What is hypnosis, and how does it help?

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Despite decades of scientific evidence of its therapeutic effectiveness, hypnosis is still thought of as a mysterious form of mind control, whereby a hypnotist exerts power over someone else and directs his or her actions. Movies and fiction wildly misrepresent the procedures and possibilities of hypnosis, generating some strange fears and fantasies about what it is and how it works. And this is especially ironic, as giving people more control over their fears and fantasies is what hypnosis does best.

Forget the clichés: the swinging watch, the intoned “Look into my eyes…” These are remnants of old-fashioned ways to help someone focus their attention, by giving them something to fix their gaze upon. You can do it yourself: keep staring up at a single point on the ceiling, or fixedly at your thumbnail, until you feel your mind subtly shift into another gear. This detached awareness, as though suspended in time, is a light state of hypnosis.

Forget the idea that to be able to do this readily is weak-willed or will put you in anyone’s power. On the contrary, it requires co-operation and concentration; and if you are not too hot on those, it has been shown that hypnotic ability improves with practice. Forget any fears of being brainwashed into doing something ridiculous, or of falling unconscious, or of having no memory afterwards of what has happened. We do these things to ourselves regularly – spending more than we mean to in the supermarket, sitting in a trance in front of a television or computer screen, drinking too much – but hypnosis cannot make you do any of them.

What hypnosis does is direct your attention inwards. The process combines simple routines, such as closing the eyes and relaxing the body, with paying more attention than usual to your inner experiences and sensations. The real mystery about hypnosis is the mystery of the brain itself: its flexible and ingenious power to join the dots, see things differently, and change its own mind.

In spite of, or perhaps thanks to its long history of controversy and its ambiguous reputation, hypnosis has been rigorously studied, changes in brain activity scanned, professional standards established, benefits officially recognised. Southampton University has been offering hypnotherapy to students since 2016, with a reported reduction in anxiety of 60% (The Times, 26/12/2018). New generations will take for granted approaches to mental and physical well-being that were regarded with suspicion and superstition in the past: what stands the test of time is what still works in time of need.

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