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Hypnotism is used to help patients stay in a positive frame of mindHemera Technologies/Getty Images

When we think of hypnotism, we think of theatre. On stage, the hypnotist tells his pliable volunteers to do something silly. In a deep trance and unaware of the humiliation, they comply while the audience laughs and cringes.

But hypnotism is not a frivolous party trick. It's a powerful tool in health care, says Toronto psychologist Dr. Judy Coldoff, president of the Canadian Federation of Clinical Hypnosis.

"People think of situations where a hypnotist has made someone quack like a duck or bark like a dog. We who practise it really hate the trivializing of what is a powerful technique," she says. Dr. Coldoff offers hypnotism as part of her psychology practice.

Clinical hypnotism, in and of itself, isn't a treatment. It's a tool. Hypnotism puts people in a state - a pleasurable state of focused concentration - in which they are more amenable to therapy. In a hypnotic trance, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over. Unlike the sympathetic nervous system - the fight or flight reaction - this state is the one in which we do things without noticing. "Like when you drive across the city and you get to your destination without remembering crossing the individual intersections. You're kind of on automatic pilot," explains Dr. Coldoff.

It's not the hypnosis that's important, it's what the therapist says while the person is hypnotized that is important, she says. "You're on a beach or in a hammock. You see things in detail … feel the sand between your toes, become absorbed, peaceful, relaxed. The treatment starts when the person is in that state."

Clinical hypnotism - often in conjunction with cognitive behavioural therapy, or talk therapy - is used to help people with anxiety, weight management, stress management, nail biting, quitting smoking, pain, panic attacks and gastrointestinal disorders. In particular, says Dr. Coldoff, clinical hypnosis has been found in scientific studies to be effective in cases of irritable bowel syndrome. There is evidence of a 75% to 85% remission rate, she says. "This is a very, very high success rate. We don't know how it works; it just does."

Indeed, how hypnotism works is something of a mystery. "There is a lot of overlap between hypnosis and placebo. We call it a placebo without the deception," says Dr. Coldoff. "If you believe it will be helpful, then it is."

Hypnosis works best on people who are ready to make behavioural changes, says Tariq Sattaur, director of the Ontario Hypnosis Centre in Toronto, where hypnosis is taught. "You have to allow it to happen. You have to be ready," he says. "All the power lies with the client. We provide the space and tools to access the power to make the change. We work with clients who know they need to change and don't know how," he says.

Students of hypnosis at the centre are usually already healers - naturopaths, acupuncturists and psychotherapists, for instance.

Here's what you might expect if you go to a hypnotist: First the practitioner will rule out physical symptoms that should be addressed by a medical doctor. Next he or she will take a thorough history, asking you to explain your problem and the context in which you live. Dr. Coldoff asks clients about their beliefs, resources, family and work, and listens carefully to the type of language they use, as this will be mimicked in the talk therapy.

One of the cornerstones of hypnotism is to help people recognize positive things about themselves and get rid of self-talk that is negative. Both Mr. Sattaur and Dr. Coldoff create a kind of script that will be used when the client is hypnotized. The idea is to empower the client to move toward their goal. "I make it positive, achievable, simple, and future-oriented," says Mr. Sattaur.

Dr. Coldoff uses metaphor and language to enhance the hypnotic experience. For instance, if someone was trying to lose weight by eating healthier food, she would talk to them about "the delicious qualities of colourful, crunchy vegetables and how good they'll feel when they are fit and healthy". She'll have them imagine themselves the way they want to look.

Healing through hypnotism can be a quick or a gradual process. Mr. Sattaur has had clients who have quit smoking after one session, and others who have needed seven sessions. Of course, it doesn't work for everyone.

After a hypnotism session, some people feel refreshed, as if they've been woken up from a nap. Others are emotionally drained.

For more information on hypnotism and licensed practitioners, go to

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