Medicine Closet: Hyp treatment

Hypnosis may seem like a far-fetched therapy method, but locals say it works better than you'd think

 by Katie Kelberlau
 published on Thursday, February 24, 2005

Michael Crisafulli was getting sleepy. Very, very sleepy.

The last thing the music performance freshman remembers before he drifted off is saying the number 33.

When Crisafulli decided to let his friend hypnotize him, he did it because he thought it would be cool. He had no prior experience with hypnotism.

"It is interesting. You can really get into parts of your brain that you wouldn't be able to otherwise," he says.

His friend, who taught herself the technique, used no props. She merely talked to Crisafulli until he was incredibly relaxed and told him to count backwards very slowly.

She was attempting to regress him into a past life. Though he had no recollection of what he said, he says when his hypnotist told him, it all fit together.

"It made perfect sense afterwards," he says. "But you just don't realize it when it's happening."

A Google search of hypnotherapy produces a wide range of its potential powers, including allowing a person to quit smoking, lose weight and even increase penis size. And all that with only the power of the mind.

ASU psychology professor Peter Killeen describes hypnotism as a "scenario in which an individual either himself, or through a hypnotist making suggestions, eventually finds himself deeply relaxed and will usually find themselves doing whatever the hypnotist suggests."

Killeen, who co-wrote an award-winning paper on hypnosis, says it does not take a lot of skill to hypnotize someone, as long as the person is susceptible.

Hypnosis was developed at about the same time as anesthetics. Some people were so prone to it that they could actually have surgery under hypnosis, with no drugs or pain. So, for some, the technique can be a powerful pain-combatant.

Others, Killeen says, just are not hypnotizable, and the degree to which a person can be hypnotized stays the same throughout life.

In her 13 years as a certified clinical hypnotherapist, Dr. Ashley Mann has only encountered one person she could not hypnotize. Occasionally, she says, people have problems their first time, but once they trust her, she is always successful.

Mann, who works at Mann Alive therapy practice in Scottsdale, says she sees hypnotism as a tool that can be used, along with other types of therapy, to help people overcome difficulties such as fears, phobias and relationship issues.

She says she also can help athletes improve their game and train the minds of students to have a photographic memory, helping with exams and studying.

"Hypnotism is a tool whereby you harness the power of the subconscious mind to create whatever outcome you desire. I always tell my patients that when you believe it, you will see it," Mann says.

She says typically, people in a hypnotic state will become very susceptible to suggestion and will lose inhibitions, doing things they would not normally do, such as submerging a hand in cold water. People will not, however, do things they consider immoral, such as killing another person or removing their clothing in public.

It is this power of suggestion, according to Killeen, that makes hypnotism a little scary.

There is no evidence, he says, that hypnotism actually improves memory of the past. Instead, he says it makes people believe they are seeing things that really happened when they didn't occur.

Killeen says a rational, otherwise skeptical person can, under hypnosis, begin to believe he or she was abducted by aliens or was Queen Elizabeth in a past life.

"Though this is not hypnosis, if you ever watch a tape of Hitler's speeches, he would start really slow," Killeen says, lowering his voice to a soothing murmur. "Then, he would gradually build and build to a crescendo. He did not have his audience hypnotized, but somehow he tapped into the same thing."

Killeen says hypnosis has a very potent placebo effect, meaning it does not actually make people better, but rather makes them believe they are better. Because of this effect, hypnosis can be used to help a person stop smoking, overcome fears or combat any other undesirable behavior.

Mann, however, says hypnosis is not merely a placebo, but it is a real tool to be used to help people stop destructive behaviors. She says she does past-life sessions, as well.

"I cannot prove whether it is true or not -- whether they actually lived a past life. But I am not here to prove it," she says. "As long as it is therapeutic, if that is something they want to do, then they can use it to break a harmful pattern. The end result of therapy is to make people well."

Yet, there are risks to using hypnosis as a therapy, Killeen says.

He says that a good hypnotherapist would never ask a leading question or make suggestions about the nature of the world to their patients in this highly impressionable state.

He mentions a University of California at Irvine researcher who helps the accused in cases involving "recovered memories of abuse." In none of these cases, some of which involve hypnosis, has the accusation been validated by any independent data. Sometimes highly suggestible people under the power of a therapist with an agenda can be made to believe things that are not only untrue, but are also harmful.

This is why Mann says she does not do repressed-memory hypnosis and is very careful to never suggest abuse to anyone. She says clients can request to have their sessions taped, and she tries to keep her patients at a moderate level of trance so they can remember what they say.

"I have had some powerful results," she says. "Hypnosis is about programming the mind to get results."

While many will remain skeptical, Crisafulli, the ASU student, says his experience with hypnosis has convinced him it is a useful and valid technique and says he plans to seek out further sessions.

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