Not infrequently, patients experiencing mood- and stress-related side effects of a life threatening illness and treatment have raised the possibility of the use of hypnosis. Does it at such times represent a helping strategy, which can somehow deflect or in some way lessen the pressure of ongoing concerns? In this blog therefore, I shall attempt to respond to what I have always considered to be a healthy and perfectly understandable desire. How can I strengthen my on-board defences and resources in the face of what – given a cancer or other serious illness – is rightly perceived to amount to a major and ongoing threat.
The term “hypnosis” is, as we shall now see, a historically derived term. Undeniably, over the centuries and for some, even up to the present time, it has become ‘hedged about’ with confusing and ill-informed connotations of patient/ subject vulnerability and even gullibility. The word itself didn’t enter the English vocabulary until the 1840s and was in fact introduced by an Edinburgh surgeon, namely James Braid, (1795-1860). However, what it entails in terms of altered perceptual phenomena is as old as recorded history itself and probably older. Many of the world’s ancient civilisations were familiar with at least what hypnosis entailed, not uncommonly linking it to religious belief and ritual. This much is clearly evidenced in the priest-physicians of ancient Egypt; the sleep temples of classical Greece, e.g. of Aesculapius (god of medicine) or Epidaurus (the serpent and symbol of worship); hcvthe early Celtic inhabitants of Great Britain, to whom it was known as “Druidic Sleep”.
The commencement of anything remotely resembling a scientific history of hypnosis is traditionally associated with the work of a Swiss physician and erstwhile philosopher, lawyer and theologian, named Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). Mesmer (from whom we derive the term, “mesmerism”, as well as the adjective “mesmerize”) practised medicine, first in Vienna and later in Paris. However, it was a paper offered on the subject by James Braid to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1843 entitled “Neurohypnology or the Rationale of Nervous Sleep”, which first coined the word “hypnosis” and introduced it to the English-language. (This was later published in the Medical Times under the heading, “Conversazione on Hypnotism”).
There is evidence to suggest that as Braid neared the end of his life, he increasingly realised that the word “hypnosis” (from the Greek meaning “sleep”, i.e. Hypnos was the Greek god of sleep) was an inappropriate choice. This was because the condition is essentially a conscious one and has little or nothing to do with sleep. But it was too late. The word stuck and has continued – inappropriately I fear – to describe a human phenomenon which has attracted worldwide interest, as a powerful – and in the right hands – effective treatment potential for a wide range of susceptible conditions. These encompass stress related problems, allergies, migraine and behavioural disorders, to name but a few.
In one important sense I have used the term “treatment” above with some feeling of misgiving. This is because hypnosis as such, is no more a treatment than is – say – anaesthesia. Surgical conditions are not treated with anaesthesia but under anaesthesia. Similarly, human conditions such as those referred to above are most decidedly not treated with hypnosis. Rather is it the case that the process of treatment and healing may be assisted and facilitated by the deployment of hypnosis to that end. This – in my opinion – is an important distinction, since it aids our understanding of the essential difference between what I have referred to as “the phenomenon of hypnosis” on the one hand and its application as a method of treatment and healing, i.e. “hypnotherapy”, on the other. In other words, what hypnosis actually is, will continue to be the subject of discussion and debate. However, what it can and has achieved, as witnessed in hosts of well-documented research studies, is undisputed. Nevertheless, the question, what is hypnosis? does unquestionably tend to perpetuate and unless we deal with it ‘up front’ (and hopefully in language free from technical jargon and therefore readily appreciated by all) optimal progress, in terms of our understanding of it, may well be compromised.
In my next blog in this series of postings, I intent therefore to return briefly to the contribution made by James Braid who as we have seen, was one of the first to recognise that hypnosis was and is a conscious condition (despite the name meaning “sleep” and for which, I fear, he must bear the brunt of responsibility).