Hypnotising illness away
‘You are experiencing a wonderful sense of deep relaxation . . .
you are unaware of your stomach . . . there is no reflux, and no discomfort . . .’
As Emily listens to the soothing voice, she reclines in a large leather chair, eyes closed, a cup of tea beside her. With the books on the wall, and the desk in the corner, she could be in her living room. But the books are medical textbooks, and the voice belongs to her hypnotherapist.
Emily is not at home, but at St. Vincent’s Hospital, being hypnotised. For twenty years, she has suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, a chronic bowel condition that causes constipation, diarrhoea, nausea, and other painful symptoms. This is her third session of hypnotherapy, which aims to cure her without drugs or surgeries – just the power of the mind.
Hypnosis has long been the domain of charlatans and performers, but since the 1980s it has gained credibility as a non-invasive treatment for IBS and other chronic disorders. Professor Peter Whorwell, a gastroenterologist in Manchester, UK, became interested in hypnotherapy after seeing patient after patient struggling with IBS. Despite the disease affecting 15% of the population, IBS patients are often ignored, accused of making it up or being told they’ll just have to deal with it. This can be devastating for someone like Emily, who lives with constant nausea and pain that can render her housebound.
So Whorwell tried hypnotherapy, as a last resort for patients who weren’t improving with drugs or a strict diet. Over twelve weeks, patients attended a weekly hypnosis session. They were trained to control their symptoms with imagery. For example, someone with constipation visualises removing large rocks from a river, or someone who is bloated imagines a balloon slowly deflating. He also gave patients a recording of their session so they can listen at home.
Does it work?
For people who have struggled with IBS for decades, the results have been nothing short of miraculous. Several randomised controlled trials have shown not only that hypnotherapy improves IBS symptoms, but also anxiety, depression, and general quality of life. After treatment, people took less medication and they visited their GP less often. Best of all, follow-up studies show that these improvements were maintained five years later.
How does it work?
So how can a few soothing sentences change physical symptoms? The gut’s nervous system, called the ‘enteric nervous system’, is so large and intricately connected that it is colloquially described as the ‘second brain’. It communicates with the brain via the vagus nerve and numerous other channels, so it isn’t altogether surprising that what we think might impact our gut’s activity. Studies have indicated that hypnosis can change the activity of immune cells, potentially counteracting the inflammation seen in IBS. It also alters how quickly food passes through the digestive system, which could alleviate diarrhoea or constipation. While more research is needed, it seems that patients don’t perceive themselves as better – they actually are better.
Hypnotherapy doesn’t work for everyone, but for IBS patients who have tried everything, it provides new hope. Emily is optimistic about her treatment. ‘It’s not a drug, it’s not another surgery, and it’s taught me techniques to calm myself and manage my symptoms,’ she tells me after a session as we walk through the Carlton Gardens.
If hypnotherapy can even slightly reduce our dependence on pharmaceuticals and surgery, it opens up an exciting new branch of treatment options. In a strained healthcare industry, harnessing the mind could offer a cost-effective and safe alternative.