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Brief history of hypnosis


Hypnosis has been around for a very long time under the guise of different names and hypnotism as a tool for health seems to have been widely used by civilizations in India, Egypt and Greece where sleep temples were used to cure the sick using hypnotic suggestions.  During the 1700’s an Austrian physician, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) unknowingly used hypnosis when he used his theories of magnetism and suggestion to cure patients of their ills.  It is from his name that the term mesmerised became popular to describe someone who is transfixed by something.  In 1784 the Marquis de Puysegur, one of Mesmer’s earlier students, also coined the term somnambulism to describe a deep trance state. 


Later on the physician John Elliotson (1791-1868), who became a professor at London University and the physician to University College hospital, performed major operations using hypnosis in London.  He also tried to champion the cause of mesmerism, but was forced to resign. He continued to give demonstrations of mesmerism in his own home to any interested parties, and this led to a steady increase in literature on the subject.  The evolution of Mesmer’s ideas and practices eventually led James Braid (1795-1860), an eminent Scottish neurosurgeon, to coin the term, in English, and develop the procedure known as hypnosis in 1842. The word hypnosis was derived from the Greek word ‘hypnos’ meaning ‘to sleep’.  Braid found that some experimental subjects could go into a trance if they simply fixated their eyes on a bright object, like a silver watch, and once he realized that sleep was in fact not involved in the process it was too late, the term hypnosis had stuck.  At around the same time a British surgeon in India, James Esdaile (1808-1859), recognized the enormous benefits of hypnosis in the treatment of pain relief and performed over 300 major operations including amputations using hypno-anaesthesia.


The French also took an interest in the subject of hypnosis, and many breakthroughs were made by men such as Ambrose Liebeault (1823 - 1904), J. M. Charcot (1825 - 1893) and Charles Richet (1850 - 1935) but it was the work of another Frenchman, Emile Coue (1857 - 1926), which was of particular interest.  He moved away from conventional approaches and pioneered the use of auto-suggestion or positive self-affirmation. He is most famous for the phrase 'day by day in every way I am getting better and better'. His technique was one of positive affirmation and it has been championed in countless modern books. 


Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) also became interested in hypnosis and initially used it extensively in his work. He eventually abandoned the practice for several reasons not least that he was apparently not any good at it!  Freud began to favour psychoanalysis and his early rejection of hypnosis delayed the development of hypnotherapy as the focus of psychology had turned away from hypnosis and towards psychoanalysis as a result.  Things did, however, begin to pick up in the 1930's in America with the publication of Clark Hull's book, ‘Hypnosis and Suggestibility’.  In addition, support for the teaching of the therapeutic use of hypnosis in medicine finally came during the 1950’s from the British and American Medical Associations and over the years hypnosis gradually began to gain acceptance and respectability within the medical profession.  

In more recent times, the recognised leading authority on clinical hypnosis was Milton H Erickson, MD (1901 - 1980), a remarkable man, and a highly effective psychotherapist.  He became fascinated by human psychology and devised countless innovative and creative ways to help people. He healed through metaphor, confusion, surprise and humour, as well as hypnosis. A master of ‘indirect hypnosis’, he was able to put a person into a trance without even mentioning the word hypnosis.  As a result of his work it became apparent that an understanding of hypnosis is essential for the efficient practice of every type of psychotherapy.


Hypnosis is currently used in dentistry, medicine and psychology and has proved very beneficial when used alongside more conventional treatments and therapies.  It has received undue ‘bad press’ in the past mainly due to the unscrupulous practices of some stage hypnotists, but the professional use of modern day hypnotherapy is a very effective tool in treating a wide range of problems, from emotional and psychological, to the effective reduction of pain.  It is also more generally seen as a form of ‘relaxation’ and it is possible to teach individuals how to hypnotise themselves in order to reap the benefits it can produce.