Olivia Colman is famous for her composed and dignified portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the TV series The Crown, so many people were very surprised when the media reported that ‘stage fright drove Olivia Colman to hypnotherapy‘.
Hypnotherapy is incredibly versatile in helping with a range of anxiety-related problems, which is useful in today’s world where so many people are experiencing the anxiety of pressures related to the covid pandemic, including lockdowns, travel restrictions, etc.
What types of anxiety issues can hypnotherapy be used for?
A 2019 meta-analysis concluded that hypnosis is a highly effective intervention for anxiety. Lots of research shows that hypnosis is a proven treatment for a variety of anxieties, from exam stress, to PTSD symptoms, to distress related to medical procedures such as cancer treatment. It can also be effective in the treatment of conditions related to stress, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Work-related stress, including the stress of presentations and meetings – and of course stage fright in actors – can be overcome too.
With so many other perfectly good treatments available, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or medication, why do people gravitate to hypnotherapy? Well, lots of people are attracted to the idea that hypnotherapy works quickly; and although it is not an instant magical cure, it is fair to say that it works relatively rapidly. Indeed, it can be used in emergency care where the immediate reduction of high levels of anxiety can be required.
Sounds amazing – how does it work?
While there is a huge amount of research proving that hypnosis works, experts are divided in explaining how exactly it works. It used to be thought that hypnosis was a special state of mind, and indeed evidence from neuroimaging research suggests that the brain shows altered patterns of activity during hypnosis.
On the other hand, another view is that hypnosis is not unlike a daydreaming state, where a person is deeply absorbed in an activity or train of thought to the exclusion of noticing their surroundings. Anyone who has ever found themselves lost in a book, or has found themselves having completed a familiar task ‘on automatic’ without thinking about it, might be able to relate to this type of experience. Regardless of theoretical explanations, what is significant is that this deeply absorbed state – which is sometimes called the ‘trance state’ – appears to facilitate various types of therapeutic procedures, including learning to feel more relaxed about stressful situations.
Is it safe?
Hypnosis can be an attractive alternative to those who find they have unpleasant side effects from medication. But some experts advise against its use with people with a history of psychosis (such as schizophrenia), temporal lobe epilepsy, or bipolar disorder. Apart from these conditions, hypnotherapy is perfectly safe for most people.
If its so good, why isn’t hypnotherapy more widely available?
Despite a great deal of evidence for the safety and efficacy of hypnotherapy, including a review of hypnosis by the British Psychological Society, several factors have combined to create an ongoing barrier to widespread institutional acceptance. These factors are: the lack of agreement over what exactly hypnosis is, myths around hypnosis (It’s a misconception that people under hypnosis can be manipulated to do things they don’t want to.), the associations with entertainment and alternative medicine, and the lack of standardised training in the UK.
The NHS is often criticised for having long waiting lists – even more so in these days of Covid. But this reveals an upside of hypnotherapy: not only does it work quickly, but you can usually book an appointment pretty quickly too, because hypnotherapy in the UK is mostly conducted in private practice. These days many hypnotherapists practice online, which is convenient and potentially opens up access to clients all around the world.
With a bit of care in choosing a therapist with relevant qualifications and a good reputation, many people find it is a safe and effective way of helping them overcome anxiety and distress. So, although hypnotherapy might not make you a star like Olivia Colman, it can almost certainly bring a greater sense of calm to your life.
John A. Barry, PhD is a clinical hypnotherapist, chartered psychologist, professional researcher, and an honorary lecturer in psychology.
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