24 November 2007 — 11:04pm
British celebrity hypnotist Peter Powers made headlines during his recent trip downunder when a member of the audience ran out of one his shows and into the path of traffic after being told to chase a leprechaun.
He managed to avoid the cars, but it's these kind of stunts that give hypnosis a bad reputation, say practitioners who are increasingly using it to treat a range of physical and psychological problems from obesity to anxiety disorders.
Hypnosis is also used to help people quit smoking, overcome sexual problems, improve athletic performance and even get through childbirth.
Australian Society of Clinical Hypnotherapists (ASCH) president Lyndall Briggs says acts like Powers' are no laughing matter, and have nothing to do with real hypnotherapy.
Briggs has worked as a hypnotherapist for 15 years, treating clients who want to quit smoking (the most common reasons for wanting to undergo hypnosis; she says it has a 75 per cent success rate), manage anxiety or lose weight.
Golfers, runners and swimmers also come to her to learn how to go into "the zone" when competing.
And you can forget about the stereotype of the hypnotherapist who pulls out a clock, says "You are getting very sleepy" and makes you start clucking like a chicken, she says.
Briggs says hypnosis is "a state of deep relaxation" which allows people to tap into their subconscious and make positive changes to thought patterns and habits.
To achieve this, she verbally "rocks" a person into a relaxed state.
"I will say `you are feeling relaxed' - there's quite a bit of repetition within it."
When she assesses her client as being in a sufficiently relaxed state, she makes suggestions about what they want to achieve, or how to feel comfortable in situations they normally find stressful.
Kathy*, 35, from Sydney's south, started seeing Briggs two months ago to overcome her fear of flying, claustrophobia and panic attacks.
Her problem began at work some ten years ago when she was stuck in a lift with 30 people on a 40-degree day.
"We were stuck for about 45 minutes and I almost passed out," Kathy says.
"We all came out drenched in sweat.
"That's where all my main fear started."
Kathy says the initial sessions focused on providing a personal history. Only then was she "put under".
"The therapist verbally talks you into hypnosis ... for about half an hour," Kathy says.
"You don't really think much.
"I close my eyes and she tries to put you in a state of calmness where you don't fear anything - a state of relaxation."
Kathy says the whole time her therapist is talking she can understand her.
"It's not like you're in a deep sleep where you don't hear anything," she says.
Professor Louise Newman, a former director of the NSW Institute of Psychiatry, says many psychiatrists have additional training in hypnosis and most believe it has a legitimate role in treating some disorders.
However, there is some disquiet about "the hype that surrounds hypnosis as a form of entertainment," she says.
"It promotes the idea that people can be made to do things against their will, which isn't really what it's about."
She says hypnotherapy can be a "useful form of intervention", particularly for stress-related conditions and anxiety.
But professor Newman warns it isn't suitable for people suffering serious mental illness.
"For some people with complex mental conditions it might actually be ill advised," she says.
"For example, people who have experienced very severe trauma ... might potentially re-experience or relive some of those very traumatic memories."
It is also recommended people only use a hypnotherapist who is a member of a recognised association and has completed a two-year diploma.
There is no peak body in Australia but the ASCH and the Australian Society of Hypnosis (ASH) represent 1500 practitioners between them.
The ASH is a professional body that provides training in hypnosis for doctors, psychologists and dentists.
Associate professor Amanda Barnier is from the Centre for Cognitive Science at Sydney's Macquarie University and an ASH member.
She says health professionals use hypnosis "as an additional tool in their toolbox".
She says a good hypnotist is like a good coach who guides a talented athlete.
"It's not the hypnotist's skill that creates the hypnotic experiences, it's the individual's own abilities," she says.
"Some people are extremely hypnotisable and will respond to virtually any hypnotic suggestion you give to them, and some people are not at all hypnotisable.
"Not because they're unwilling, but just because it doesn't work for them."
Briggs' client Kathy, believes the therapy is working for her, though she still feels some fear getting on a plane.
"I'll continue until I know I can get on a plane without any fear whatsoever," she says.
*Name has been changed.