Hypnosis is Dangerous…As Much as Water is

The film Audrey Rose (starring Anthony Hopkins) portrays a young girl haunted by a past life that is trying to bring closure to the events that led to the end of the previous incarnation. The climax of the film (spoiler alert…sorry, but you’ve only had 40 years to see it…) has the young woman hypnotized and regressed to that past life, where she relives the moment of her former life’s death and subsequently (and literally) dies. Not quite the psychological thriller that was Silence of the Lambs.

Putting aside the scientifically unsubstantiated idea that hypnosis enables one to relive a past life, the film may leave one with the impression that hypnosis is dangerous. I have been asked about this numerous times, and my answer is simple on one hand and complicated on the other: It is not, but it could be made to be so, like water.

No one would claim water is dangerous – it makes up most of the human body after all. Yet, it could lead to precarious situations. A person engulfed in it for too long will drown. People are advised in the winter to be weary of falling icicles. It can produce third degree burns even before it boils. Drinking too much at once can lead to a potentially fatal electrolyte imbalance.

Hypnosis is similar in this respect. If it is used improperly, it can be potentially harmful. Suggestions are ubiquitous and manifest in different ways, but they can be bad. A teacher who tells his or her students that they are worthless and will amount to nothing can only damage the students’ self-esteem and set them up for failure.

When does the use of hypnosis become improper and potentially dangerous? Most of the negatively sequelae reported in the literature are found in some poorly executed stage performances, in which suggestions are given that threaten or demean the well-being of the participant. For example, some stage hypnotists will suggest that the participants are experiencing an earlier age in life. While this may result in an amusing display of childish behaviors and antics, some may find themselves experiencing what they believe to a traumatic part of their life (the reliability of hypnotically refreshed memories is a subject of great debate, but few deny that the person is having an emotional experience).

There are also times in which hypnosis should not be used – at least in certain contexts with certain people. Although they are quite rare, people with certain psychological disorders, such as severe depression, may experience abreactions, or unexpected emotional breakdowns, while hypnotized. When conducting experiments, potential participants are instructed not to participate if they are in therapy for any major psychopathology. Of course, anyone could unknowingly be predisposed to mental illness and may experience some unexpected effect during or after hypnosis in an experiment or in therapy, but a researcher with the proper training and knowledge knows how to address it when it happens. In the clinical context, hypnosis may be indicated even with people with such pathologies. Abreactions can there be expected and potentially helpful in the course of therapy, but again only by the one who is properly prepared to make use of it. The use of a water jet is safe when used by someone who knows how to use it. Hypnosis is no different.

Bottom line: Hypnosis, when properly used, is safe. When there are mutually agreed upon goals, informed consent, and respect for all of those involved, the risks involved are virtually nonexistent and transient.

And no, no one has ever revisited a past life and died because of it!

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