Is Hypnotherapy Useful?

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Though I’ve been married for 32 years and have two grown children, I am terrified of sex. Four years ago I finally confessed to my husband about these feelings and started seeing a psychotherapist who is certain that I was sexually abused as a child and have repressed these memories. I have a variety of symptoms: I dissociate. Sometimes these moments are mild and fleeting, and on at least two occasions they were terrifying. I would look in a mirror and not know who was looking back at me. I was a cutter as a teen, attempted suicide a few times as a young adult and was admitted to the hospital for shock therapy. I have experienced two episodes of anorexia, one as a teenager, and one as an adult a few years ago. Specific sexual moves make me cringe in fear and disgust and some result in serious panic attacks. Needless to say, my husband and I have an almost-non-existent sex life, which doesn’t help our marriage. Though my husband is very understanding of my issues, he is understandably frustrated.

Over the past 4 years I have developed a wonderful relationship with my therapist and really don’t want to change, but I don’t know if her method of treatment, primarily hypnotherapy, works for me. She thinks I’ve come a long way with understanding and accepting my past, but I don’t feel the information gleaned through hypnosis is trustworthy. To me it’s all fantasy. In trance I see children emerging from bedroom walls; some claim to have secrets, but when I wake up all I can say is, so what?” Children don’t live in walls and I don’t believe I have child parts with secrets. I just don’t think I’m a good candidate for hypnosis, though my therapist has helped hundreds of people this way.

What type of therapy do you think I should pursue? In order to resolve my sexual problem, I feel I need to know the identity of my abuser. But am I trying to remember something that never happened? What if my symptoms are caused by something else? What else could be causing these symptoms, if not sexual abuse? I’m tormented daily by these questions. I feel broken but don’t know how to fix myself. I want to rid myself ofy sexual fears but just talking about it is stressful. Help!

A: You wrote a very moving and honest letter. Hypnosis can be a helpful way for people to learn to relax and to tolerate distressing material. However, there are some caveats. An important 2001 study by Joseph Green and his associates at Ohio State found that hypnosis is no more useful in helping people retrieve memories than other relaxation techniques. But – and this is an important “but” — there is a strong cultural belief in many countries that ideas developed while in trance are true. This gives people a false sense of security about them. This is only one of a growing body of studies that show that memory is at best an unreliable thing. And “memories” brought up under hypnosis may be an attempt by the mind to fill in a vacuum; to create a “reason” for things that seem unreasonable.

This is not to call your therapist’s integrity into question. In the 1990s, some surveys showed that up to a third of therapists used hypnosis to help their patients remember and cope with childhood sexual abuse. I think that practice has slowed considerably but many therapists who were trained in the late 1980s and 1990s may still have more confidence in the technique than is justified.

I have no way of knowing if your aversion to sex is grounded in childhood abuse. Of course, it’s possible. It’s also possible that you and your husband don’t have a way to be intimate that is satisfying and relaxing for you. Another possibility is that you are suffering from some hormonal difficulties that haven’t been diagnosed and treated.

I suggest you take a break from individual therapy and explore some other avenues. First see an endocrinologist for a complete workup to make sure your endocrine system is functioning well. Then, consider seeing a couples therapist about new ways for you and your husband to explore each other, emotionally and sexually.

By all means, talk to your therapist about your desire to explore other options. She will probably support you and leave the door open for you to return to her if you want to do so later. It’s likely that your individual therapy will be enriched by what you learn by exploring other areas.

(Just to be clear: I have nothing against hypnosis as a therapeutic tool. I’m trained in hypnotherapy myself and have used it for years as a way to help people manage anxiety and depression.)

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 26 Feb 2013

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2013). Is Hypnotherapy Useful?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2013/02/26/is-hypnotherapy-useful/