Can Hypnosis Help You Overcome Addiction?
Hypnosis has been around for hundreds of years, and during that time, its reputation has periodically risen, fallen, and risen again. It has been used for everything from entertainment to battlefield surgery and some attribute to it near-magical abilities while others believe it’s pure nonsense. Using hypnosis to treat anything is generally based on the idea that if you can directly affect your subconscious mind in some way, you can dramatically change your experience of reality, whether you’re on stage believing you’re a chicken or undergoing surgery without pain.
The idea that you could use this power to overcome addiction is tantalizing. Wouldn’t it be great, for example, if someone set a glass of beer in front of you and instead of feeling a powerful desire to chug it, you only felt bland indifference? This is the dream that has been sold to many people trying to overcome various substance use issues. As with many treatment methods, hypnosis appears to be a bit of a mixed bag. Here are some of the things hypnosis can and can’t do.
What Hypnosis Isn’t
First of all, hypnosis isn’t some kind of magic power. There’s no animal magnetism, as Franz Anton Mesmer--where the word “mesmerize” comes from--believed. There may not even be anything physically identifiable as a hypnotic state. No one can hypnotize you to do anything you don’t want to do, contrary to many Hollywood storylines.
Although the relaxed state you typically achieve in hypnosis may make it easier for you to recall certain memories, it’s not like opening a file on your computer. In fact, hypnotically retrieved memories are no longer admissible in court, following a disastrous spate of false accusations in the 1990s. Most importantly for our purposes, it’s very unlikely that hypnosis is like flipping a switch for major behavioral change, such as overcoming addiction.
What Hypnosis Is
Experts actually disagree about what exactly hypnosis is. As noted above, various studies have failed to identify a specific hypnotic state in the brain. To the extent that hypnosis works, it is typically by a combination of deep relaxation and subtle reframing. So, for example, the hypnotist may ask you to relax and just notice the weight of your body against the couch, which, of course, you can feel.
And don’t you also notice a warm feeling in your chest? Sure you do. And now it’s expanding outward. And your arms and hands, which are feeling warm and also heavy, and so on. In the context of a medical procedure, the hypnotist may describe an incision as a feeling of slight pressure, drawing your attention to the feeling as it is, rather than the frightful thought of your skin being cut. Much of hypnosis is just allowing yourself to be led into a certain way of thinking.
Some Studies Show Promise in Treating Addiction
We’re currently on an upswing in scientific interest in hypnosis and a number of studies have found some promising results in using hypnosis to treat addiction. For example, one small study found that treatment that included hypnosis for alcohol use disorder led to an impressive 77 percent sobriety rate after one year. Another small study of people with opioid use disorder found that hypnosis helped all participants remain abstinent from all drugs for six months and 56 percent remained abstinent from heroin for two years. These were small preliminary studies but they suggest hypnosis may be a useful tool for addiction treatment.
Hypnosis May Enhance the Effect of Other Treatment Methods
In addition to treating addiction directly, hypnosis may be useful in addressing some of the factors that contribute to addiction. These typically include mental health issues, such as major depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and others, trauma, and dysfunctional relationships--in addition to genetic factors, which, unfortunately, we’re stuck with for the moment. Insofar as hypnosis can help improve these issues, it can help your chances of long-term recovery success too.
Hypnosis Can Help With Mental Health Issues
At least half of people with substance use issues also have some kind of co-occurring mental health issue. Addiction and mental illness each make the other worse and they must be treated simultaneously. Hypnosis may be useful in conjunction with other therapeutic methods. As noted above, hypnosis is really a skillful way of managing your attention through subtle suggestion and reframing.
In a way, this is what your therapist is trying to accomplish anyway. For example, a therapist using CBT might help you reframe a situation by bringing to your attention your irrational beliefs about the situation. Hypnosis can be used as an extension of this process.
Hypnosis May Help You Manage Pain
Many people develop substance use issues because they are taking opioids for chronic pain. This puts them in a bind because they are afraid quitting opioids will leave them defenseless against the pain. However, there are other ways of treating chronic pain, and hypnosis may play a part. Pain feels real and undeniable, but it’s actually complex and somewhat ephemeral.
It depends to some extent on our expectations and how we think about pain. In this regard, hypnosis can be helpful. As noted above, hypnosis has been used in battlefield medicine and its use for surgery is pretty well established. If it can help you through surgery, it can help with chronic pain. Just relieving some of your distress about pain can make the pain less intense and make it easier to give up your reliance on pain medication.
Not Everyone Is Equally Susceptible to Hypnosis
Finally, it’s important to note that not everyone is equally susceptible to hypnosis. We all fall somewhere on a spectrum from highly-hypnotizable to not at all hypnotizable, and so far, researchers have no idea why some people can be hypnotized and others can’t. This clearly will affect whether hypnosis can play a part in your recovery.
While this seems like a clear strike against hypnosis as a treatment methodology, it’s important to understand that the same applies to pretty much every treatment method. SSRI medications, for example, only work for about 40 to 60 percent of people with depression, but they remain an effective tool in the kit, and perhaps something similar is true of hypnosis.
Hypnosis isn’t magic and it won’t cause major behavioral changes overnight, but it is an adjunct treatment method with some scientific backing. If you’re interested in trying hypnosis as part of therapy or addiction treatment, look for a therapist or addiction counselor with real training in hypnotherapy, ideally, one certified by the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, or ASCH.
At The Foundry, we understand that addiction is a complex problem that requires individualized solutions. We bring a number of evidence-based practices to the table to help our clients. These include CBT, DBT, EMDR, family therapy, lifestyle changes, and more. For more information about our approach to addiction treatment, call us at (844) 955-1066.
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