What to Expect from Your IBS Hypnotherapy Experience

Olafur S. Palsson, Psy.D.

Many people feel somewhat apprehensive and have numerous questions when they consider the possibility of seeking hypnosis treatment for their problems. If you choose to enroll in the standardized hypnosis treatment program for IBS, you should ask your therapist any questions you have about hypnosis in the first session. However, this page provides an introduction to hypnotherapy and answers to some of the most common questions and concerns that people voice about hypnosis.


THE NATURE OF HYPNOSIS AND HYPNOTHERAPY

Hypnotherapy, which is also called clinical hypnosis, is a form of psychological treatment that is widely used to treat both physical and psychological problems. It is unique in that it uses hypnosis -- a special mental state of heightened receptivity -- to help make beneficial changes happen in the mind and body. 

Entering a hypnotic state is a normal ability of the human mind. However, it only happens under particular mental conditions, and those are exactly the conditions that a hypnotherapist helps make happen systematically through verbal guidance. 

More than anything else, hypnosis involves changes in a person's attention and concentration. The focus of attention is narrowed, and the things attended to are experienced more intensely than in the ordinary waking state. Hypnosis has therefore been likened to turning out the lights in a windowless room and looking around with a flashlight. What you focus on holds your entire attention under hypnosis, so you tend to experience whatever you think of, imagine or remember more vividly and clearly than you ordinarily can. At the same time, things that are outside the narrow focus of enhanced attention at the moment may be forgotten. For this reason, people sometimes temporarily become disoriented under hypnosis: Their awareness of where they are, the reality of their life situation, and even occasionally exactly who they are, becomes clouded. 

Another characteristic of the hypnotic state is a subjective sense of "involuntariness". People often find that under hypnosis they feel like passive observers of whatever is taking place. For example, if you are asked under hypnosis to raise your hand, you may feel your hand rising like a robot arm, without any conscious effort or even decision on your part. This automaticity is by some considered the hallmark of a true hypnotic experience. This is not really helpless involuntariness, however. Experience shows that if you really need to or want to, you can resist any direct suggestion from the hypnotist. You can even wake yourself up from the hypnotic state if you really want to.

People typically experience both mental tranquility and physical relaxation under hypnosis (relaxation is not a necessary condition for hypnosis, however; one can be both mentally and physically tense and still be in a state of deep hypnosis). Various changes in perception are also common under hypnosis. Some people feel great heaviness coming over their bodies, others feel very light, numb or even disembodied. Subjective floating, sinking, spinning, and tingling sensations are often reported. 

Once a person is in a hypnotic state, the treatment implemented by the hypnotherapist consists in large part of hypnotic and post-hypnotic suggestions, which are carefully crafted specific directions given to people under hypnosis that cause beneficial changes to happen in their mind or body during or after hypnosis. The therapeutic power of these suggestions relies on the mind’s markedly enhanced ability to accept and make good use of information in the hypnotic state. Guided imagery is often used along with the suggestions to convey and reinforce the desired therapeutic changes.

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WHAT HYPNOTHERAPY FOR IBS IS LIKE

The hypnotherapy provided in our standardized IBS hypnosis treatment program on this website follows closely a scripted therapy course that was originally created in 1995 by Olafur Palsson, the author of this article and a member of the MetaMe Scientific Advisory Board. It has been tested and found effective in multiple research studies, and which has been used successfully by hundreds of hypnotherapists to treat IBS sufferers all over the U.S. and in several other countries over the years. 

We know based on all of this experience that people treated with this standardized hypnosis course generally experience no uncomfortable effects from the treatment. Not a single adverse effect has been reported by patients participating in the research studies that have been conducted on this hypnosis approach to date. In fact, people generally find the experience enjoyable, comfortable and profoundly relaxing. Many of the patients treated with this method have liked the hypnosis experience so much that they continue to use hypnosis regularly after the treatment course is completed.

There are seven main hypnotherapy sessions with a therapist in this three-month treatment program, as well as a shorter daily hypnosis exercise that you will be asked to use daily in between the main sessions. All the sessions will be by your personal hypnotherapist, who is a licensed health professional who has completed formal training both in clinical hypnosis and specifically in treating IBS. 

Each hypnosis session consists of an induction of the hypnotic state, followed by systematic guided physical relaxation and gradual deepening of the hypnotic state through imagery and verbal suggestions. This is followed by gut-directed therapeutic suggestions and imagery to facilitate improvement in your symptoms. And finally, at the end of each session, your mind is gradually guided back into the waking state by the therapist. 

How profound or unusual the hypnotherapy experience feels to people receiving it varies a lot from one person to the next, because individuals have different degrees of natural hypnotic responsiveness. You should not expect to have a mind-blowing altered-state experience or to become completely unaware of what is happening (see “How does it feel to be hypnotized?” and “Will I lose consciousness” below). A true hypnotherapy experience is generally more subtle than that, though many people experience the classic mental changes associated with hypnosis vividly enough to realize that something interesting and unique is happening in their minds. And the good news is that you do not have to be profoundly hypnotizable in order for your IBS symptoms to improve from this treatment approach.  Experience has shown that the vast majority of people can benefit from hypnotherapy.

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How does it feel to be hypnotized? There is really no such thing as a specific hypnotized feeling. As described earlier, a number of different experiences are commonly associated with the hypnotic state. The most unique characteristic, the one that people tend to remember best and find most surprising, is perhaps the subjective sense of "involuntariness" - of things happening without you (seemingly) acting to make them happen. 

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Will I lose consciousness? As mentioned above, hypnosis is not sleep. Ordinarily, you will be conscious of everything that goes on when you are in the hypnotic state. However, hypnosis typically involves deep relaxation. Sometimes, you may therefore relax so much under hypnosis that you drift off and lose track of what is happening. There is no need to be concerned if you find yourself not remembering everything that happened in a hypnosis session. It will not affect the therapeutic benefits you get from the session because a part of your mind, separate from your consciousness, continues to keep track of, and make use of, the therapist’s words. In contrast, if you simply fall asleep during a session rather than just zoning out mentally, that is likely to limit the gain from the session. You will know the difference between sleeping and a true hypnotic state by whether you easily come back to the ordinary waking state when the therapist re-alerts you. If instead you continue to be unaware even when the session is finished, then you most likely fell asleep. Usually that means that you were more tired than optimal, and in that case you will want to make sure to be better rested for the next session. Falling asleep is also more likely if you are lying down in your hypnosis session, so it is generally recommend that you sit in a comfortable reclined position, but do not lie down during hypnosis.

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Will I reveal deep secrets about myself? In some psychotherapeutic applications of hypnosis, it is important to uncover mental material that is related to the problem being treated - material that you have been ignoring or keeping secret from others and even from yourself. However, no such uncovering is needed in many applications of clinical hypnosis, and it is not used at all in our standardized hypnosis program for IBS.

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Will I do something embarrassing or silly? A clinical hypnotist will not make you cluck like a chicken or do other things for amusement at your expense. You do, however, sometimes act differently under hypnosis than you do in the normal waking state. You may become more emotional or feel more childlike. If the process involves uncovering of past experiences (which is not a part of our standardized hypnosis program for IBS), these might also feel embarrassing or uncomfortable. Your therapist is used to such things, however, so there is no need to feel embarrassed. And generally, the benefits of the hypnotic intervention will by far outweigh the slight discomfort on your part from any deviation from prim and proper behavior which might occur. 

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What if I do not want to lose control of myself? Hypnosis does involve a certain amount of letting go of yourself and opening up to a new experience. However, you are not really losing control of yourself when you respond to what the hypnotist suggests. You are making the decision to go along with his or her guidance at every step. You can benefit from hypnosis as long as you are willing to go along with the instructions of your hypnotist. It may be helpful to think of the hypnotist as your personal coach - a person helping you to master new ways to use your own mind.

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What if I do not wake up again? There is no need to worry about this. Only in movies and bad novels do people get stuck in the hypnotic state. In the real world, it happens only very rarely that people cannot be immediately brought back into the ordinary waking state at the end of a hypnosis session. When that happens, it may simply take them a little longer to come to, or they slip into ordinary sleep and have a nap, and then wake up. In either case, there is no reason for concern. 

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Can I be made to do things I do not want to do? Contrary to a popular belief, people under hypnosis are not captive and spellbound. They can resist direct instructions that are at odds with their wishes or moral standards. For this reason, it is not as easy as one might think to make people do things against their will with hypnosis. Unfortunately, however, it has been adequately demonstrated both in experiments and in established rare cases of misconduct, that hypnosis can be deliberately misused by a skilled hypnotist through the use of sophisticated deception. This is the most important reason for seeking a reputable professional whom you feel comfortable as your hypnotist. If you begin to feel uncomfortable with the person you have selected, talk about it. And if you feel you cannot do so, remember that you are the customer and you are always free to leave without making any apologies. 

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What if I cannot be hypnotized? The odds are against it. While the degree to which people are receptive to hypnosis varies from individual to individual, the great majority of people, perhaps three out of every four individuals, can be hypnotized to a sufficient degree to enjoy the benefits that hypnosis can offer. 

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Aren't gullible or simple-minded people most easily hypnotizable? Not at all. In fact, researchers have found that more intelligent people are slightly more hypnotizable. It seems that openness to new experiences, rather than gullibility, is related to hypnotic ability.

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Are women more hypnotizable than men? Research has conclusively shown that, on average, there is no difference between men and women in their susceptibility to hypnosis.

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Can hypnosis be dangerous to my mental health? The state of hypnosis is generally very safe and free from complications - probably no more disturbing to your mind than ordinary sleep. However, in rare cases, people who suffer from mental problems to such degree that they are struggling with their grip on reality may get worse due to the disorientation which is a part of hypnotic experience. Also, hypnosis involves enhanced contact with unconscious material. Individuals hiding something very uncomfortable or traumatic from themselves may therefore occasionally feel agitated after hypnosis as a result of coming too close to their secrets under hypnosis. This is an important reason for choosing only a well-trained and competent clinical hypnotist who would be able to help you deal with such effects. For most people, however, the experience of hypnosis is pleasantly relaxing and refreshing. The only aftereffects you are likely to experience are possible drowsiness and disorientation for the first few minutes afterwards, and possibly stiff neck or (rarely) a minor headache. All these side effects are transient and harmless. 

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Can people hypnotize themselves? Yes, they can. Entering hypnosis is simply a mental skill, and most hypnotherapists will tell you that formal hypnosis carried out by a hypnotist is in reality nothing more than assisted self-hypnosis. The skill of reliably entering the hypnotic state is just more easily learned initially under the guidance of a hypnotist. However, once you have mastered it, you can do it on your own. This is the goal in many applications of clinical hypnosis, such as for control of certain types of pain, where the benefits of hypnosis need to be available at any time. 

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One of the best things about hypnotherapy is that it is easier to engage in it than practically any other form of psychological treatment. Your therapist guides you every step of the way in every session, and things tend to simply happen in response to your thoughts without need for much voluntary effort. All you really have to do is to approach the task with an open mind, listen to the therapist and think about what is being said, and then simply allow whatever is going to happen to take place. If you are able to do that, it is highly likely that you will find yourself responding to the treatment, and most likely you will also find the experience to be interesting and enjoyable.

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