Wednesday, March 16, 2011
When I was at university, hypnotists were regular features at the May ball. One summer, I was lured on to a stage and persuaded that I was a lovelorn kangaroo in search of a marsupial mate. I'm not sure how effective the hypnosis was — but I certainly remember acting like an idiot.
Clinical hypnotherapy is something different altogether. By accessing your unconscious mind and deconditioning established habits, hypnotherapists are able to treat everything from bad habits to depression. Increasingly accepted by the medical profession, they are regulated by the British Society of Clinical Hypnosis, membership of which requires proper training and adherence to a code of conduct — which includes an undertaking not to perform hypnosis as entertainment. One of the fastest growing areas for hypnotherapists is the treatment of stress.
Science and shamanism
Doug Osborne, a clinical hypnotherapist and self-proclaimed "modern-day shaman" has combined these two disciplines into a course teaching busy professionals the art of stress-free living. I went along, not entirely understanding shamanism. Osborne — likeable and not how I had imagined a shaman to be — talks about ancient tribes in Peru, the transfer of knowledge and "awareness", before admitting that this is precisely the kind of babble that "does put some people off". Quick to dispel the whiff of quackery, he adds: "Shamanism does at least offer a useful framework on which to hang a course about stress."
The framework in question is the shamanic wheel, with its four compass points: the emotions, the body, the mind and the spirit. First, the patient examines each point for ways to dissipate their anxiety and pressure. Group-hypnosis sessions are then used as a way of relaxing and of fast-tracking learning. During my hour-long consultation, we talked about my stress levels and how they can be relieved.
Since the economic downturn began, Osborne has seen a "stampede" of people with stress-related problems. Even those who don't think they are too stressed are surprised when blood-pressure readings show the opposite. While a certain amount of stress can be good for you, living with it all the time, for an entire career, can lead to health problems.
"If you built a new car, you wouldn't drive it with foot to the floor from day one," Osborne says. He suggests "looking at who you become under pressure and giving it a name". He is Mr Grumpy. I am Mr Jittery, forever dashing between the water cooler, the coffee machine and the loo as a deadline approaches when my time would be better spent writing. Others might resort to extremes such as excessive exercise or outbursts of anger and resentment — often misdirected.
Once you've identified the kind of person you become under pressure, it is much easier to make small changes, even if it's just a case of drinking decaf rather than regular coffee.
The key, says Osborne, is to "limit the number of negative things you do to yourself when that pressure is at its peak". To reinforce this message, he hypnotises me, having first reassured me about its safety: "I always say to people: ‘I can't control you.' If I could, I would go and see my bank manager and get him to transfer loads of money to an offshore account."
As I sink into the sofa, I focus only on the sound of my breathing and Osborne's soothing voice. On his suggestion, I concentrate on my toes, then on the top of my head, and then, before I know it, I'm floating above my body, watching myself asleep, transported away to a happy place (a quiet bench by a river, on holiday), thinking about the sights and sounds, my mind otherwise blissfully blank.
A gentle reminder
At the deepest point of the hypnosis, Osborne suggests I press my thumb and forefinger together, a physical reminder of this feeling of calm, which I can use again the next time I feel stressed.
And then he takes me gently back into my body, waking me up by counting slowly upwards from one to ten (counting down can exacerbate depression in some people) until I'm fully sentient again, relaxed and happy on a west London sofa. I've tried the thumb-and-forefinger technique a few times since, at moments of stress, and have been surprised at how well it works.
So what do doctors think? "There is a placebo element to hypnosis, as there is with any treatment," says Telegraph columnist Dr Max Pemberton.
"And if I had cancer, I would still rather have chemotherapy than a person waving a pocket watch in front of my eyes. But the medical establishment is increasingly aware of the power of the mind in relieving symptoms."
Hokum or not, I certainly found it relaxing just to close my eyes for a bit, happy in body, mind and spirit, and take myself away from the office to a quiet river. It definitely beats pretending to be a kangaroo.
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