reduce the doses that they needed to take.
The study took place over two years and included two hay fever seasons. During the first year, one group of the volunteers with hay fever were taught and asked to regularly practice hypnosis as well as take their usual allergy medicine. The training consisted of one two-hour session with an experienced trainer. The remaining volunteers had no other treatment apart from their normal allergy medication.
After a year, the researchers found the volunteers who had been using self-hypnosis had reported fewer symptoms related to hay-fever than their fellow volunteers.
During the second year, the researchers taught the remaining "untrained" volunteers how to use hypnosis. By the end of this year, these volunteers also reported improvement in their hay-fever symptoms.
Although the improvement in symptoms was not statistically significant the researchers also found that the volunteers had cut down on the amount of hay fever medication they used after learning self-hypnosis.
There is another interesting piece of research on this topic. You will probably have experienced a histamine reaction: the typical wheal, flare and swelling that can occur after, say, an insect bite. Researchers form Denmark used hypnosis to induce emotions of sadness, anger, and happiness, to see whether these emotions would have any effect on the skin’s response to histamine. Not only did mood have an effect on the skin reactions, but also people who were more susceptible to hypnosis were more reactive to histamine.
Hypnosis is being used with many clinical conditions, from asthma to migraine and irritable bowel syndrome. It is not a panacea, but it can be a very useful tool. And it tells us a lot about the power of the mind to influence virtually every system of the body.