Hypnotherapy is a form of psychotherapy used to create change in a patient while in a state of sleep, or unconsciousness, known as hypnosis. The word hypnosis comes from the Greek word “hypnos” which simply means, “sleep.” The therapy itself uses guided relaxation techniques from a trained hypnotist that invoke feelings of intense relaxation, concentration, and/or focus to achieve a heightened state of awareness or trance-like state.
Mesmer developed a general theory of disease he called “animal magnetism,” which held that every living thing carries within it an internal magnetic force, in liquid form. Illness arises when this fluid becomes blocked, and can be cured if it can be coaxed to flow again, or so Mesmer’s thinking went. To get that fluid flowing, as science journalist Jo Marchant describes in her recent book, Cure, Mesmer “simply waved his hands to direct it through his patients’ bodies” — the origin of those melodramatic hand motions that stage hypnotists use today.”

But for the comparison between PHA and functional amnesia to be most meaningful, we need to know that they share underlying processes. One way to test this is to identify the brain activity patterns associated with PHA. In a groundbreaking study published in Neuron, neuroscientist Avi Mendelsohn and colleagues at the Weizmann Institute in Israel did just that using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They carefully selected 25 people to participate in their experiment. Although all were susceptible to hypnosis, earlier testing had shown that half could respond to a PHA suggestion (labelled “the PHA group”) and half could not (the “non-PHA group”). In the Study session of their experiment, participants watched a 45-minute movie. One week later, in the Test session, participants returned to the laboratory and were hypnotized while they lay within the fMRI scanner. During hypnosis, people in both the PHA and non-PHA groups received a suggestion to forget the movie until they heard a specific cancellation cue.
But for the comparison between PHA and functional amnesia to be most meaningful, we need to know that they share underlying processes. One way to test this is to identify the brain activity patterns associated with PHA. In a groundbreaking study published in Neuron, neuroscientist Avi Mendelsohn and colleagues at the Weizmann Institute in Israel did just that using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They carefully selected 25 people to participate in their experiment. Although all were susceptible to hypnosis, earlier testing had shown that half could respond to a PHA suggestion (labelled “the PHA group”) and half could not (the “non-PHA group”). In the Study session of their experiment, participants watched a 45-minute movie. One week later, in the Test session, participants returned to the laboratory and were hypnotized while they lay within the fMRI scanner. During hypnosis, people in both the PHA and non-PHA groups received a suggestion to forget the movie until they heard a specific cancellation cue.
Mendelsohn et al.’s study is important because it demonstrates that hypnotic suggestions influence brain activity, not just behavior and experience. Hypnotic effects are real! This fact has been demonstrated clearly in earlier work, for instance, by psychologist David Oakley (University College London) and colleagues, who compared brain activation of genuinely hypnotized people given suggestions for leg paralysis with brain activation of people simply asked to fake hypnosis and paralysis.
A wide variety of the complementary therapies claim to improve health by producing relaxation. Some use the relaxed state to promote psychological change. Others incorporate movement, stretches, and breathing exercises. Relaxation and “stress management” are found to a certain extent within standard medical practice. They are included here because they are generally not well taught in conventional medical curricula and because of the overlap with other, more clearly complementary, therapies.​therapies.
According to Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus, speaking for Psychology Today, hypnosis is a “genuine psychological phenomenon that has valid uses in clinical practice … hypnosis is a state of highly focused attention or concentration, often associated with relaxation, and heightened suggestibility. While under hypnosis (i.e., in a hypnotic trance), it seems many people are much more open to helpful suggestions than they usually are.” The suggestions made in a therapeutic setting get deep into a person’s brain, beyond their conscious thinking, leading to behavior change and the ability to overcome challenges that might otherwise seem insurmountable.
After developing a substantial following — “mesmerism” became “the height of fashion” in late 1780s Paris, writes Marchant — Mesmer became the subject of what was essentially the world’s first clinical trial. King Louis XVI pulled together a team of the world’s top scientists, including Benjamin Franklin, who tested mesmerism and found its capacity to “cure” was, essentially, a placebo effect. “Not a shred of evidence exists for any fluid,” Franklin wrote. “The practice … is the art of increasing the imagination by degrees.”
Look for a hypnotherapist who is a member of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) or the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. To be a member of either of these organizations, a hypnotherapist must have a doctorate level degree in medicine, dentistry, or psychology, or a master’s degree in nursing, social work, psychology, or marital/family therapy plus a specific number of hours of approved training in hypnotherapy. In some cases, accredited, doctoral-level practitioners of alternative health care, such traditional Chinese medicine, may also be approved for membership. Of course, in addition to looking at qualifications, you should also find a hypnotherapist with whom you feel confident and comfortable in a therapeutic relationship.
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