Is hypnotism the miracle cure-all?

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Today is World Hypnotism Day – but does this increasingly popular therapeutic technique really work? ALICE WYLLIE challenged a hypnotherapist to banish her arachnophobia, and met a woman who stopped smoking after just one session

I'VE been afraid of spiders for as long as I can remember, but have always viewed my fear as just silly, learned behaviour. Despite that, I've never managed to shake it, and still leap into a corner whenever one appears, shouting precise instructions at whoever is in the room with me as to exactly how they should dispose of the wretched thing.

It's their legs. And their big, hairy abdomens. The way they dangle, twitch and, worst of all, scuttle across the room. They keek out of dark corners, they dart out from under the television. And they spin webs. How could anyone not be afraid of a creature that uses its own bodily fluids to build a trap in which to catch its unassuming prey, before cocooning the poor beastie in the stuff and injecting it with some foul substance to dissolve its innards?

My mother telling me that they're more afraid of me than I am of them never worked, and neither did "face-your-fear therapy," as a flatmate once put it when he chased me around the room dangling a dead spider between his fingers.

Then it was suggested to me that hypnotherapy might cure me of my fear and even help me achieve my ultimate goal of actually holding one of the wee blighters in my hands. Could it work? I've always found it difficult to take hypnotherapy seriously, having lumped it with faith healing, past-life regression and tarot cards in the "silly fluff that I'd never fall for" category – so I'm sceptical to say the least.

Today is the fourth annual World Hypnotism Day, which aims to increase awareness and understanding about hypnosis, so with this in mind, I decided to visit Edinburgh hypnotherapist Robin Thorburn of Exclusive Hypnotherapy. No chicken behaviour, though – I wanted to see if he could cure me of my arachnophobia.

What would it be like? Forget swinging pocket watches, spinning patterns or barking like a dog: hypnotism has moved beyond such hokey stage gimmicks, and is used to treat a wide range of mental and physical symptoms. For conditions ranging from phobias to psoriasis, hypnosis has gone mainstream – your GP can even refer you to a hypnotherapist on the NHS.

Hypnotism has been around in some form for 6,000 years, ever since group hypnosis was used by ancient civilisations. In the 1600s, people learned to calm chickens hypnotically by balancing wood shavings on their beaks; however, the practice entered the mainstream when Austrian 18th-century physician Anton Mesmer began inducing trance-like states in his patients.

In 1955 the British Medical Association endorsed the practice, and hypnotherapy has grown dramatically in popularity. Ten years ago, there were around 2,000 professional hypnotherapists in the UK, compared to around 7,000 today. Celebrity fans include the Duchess of York, David Bowie and George Michael. Pop singer Lily Allen's recent dramatic weight loss was, she says, all down to hypnotherapy.

Hypnotherapist to the stars Paul McKenna, who has built a lucrative career around his skills, claims he can treat a whole host of problems through hypnotising clients. He has even said he can use it to help women grow bigger breasts.

"Because hypnotism seems almost like magic, some people find it difficult to take seriously. They think of it as something spooky, like voodoo," says Josephine Teague, the chairman of the Hypnotherapy Association. "In addition, a lot of people don't like the idea of relinquishing control and feel their mind will be 'controlled' during hypnosis. In fact, they have full control: the therapy is a sort of partnership between the hypnotherapist and the patient. It can't go ahead unless both parties are on board."

So how does it work? It's a complicated process, accessing the subconscious and placing "suggestions" there to alter a person's state of mind. "Everyone has the answers in them, but accessing them is another matter and that's where hypnotherapy comes in," says Teague. "It's essentially a state of heightened relaxation and altered awareness. When a person's in this state, their conscious becomes less resistant and it is possible to make contact with their subconscious."

I'm still sceptical. However, Thorburn seems normal enough. There's no ponytail, no glamorous assistant, no sequined jacket and definitely no "look into my eyes, not around my eyes" accompanied by twirling fingers. Instead, I'm greeted by a friendly, smartly dressed middle-aged man. Thorburn first asks me to settle into what is possibly the most comfortable armchair on the planet. Next, he goes about dispelling some myths, explaining that I will be fully aware of what's going on while in a trance and in complete control. He also explains that, while it is possible to hypnotise anyone, the participant has to be completely willing for it to work.

But can I be cured of my arachnophobia in just one session? It's possible, Thorburn explains, but unlikely. Only around one in five people is susceptible enough to be treated in one session but, for the rest of us, it usually takes two or three to make a real difference. However, I should be able to feel at least a small change after this session, he assures me.

Thorburn begins by asking me a series of questions about my fear. What in particular do I dislike about spiders? For how long have I been afraid of them? He then moves on to more general questions about my hobbies, or television programmes that make me laugh. Then, his voice grows softer, lower and quieter. He asks me to close my eyes and the hypnotherapy begins. At first, I find the experience rather unnerving. The problem is not so much my feeling self-conscious as the slightly odd accent that Thorburn adopts, not unlike an American movie trailer voiceover. He later explains many of his patients find it amusing, but he finds it the best tone to adopt to speak to the subconscious mind.

Nevertheless, I spend the first ten minutes suppressing the urge to giggle. Then, unexpectedly, I start to relax as he asks me to imagine my concerns floating out to sea like a twig on the surface of the water, to imagine myself as a pebble dropping into a pool, then see myself sitting alone in a cinema auditorium.

He asks me to picture a spider on the screen, in black-and-white, then to swap it for a more positive, colour image and to turn up the colour and brightness with an imaginary remote control. Next, I imagine the spider again, but this time wearing eight yellow Wellington boots, or even as "a character from The Office" (a favourite television comedy of mine). "The memory is most vulnerable to change at the point when we dislike it most," Thorburn explains, hence the switch between an ugly picture of a spider to a more soothing one where I'm sitting with a group of friends and laughing. At that moment, he asks me to take two deep breaths and to squeeze together the index finger and thumb on my left hand. He later explains that I can do this again whenever I'm feeling panicked by the presence of a spider, to calm myself.

After picturing an eight-legged, hairy David Brent scuttling towards me (a rather more disturbing image than that of a plain old spider) I was slowly asked to wake up on the count of five. When I opened my eyes, I felt as if I had been asleep and was waking up in a vast room. I remembered everything that had taken place, but felt as if time had passed very quickly.

I recalled feeling relaxed, sleepy and as if I were being gently rocked, although the cynical part of me wondered if it was all down to the inordinately comfy chair. Had I been "under"? I think so, and Thorburn confirmed that my rapid eye movement (REM) and "cadaverous" appearance confirmed I had been in a trance for part of the session.

It was a pleasant experience, but did I feel like cuddling up to a big hairy arachnid? I wasn't sure, so I decided to put it to the test at Edinburgh Zoo. Talk about throwing myself in at the deep end…

After a brief introduction to a Chilean rose tarantula named Boris, who was only slightly smaller than my hand, it was time for the test. First one leg, then a second: a minute later, I was holding him in both hands, stroking his furry legs and pronouncing him "rather cute". After some initial deep breathing and twitchiness, I felt completely unafraid.

So did hypnotherapy cure me of my irrational fear? Honestly, I'm not sure. I believe my own sheer determination played a part, along with the fact that I was so desperate to be cured that I persuaded myself I was. I also found that, by holding a spider, I was dispelling the myths I'd created in my head about how horrid the experience would be. And Boris, who behaved impeccably, was certainly no leggy bath dweller, my ultimate nemesis.

However – I can't explain how or why – I think hypnotherapy played its part. I felt completely calm in Boris's company, something I couldn't possibly have felt before my session with Torburn.

10 ways hypnosis could help you

HYPNOTHERAPY is used to treat a range of problems, from the apparently trivial to some more serious medical issues. Hypnotherapist Robin Thorburn takes us through ten of the most common ones:

1 PHOBIAS: "Phobias are treated by zooming in on a memory and disturbing it, so the reaction to that memory is altered from an unpleasant one to a more indifferent one."

2 SMOKING: "Helping a person to stop smoking is a similar process to treating a phobia, but the person has to want to quit. There's a certain amount of pleasure in smoking, but there's nothing pleasurable about a phobia. With smoking, cravings are both physical and psychological. I tackle the psychological ones, and hopefully the physical ones follow."

3 IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME: "This can be triggered by stress and anxiety, so treating it is about focusing on relaxation and confidence."

4 STRESS: "There's no doubt daily life can be stressful; hypnotherapy focuses on helping people to feel like they're making choices under pressure, rather than being backed into a corner."

5 CONFIDENCE: "This is one of the big issues I deal with. It often incorporates fear of public speaking and fear of failure, and hypnotherapy is a great way of dealing with these issues."

6 ANGER MANAGEMENT: "Hypnotherapy deals with this by helping a person move from an angry reaction to mere annoyance or concern, more 'normal' reactions."

7 WEIGHT LOSS: "A lot of people come to me for this. They put themselves on rigid diets and take all-or-nothing attitudes. However, hypnotherapy helps people to adopt new attitudes towards food and exercise, rather than simply fighting their cravings."

8 INSOMNIA: "People with insomnia can be stuck in a bit of a vicious cycle. They predict the worst before they go to bed, so they're 1-0 down before their head even hits the pillow. They expect not to sleep, so they don't. Hypnotherapy helps them to re-programme that way of thinking."

9 PAIN CONTROL: "This is used for childbirth, or when a person has an operation coming up. It works by setting up an imaginary 'pain dial', and helping the person to teach themselves to 'turn it down' when they wish. I used it recently when I had an operation on my knee."

10 STAMMERING: "Like insomnia, or blushing, a stammerer predicts the worst before they open their mouth, so that's exactly what happens. Again, it's about reprogramming that way of thinking."

CASE STUDY: 'I'VE GOT A NEW LEASE OF LIFE'

Donna Wren, 39, from Dennyloanhead

"I WAS a smoker for 11 years and smoked, on average, 20 cigarettes a day. I had tried to stop using various methods, everything from chewing gum to sheer willpower, but nothing worked for very long. A colleague suggested trying hypnotherapy and eventually I made an appointment last April with Janey McArthur, a hypnotherapist in Menstrie.

I was quite sceptical. My only experience of hypnosis was from stage or television, where people do silly things for entertainment, but the reality couldn't have been more different from that. I had expected to enter a sort of dream-like state, but I was awake throughout it. It felt very relaxing and natural. Incidentally, I had the most wonderful sleep that night!

Within five minutes of leaving my session I began to feel the effects of it: for example, my husband (another smoker) lit a cigarette and I didn't have the faintest desire to smoke. In the weeks that followed, I didn't once feel the need to smoke and a few months later I had even begun to find smoking quite repellent.

I haven't smoked since the session and I haven't been the slightest bit tempted to, either. It's incredible that just one session cured an addiction that had spanned a decade, and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that it's changed my life.

I saved up all the money that I would have spent on cigarettes and spent it on laser eye surgery instead. I've got a new lease of life, and I'm a complete convert to hypnosis."