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You're getting SLEEPY; Hypnotherapy is becoming more acceptable as people look towards complementary treatments. Mel Hunter meets a teenager who successfully used the therapy to help fight her fear of dogs.

Sixteen-year-old Kathy Winchurch sits opposite me stroking a dog. A few months ago if that dog had come within sniffing distance of her she would have been up the stairs and behind a locked bathroom door before you could say 'walkies'.

Kathy, from Kingswinford, had a phobia about dogs. If one was in a park Kathy made sure she wasn't. If she went round to her friends', the family pet had to be firmly shut away first.

The phobia became so bad it was infringing on the teenager's ability to lead a normal life, and her parents decided - after numerous failed attempts to help - to turn to hypnosis.

Hypnosis suffers, like many complimentary treatments, from being everyone's last resort. For all our 21st century talk about 'getting back to nature', for the most part we remain intent on the idea that a prescription from the doctor is our own true passport to better health.

The scepticism is in many ways not surprising. The lack of scientific evidence for the success of most complimentary therapies does not help its cause.

As for hypnotism, high-profile stories of people being made to do things against their will while under the influence of hypnosis have hit the headlines a handful of times over the years.

But then so have stories about patients being mistreated or abused at the hands of their family doctor. To selectively forget those cases does a disservice to those trying to legitimise complimentary treatments.

However, for all the success Kathy had with hypnosis, no one is claiming it is a magic cure.

Although it can help tackle a whole range of conditions, the will to be helped has to come from the patient themselves - and even then there are no guarantees.

The conditions it tackles are generally those connected with our unconscious self: stress, insomnia, phobias, weight, confidence and habits like smoking or nail biting.

It works on the principle that when profoundly relaxed most people become open to suggestion.

Through hypnosis, trained hypnotherapists can make beneficial suggestions directly to the unconscious mind effectively helping people to change things which they thought was irrevocably part of them. The hypnotist can help them to discover where the problem or condition originated and then assist them in undoing that problem in their unconscious.

Jackie Ward, the hypnotherapist who helped Kathy, says: 'In hypnosis we deal with the unconscious mind - we deal with the things you don't have control over. As easy as it is to learn a phobia, it is just as easy to unlearn it as well.'

So how does one enter a hypnotic state? Jackie likens it to a young child glued to the television. They are so entirely focused on the screen in front of them they are unaware of anything else.

'It's about focusing your mind on something so exclusively that your brain shuts out everything else around you.'

It is not necessarily for everyone, however. Those with severe depression, psychosis or epilepsy should treat hypnosis with caution, and others may find it difficult to achieve the profoundly relaxed state which allows hypnotherapy to work.

Feeling comfortable with the situation and the therapist is paramount, says Jacqueline.

'We spent the first session really helping Kathy to feel comfortable. Because hypnosis is characterised by a sense of relaxation, you have to have quite a lot of trust in the therapist, enough to feel comfortable when you are sitting there with your eyes closed for half an hour.'

According to Jackie, who works out of the Hagley Centre of Complimentary Medicine, nobody can be hypnotised against their will and, even when hypnotised, people can still reject any of the suggestions made by the therapist if they are not appropriate to them. The feeling of being hypnotised, she says, is akin to driving on 'automatic pilot' along a familiar route. You suddenly get to a point in your journey and realise you have not been consciously aware of the past, say, ten minutes.

'You conscious mind wasn't doing the driving. You know how to follow that route so well, your unconscious mind was doing the driving.'

The therapy is slowly gaining credence - if not total acceptance - among mainstream practitioners. It is still a relatively young treatment. Although there is talk of it being used in Egyptian times and there is evidence that Freud used some hypnosis in early psychoanalysis, the modern form of hypnotherapy was developed in the 1950s by US psychotherapist Milton H Erickson.

Cases like Kathy's are compelling. After just two sessions she noticed a real difference and after three she was free of her phobia. Given the extent of her problem it does appear to be a brilliant result.

'I wouldn't go anywhere near dogs,' she says. 'If there was one in the park I would walk out. I didn't even like looking at them, even through the window.'

Her parents believe her fear stemmed from watching their own dog being attacked by another when Kathy was three years-old.

They tried taking her to dogs' homes to help her face up to her phobia. They even offered to become walkers for Guide Dogs for the Blind - but their daughter took one look at the cute puppy and leapt up on to the kitchen worktop.

After the hypnotherapy sessions, which she describes as 'really relaxing', she went to the park with her friends.

'It was fine. I just ignored the dogs and they ignored me. Someone said one of the dogs came quite close to me, but I didn't even notice. I felt really good about that.' The range of problems hypnotherapy can address is considerable. Jackie, who is registered with teh British Society of Clinical Hypnosis, which has a rigorous code of conduct, says she can help people with public speaking and even stop them blushing.

A lot of smokers also seek her help to assist them in quitting the habit. Like any other smoking remedy, hypnosis can only help if the smoker is really ready to give up, and some doctors remain sceptical about its true effectiveness.

Neither are hypnosis sessions especially cheap, at around pounds 40, or pounds 60 for a treatment to stop smoking. But, on the positive side, it usually does not take many sessions to get the problem solved.

Yet still hypnotherapy is struggling to become accepted as an effective treatment. Jackie says: 'People always come as a last resort. They don't think 'Oh, I'm going to have hypnosis for this.' Often they don't even realise it's available.'

Kathy and the dog she is stroking proves that it is available and it can work.

Her life has been changed by hypnotherapy and she can now go into adulthood knowing she is free of the fear which has blighted her since she was a toddler.

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Kathy Winchurch, pictured with Jackie Ward and her dog, Jake
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Title Annotation:Health
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 12, 2001
Words:1143
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