Substance abuse—heroin, fentanyl, prescription opioids, methamphetamine, alcohol—is one of the biggest problems facing society today. Though scientists and physicians are hard-at-work on new treatments and solutions for addiction, hypnotherapy hasn’t received much attention.
It is possible to be “addicted” to many things other than drugs—including gambling, overeating, and watching television or your smartphone—but in general, addictions are thought to have a neurochemical basis: they change the brain.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse agrees that addiction causes “long-lasting changes in the brain”. It is considered “both a complex brain disorder and a mental illness” that is “characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences”.
Absent that neurochemical basis, the feeling of being compelled to do the same thing repeatedly usually is considered a compulsion or even a habit.
Fortunately, hypnotherapy can work for compulsion and habits, as well as addiction.
The idea that hypnosis can be used to treat addiction goes back at least as far as Sigmund Freud, who wrote in 1890 that hypnosis could be used to treat alcoholism and morphine addiction and other “morbid habits”.
More recently, in one small 2008 study, group hypnosis treatment, once a week for 10 weeks, resulted in nine street drug users who were already on a methadone maintenance treatment (MMT) program remaining sober for six months. Two years after the program, seven of the nine remained free of opioids (though two had resumed “partial use” of heroin).
Three of the nine also completely abstained from benzodiazepines, a non-opioid group of drugs used primarily as sedatives or tranquilizers; six of the nine returned to “partial use”.
How does it work?
There are at least two types of hypnotherapy: traditional and Ericksonian. The traditional method involves programming a conscious mind with direct commands—such as “You no longer use drugs”— though the unconscious mind may resist unless the individual is good at taking instruction. The Ericksonian method is used if a patient is found to have difficulty accepting orders.
Unlike the traditional method, the Ericksonian method does not provide direct commands. Instead, the patient is provided with a few ideas and suggestions—metaphors—to help alter their consciousness. A good example of such a suggestion is: Doesn’t smoking cigarettes make you sick? The hypnotherapist simply uses “metaphors, contradictions, symbols, and antidotes to influence their behavior”. The client’s brain commits itself to sobriety willingly.
How is hypnotherapy used for addiction?
There are several ways hypnotherapy can help treat addiction:
It reduces the effects of withdrawal symptoms . Since at least B. J. Hartman’s 1972 “The Use of Hypnosis in the Treatment of Drug Addiction” researchers have shown that hypnotherapy can decrease the pain associated with alcohol or drug withdrawal symptoms to a manageable level, as well as help fight cravings.
It helps you change addictive behaviors. In or out of drug and alcohol rehab, one of the best ways to successfully recover from substance use is to change your addictive behaviors. Whenever you change routine or a certain behavior, you automatically alter cognitive functions in your brain. Through hypnotherapy, it is possible to change these behaviors completely.
It improves your emotional strength . Besides the joy of recovering from the bondage of drug and substance use, through hypnotherapy or other drug and alcohol rehab treatments, you improve your emotional strength. Instead of giving up at the first setback, hypnotherapy helps bolster your new coping skills so that you can pick yourself up and carry on sober. Hypnotherapy enables clients to remain strong and focused even after rehab.
It improves your physical health. The human brain handles all functions in the body, so it makes sense that it could affect bodily health. Hypnotherapy may even be able to decrease the incidence of co-occurring health disorders and strengthen your immune system. Meditation seems to have a positive effect, and some say meditation is a similar type of hypnotic state.
It relieves mental and physical pain . Withdrawal is not the only pain the body experiences during the rehab process. Clients also suffer from mental and physical pain (addiction is hard on the body in many ways, including lack of exercise and poor nutrition). With hypnotherapy, an individual can comfortably get away from the bondage of drugs and substance use without a significant amount of the pain of conventional methods.
Is hypnotherapy worth it?
Hypnotherapy has many potential benefits, but it is not completely without risk. Before deciding to try hypnotherapy for addiction, discuss these possible downsides with your primary care physician (PCP):
Mental health issues. The Mayo Clinic warns that “hypnosis may not be appropriate in people with severe mental illness”. Mental illness and substance use disorder often occur together. There’s even a name for it: dual diagnosis.
Creation of false memories. One reason hypnosis works so well is that the unconscious mind is highly suggestible. Even when hypnotherapists are careful, your unconscious might create a false memory.
Anxiety or distress. Like other medications and treatments, hypnotherapy can sometimes cause the problem it is meant to treat.
Headache, drowsiness, or dizziness. Relatively minor complaints, but be prepared for the possibility.
If you are suffering from any addiction, you can always seek the services of a trained, qualified hypnotherapist for the best results. Seek a recommendation from someone you trust and learn all you can about any therapist you’re considering.
The Mayo Clinic suggests asking these questions:
Besides hypnotherapy, do you have training in a therapeutic field such as psychology, medicine, or social work?
Are you licensed in this state?
What school did you attend? Where did you do your postgraduate training?
Have you had training in hypnotherapy? Where?
Do you belong to any professional organizations?
“How long have you been in practice?” Where?
Are you covered by my insurance? How much are the costs or co-pays?
Some drugs and alcohol rehabs employ hypnotherapists under the banner of holistic or alternative therapies, but don’t assume they do. If hypnotherapy is important to you, ask first or seek hypnotherapy elsewhere.
Your overall treatment plan should include other elements, including cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, and aftercare including peer fellowship (such as 12 step programs).
No treatment works all the time with every client. Some people—as much as 25 percent—can’t be hypnotized. Some don’t respond to CBT or 12 steps either. Some people don’t even really want to stop using drugs or alcohol. The will to recover is an important part of the process, as is the power of positive thinking.
If you do want to get and stay sober, you should try as many approaches as possible. Hypnosis has a low-risk of side effects, is drug-free, and a history of use for everything from pain control to psychotherapy. It belongs at the table.