For most people, the word hypnosis conjures images of swinging a pocket watch or a grown man quacking like a duck — not medical treatment. But a number of experts want that to change.
In recent years, scientists have learned more about hypnosis’ effect on the body. And though researchers still have questions about exactly how hypnosis works, there is a growing body of evidence that it might be able to provide relief for patients suffering from a diverse set of conditions, from chronic pain to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Ahead, we dive into the latest on this storied technique — why it’s so misunderstood, what it’s really like, and how it might help you.
Coming Back From A Dark History
People’s faith in hypnosis as a clinically useful treatment has ebbed and flowed over the years, in part because of hypnosis’ associations with sideshows and other New Age pseudo-treatments — like healing crystals, hypnosis even has some occult associations. But the bigger issue is that in the wrong hands, the practice really can have unpredictable effects: In the past few years, several weird instances have made headlines — back in 2011, for example, a school principal in Florida was fired after it was found that he was regularly hypnotizing students, including three boys mere days before they committed suicide.
That may have been an extreme case. But it is possible to use hypnosis for more nefarious purposes, admits David Spiegel, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University who has studied hypnosis for decades. Some have used hypnosis to create false memories or leave a patient vulnerable to manipulation. “People who are hypnotized are intensely focused, [and] more trusting of others at the time,” Dr. Spiegel says. “People are scared of the idea that they can be influenced that much, so they dismiss hypnosis as nonsense. But it’s vastly safer than any other medication we use.”
And as the list of conditions that hypnosis — or hypnotherapy, as it is called when it’s being used as medical treatment — might help grows longer and longer, interest in hypnotherapy is now on a slow upward swing, Dr. Spiegel says.