More than 50 years ago, a group of patients dealing with addictions to different substances took part in an unusual experiment. As they sat in the lab, they were hypnotized and given LSD as part of a project led by two scientists in hopes of alleviating their drug dependence.
The researchers, Arnold Ludwig and Jerome Levine, called this the “hypnodelic treatment technique.” They found that, in their participant set, people who received it showed greater improvement than those who had been given a placebo or LSD alone. Hypnosis seemed to be enhancing the therapeutic effects of LSD, by making people calmer and better prepared to experience the effects of a psychedelic trip. The researchers continued to conduct similar experiments with varying degrees of success, but their work was cut short by the bans on psychedelic drugs which were enforced from the 1960s and 1970s, and meant that all research with these substances came to a halt.
Fast forward 50 years, and the tide seems to be turning. Scientists are increasingly able to work with psychedelics, and they are now cautiously optimistic these drugs could help in the treatment of conditions ranging from depression to alcoholism and PTSD.
Taking advantage of this new climate, a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology last month has gone back to look at the surprising combination of these substances with hypnosis, to explore how similar they are and their potential to enhance treatment for mental illness. For years, this possibility had been pushed under the rug.
“Hypnosis is a discipline that has long been controversial, and it is not always well understood by the general public,” explains study author Clément E. Lemercier, founder of the association AternatiMed and researcher at the University of Bordeaux in France. “So when researchers started looking at psychedelics again, it was a bit too early to go back to Levine and Ludwig’s work. But since we now have progressed in our understanding of both phenomena, we thought it was time to open up the discussion again, and to promote the work of researchers who had made such great steps 50 years ago.”
Sometimes depicted in popular culture as a mind control tool, hypnosis has long produced both fascination and fear in people.
The reality is very different. Hypnosis is used in a therapeutic context to reprogram unhelpful responses in the way that individuals behave, think, and feel. “It’s often used to help clients overcome depression, anxiety, trauma, PTSD, phobias, and fears,” says UK-based hypnotherapist Sara Maude. “Hypnosis is an alteration of consciousness, it’s simply a focused state of attention we refer to as a trance. Through the use of hypnotic language we are guiding people into a relaxed state of mind so that they drop down into the theta wave brain state, which is the back door to the unconscious mind.”
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How does this state compare to a psychedelic experience? By conducting a review of the scientific literature on the subject, Lemercier and his co-author Devin B. Terhune, a researcher in the department of psychology at Goldsmith University (UK), highlight the results of recent research by other scientists which shows that hypnotic suggestions can, in some cases, induce states that are similar to those experienced with psychedelics. Alterations in perception, body image, imagery, self-awareness, time perception, and meaning have been documented during sessions of hypnotherapy. The researchers found that both phenomena also affect the activity of several areas of the brain in similar ways.
“It’s very much down to the skills of the hypnotherapist but I have had many clients come out of a hypnotherapy session saying ‘wow,’ feeling more alive. They are reconnected with their true sense of self. This—you can argue—is akin to a psychedelic experience,” Maude says.
Research has however suggested that not everyone reacts to hypnosis in the same way. Some people are thought to be more suggestible, or likely to respond to hypnotic suggestions, and to undergo significant changes in consciousness during a session of hypnotherapy. For this select subset of people, inducing a psychedelic-like state—including mystical-type experiences—with the help of hypnosis might be possible.
“Looking at the data, there are many ideas we want to test, for example that people who are more suggestible are also more likely to be responsive to psychedelics,” Terhune says. “These are two research domains that have began to flourish independently during the last ten to 15 years, and now we want to understand how they can help individuals who may be very different.”
Scientists hope that hypnosis and psychedelics can be precisely studied to shed light onto the mysteries of human consciousness. However, if they are interested in finding out how alike both phenomena are, it’s mainly because they believe that these similarities could help improve therapeutic processes.
While the possibility of using psychedelics to treat mental illness has generated a lot of excitement recently, there is some concern for patients who may have never been exposed to these drugs before. Anxiety or fear of what to expect can undermine the benefits that these substances may bring.
“We now know that preparation before psychedelic therapy is key to get a good therapeutic outcome. It’s also important to have a setting that ensures the participant is comfortable and feels safe,” says Valerie Bonnelle, scientific assistant to the director at The Beckley Foundation, an organization working to pioneer psychedelic research. Last month's suggests hypnotherapy could be used to that end—before a session with psychedelics—to make sure the person is relaxed and ready to try the psychedelic experience for the best clinical results possible.
Another barrier for those who study psychedelics is that the effects of these drugs can last for hours. “Unlocking trauma and repressed memories can take a long time, this is why lengthy psychedelic sessions are generally necessary to achieve a positive therapeutic outcome. However, hypnotherapy, given before the psychedelic therapy, could facilitate the process and reduce the time needed to enter the state where deep healing can occur. This could potentially allow lowering the doses, which would make psychedelic-assisted therapy easier to administer and more ‘manageable,’” Bonnelle adds.
Another option worth investigating according to the researchers would be to use hypnosis during the psychedelic experience to make people more receptive to suggestions and to modulate their response to the drugs—just as scientists had envisioned in the 60s.
But before such an approach can be developed further, the researchers believe that ethical concerns must first be addressed. More data will also be needed both on psychedelics’ effects, and on how they react with hypnosis. “These are still early days," Terhune says. "The use of psychedelics is promising, and we are excited about the possibility of working with hypnosis too. But it’s important to recognize that mental health problems are complex, and we need to keep investigating to make sure everyone receives the help they deserve."
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