Hypnosis: Healing Art or Dangerous Dehumanization?

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Hypnosis, familiar to many from movies and comedy acts (You are getting sleeeeepy…Quack like a duck…ha,ha…), has a history of being used by psychotherapists to treat a variety of disorders.  The Mayo clinic defines hypnosis as “a trance-like state in which you have heightened focus and concentration. Hypnosis is usually done with the help of a therapist using verbal repetition and mental images.  When you’re under hypnosis, you usually feel calm and relaxed, and are more open to suggestions.”  The “openness to suggestion” seems all well and good if a trusted therapist is assisting you in your desire to lose weight, quit smoking, or get on an airplane.

However, when considered in light of those things which make us fully human, among them being conscious of self and able to determine freely our own actions, it is questionable whether it is ever licit or even neutral to accede control to another.  Furthermore, unintended side effects of hypnosis are many and varied, ranging from lesser symptoms such as fatigue, guilt and anxiety, to more serious anomalies such as confusion, delusions and identity crises.  While no one person will likely experience all of these effects, it is clear that being placed into a trance-like state incurs real risks which are seldom raised.

The Price Of Perfection

Recent news reports question whether a school principal’s use of hypnosis on three students may have contributed to their unexpected deaths, two of which were suicides and the other a questionable vehicular accident.  The school board’s investigation revealed that principal George Kenney had hypnotized more than 70 students, faculty and staff over five years, all without being licensed by the state to practice such treatment.  Reportedly, his intent was to help the students to overcome test-taking anxiety and to improve their athletic performances.  Apparently, some students reported that the hypnosis did provide relief from their struggles.  However, others also expressed concerns, in particular parents who were not informed about the treatments.

Still others lament that our youth are under such pressure to excel academically and athletically that they feel compelled to turn to a variety of solutions (performance enhancing drugs seem most popular) in order to win at all costs.  It seems reasonable, then, that school teachers and administrators would have some role in creating an environment which promotes a healthy opportunity for success.  But does a psychological technique which encumbers a young person’s will during vulnerable stages of identity formation qualify as healthy?  Don’t our youth deserve better than quick fixes which compromise their contact with reality rather than properly form their character?

Mask The Symptoms, Or Solve The Problem?

Understandably, easy fixes always hold great appeal.  People want immediate relief from their troubling circumstances, rather than some lengthy exploration of their history, thoughts and feelings which is part and parcel of most therapy processes.  Massive advertising campaigns extolling the virtues of advances in psychopharmacology have fueled the proliferation of medications which are frequently used to relieve the pain and suffering of anxiety and depression.  And for some, such medications do provide relief, to a degree, though the underlying cause of the trouble may remain.  For those averse to medications, techniques such as hypnosis might appear to be a healthy alternative.  And again, some have found relief in such treatment.

The blessing and the curse of this relief, however, is that it is achieved without the person coming to know themselves more deeply, without honest consideration of their goals and desires, and without making the necessary changes that are a part of everyone’s journey towards flourishing and happiness.

From a life-giving perspective, changes in personality, emotions, thoughts or behavior are most meaningful and authentic when the person involved actively seeks and participates in the changes that are occurring.  Therapy is not so much something that a person has “done to them” as it is a relationship in which a person is given the opportunity in the context of an empathic interaction to come to a better understanding of himself, of others and of his situation.  During this process, the person may share, reflect or emote, yet he is always present and aware, participating fully in the dynamic interchange that is hopefully moving him one step closer to fulfillment.  Techniques like hypnosis risk removing this critical aspect of self-awareness and self-determination.  As a result, the person receiving treatment becomes an object being manipulated rather than a subject of love and concern.

Hypnosis promises to alleviate suffering, assist healing and facilitate desired changes on the part of the patient.  And, at some level, it appears to do just that.  However, whatever gains that might be made are likely temporary, and secured at the cost of having your mind manipulated—cutting at the core of human dignity.  With this dignity, at times, comes suffering, but also meaning, purpose and with the support of loving relationships and hope for the future, joy.

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Frank J. Moncher