Hypnotherapy: Trick or cheat?

Want thinner thighs, or bigger breasts? Forget cosmetic surgery, hypnotherapy is now promising to do the job, online for your convenience. Are we being taken for a ride, asks Angela Barnett

Lily Allen dropped two dress sizes with it. Orlando Bloom gave up his chocolate obsession, Kevin Costner cured his seasickness and Tiger Woods mastered the right mind-set for the perfect swing.

Hypnotherapy has been around for as long as the sewing machine, but it’s now widely available online, and the new distribution channel means it’s expanding – both in its popularity and in terms of what its sellers say it can do for you. Self-hypnosis scripts are promising to help people re-stitch their minds in all sorts of inconceivable ways, from imagining bigger breasts to curing disease. You no longer need a man with a comb-over, watch chain and a crusty old couch to help you quit smoking, you can download files and do it yourself on your iPhone.

UK website Hypnobusters provides over 100 self-hypnosis scripts in MP3 format that promise to boost my face with some hypnotic botox, augment my breasts, enhance my punch, slow down my eating, cure cancer, improve my hearing and give me “sensational skin”. Wendi Friesen, an American hypnotherapist, offers do- it-yourself scripts that will turn me into a body builder. Frankly, I’m disappointed I can’t be taller. I could even grow a larger penis, but I suspect I’d need a small one to begin with.

Dr James Braid, who coined the term ‘hypnotism’ in 1842, believed hypnotic therapy was an effective tool for treating “functional nervous disorders”. The word ‘hypnosis’ derives from the Greek God of sleep, Hypnos, however it’s not actually sleeping, it’s more of a trance, “Like when you drive somewhere and can’t remember how you gotthere but you know you were awake, just not present,” says John Cerbone, a New York clinical hypnotherapist. When you’re in this trance the therapist introduces new thoughts into your mind: ‘I like juice at 5pm (instead of wine)’; ’ I am a great golfer’; ‘My lungs love fresh air’; ‘Too much pudding makes me sad’.

Cerbone, who touts himself as The Fastest Hypnotist on the Planet, tells me most mentally balanced people are able to be hypnotised – by a trained professional – as long as they’re willing to relax. “The more intelligent, stressed or creative, the more hypnotisable, too.”

There’s stacks of evidence that one-on-one hypnotherapy sessions have helped many with addictions, phobias, stress, mental blocks, concentration issues and nervous disorders. But not with beautifying oneself, although some have found it helpful for things like uncontrollable blushing or the inability to stop absent-mindedly picking that dry skin around their fingers.

A friend of mine had a terrible attitude about his taxes. Most of us suffer from this annoying problem, however he was putting off doing his returns past the due date, the reminder and the penalty for missing the penalty. He went to see a Wellington hypnotherapist and said he was impressed to find the process actually worked.

Wellingtonian clinical hypnotherapist Meredith McCarthy says she has helped a man in the SAS work on his mental focus, a woman get over her fear of swallowing pills, a businessman with irritable bowel syndrome (he had it so bad he could no longer attend meetings) and has treated other common complaints: smoking addiction, weight gain, stress and insomnia.

When I asked Cerbone – who treats clients from South Africa to Iraq over Skype – about self-hypnotic botox or breast augmentation, he said simply, “I’m not a fan of off-the-shelf scripts”. He talked witheringly about a fellow hypnotist in New York who promises to cure baldness and cancer. “I’m not going to name names, but that’s just fringy,” he says.

What a cynic. Surely you can listen and think yourself into radiant skin, thicker hair or supermodel proportions?

My cousin Stacey bought four breast augmentation scripts from a UK self-hypnosis site last August, expecting a larger bikini top by summer. She committed to listening for half an hour a day for 12 weeks (being a student, having a lie down was more interesting than study). “This dreamy Enya-type music played,” she said, “then an English cabbie voice would count down, telling me to close my eyes on zero. Then he would instruct my boobs to grow while I daydreamed.”

I saw her after eight weeks and she was starting to doubt: there had been no change. She contacted the online help desk and they told her to relax more, not want it so badly, yet to still believe it would happen.

Stacey then fretted about wanting it the right amount – was a C cup being too greedy? On she ploughed, and when I saw her last summer, I didn’t need to ask. There was no new bikini.

“These scripts build false expectations,” says McCarthy. “I’m yet to see anyone with results. People download a stupid breast-enlargement script, then they come into my office, despondent, and I have to educate them about how hypnotherapy works; genuine rapport between the client and the hypnotherapist is the most important thing. It makes a mockery of the profession. We often talk about this. Many in our organisation [the New Zealand Association of Professional Hypnotherapists] feel it’s a shame – these self-hypnosis scripts are made by someone wanting to make a quick buck off people’s vulnerabilities.”

My cousin isn’t the only person to have high hopes. Online, Spygal76 asks: “Does anyone know if you can use hypnosis to make your eyes wider apart, or your nose less bumpy, or your lips fuller, or anything like that on the face?”

Ah, that would be the plastic surgeon, honey. There are plenty of young men asking whether hypnosis can make them taller too. Sadly, it’s not like downloading a music track only to discover you don’t like it. People who purchase self-hypnosis scripts can spend up to three months listening, hoping for something that will never happen. If noses could be buttoned that easily we’d all be doing it.

The NZAPH bans New Zealand hypnotherapists from making false promises online or guaranteeing results, but they can’t ban international sites from doing so. No amount of wishful dreaming could help Stacey’s breasts grow, and optimistic listening will never create longer legs for those beleaguered teenagers, or hide bald spots for the middle-aged. But when the downloads don’t work, these hypno-shafters have the perfect excuse: your mind is blocking you! They would have us believe we could all be six-foot supermodels if only our crabby old thoughts would let us.

When people visit Cerbone with complaints that can’t be fixed through hypnotherapy, he says, “I’ve got no problem referring them to that other couch – the psychologist’s one – to [help them] better accept themselves.”

- Sunday Magazine