Although there exists a wide range of treatment options that may be used to treat phobias and fears, ranging from cognitive-behavioral therapy to benzodiazepines, one such option that has not received quite as much attention from the psychology community is hypnosis. Despite this relative lack of popularity, hypnosis has proven to be rather effective in treating phobias, if the patient demonstrates a willingness to be hypnotized. In some cases, for instance, hypnosis can be used alongside another treatment method, as in the case of systematic desensitization. Systematic desensitization, based largely on classical conditioning, seeks to eliminate a patient’s fear response to a stimulus and replace it with a more innocuous response. The treatment method is coupled with relaxation techniques, and is carried out by having the patient gradually expose himself/herself to situations that make him/her uncomfortable, until he/she feels relaxed enough to progress to a more frightening stimulus. Eventually, the phobia is eliminated entirely. Hypnosis provides the patient with an opportunity to experience frightening situations in greater detail which may otherwise be difficult to recreate. For instance, brontophobia, the irrational fear of thunderstorms, may be treated by hypnosis, as it would be impractical to wait for a real thunderstorm to begin desensitizing the patient. Hypnosis may also be effective in relieving young children of phobias of fictional stimuli, such as witches. As the therapist cannot actually expose the child to a witch, hypnosis would enable him/her to suggest to the child that he/she should not be afraid of witches.
Being the potent tool that it is, hypnosis may even be used to induce a patient to regress to an earlier time in his/her life, where the phobia may have its roots. More often than not, a phobia may be linked to a traumatic past experience, and enabling the patient to relive this experience and put it behind himself/herself, in the past where it belongs, can be an effective means of eliminating a phobia. Dr. Corydon Hammond states that “When traumatic events are found to be associated with phobic reactions, it may be profitable to facilitate an age regression and abreact the feelings associated with the experience” (154). As hypnosis is more often used to facilitate or enhance another treatment method as opposed to being a treatment method in its own right, there have indeed been some cases where it has been used to induce patients to relive traumatic childhood experiences by facilitating age regression with the hope of determining the root cause.
Regarding the general effectiveness and time demands of hypnosis in treating phobias, it does not take a great deal of time to cure a phobia entirely and enable the patient to live a normal life. After perhaps a small handful of hypnosis sessions, the patient may find that he/she may be able to hold a spider in his/her hand, when previously the very sight of one would have been unbearable. Some have even found that their phobias have been cured entirely by hypnosis in a single session. Surprisingly, even as the techniques used to hypnotize a patient become increasingly sophisticated in nature, the basic process remains rather simple. Some find this method of treatment to be more appealing than others, because they are not actually exposed to the subject of their fear until they feel prepared to do so. In the case of systematic desensitization without the use of hypnosis, if an individual suffers from an irrational fear of dogs, it will be necessary to have him/her encounter a dog in person. Depending on the severity of the phobia, even this initial encounter may be too much for the individual to bear. However, with hypnosis, he/she is likelier to remain calm in knowing that he/she is not truly encountering a dog. Hypnosis becomes a more appealing treatment method to many once one learns that one will retain one’s lucidity and memory throughout the process. In cartoons and films, hypnosis is often presented as an intimidatingly powerful or even supernatural process wherein the patient is completely susceptible to the suggestions of the hypnotizer and may even experience amnesia. In real-world hypnosis, the patient merely becomes more suggestible; he/she is not forced to do whatever is dictated by the hypnotizer. Indeed, perhaps the use of hypnosis to treat irrational fears is not more common because many suffer from an uninformed fear of hypnosis itself.
Hypnosis is a highly valuable tool to therapists regarding treating fears and phobias in that it allows one to access the unconscious mind, which functions based on emotion, instinct, and association rather than reason and logical thinking. Hypnotherapist Terence Watts states that “It is often pointless attempting to make the change in our conscious mind, when the process resides in our subconscious. Hypnosis allows us to make beneficial changes in the very depths of that subconscious – and as such it can be a truly astounding power for good … a symptom is nothing more than the expression of an idea that has been absorbed by the subconscious but which is in conflict with conscious wishes or needs. Hypnosis and hypnotherapy enables us to find a way to override that subconscious idea or to bring it into the light and either re-evaluate its validity, or use suggestion to render it inactive.” Some hypnotherapists view phobias as little more than Stone Age survival instincts manifesting themselves in anomalous ways, and instincts are engrained into the subconscious mind so that they may not be easily altered or eliminated. Indeed, phobias are rooted in emotional reactions and learned behaviors, which by definition are antithetical to the higher functions of the brain, which are not quite so primitive as emotions. Some studies have even found that phobias may be inherited, as observed in a group of mice who demonstrated a fearful response to the scent of cherry-blossom. This conditioned response was initially created in the female mouse preceding them by two generations, after she learned to associate the smell of cherry-blossom with a fear-inducing situation. Humans, too, seem to demonstrate the capacity to inherit phobias, notably arachnophobia. If fears are so deeply embedded within the unconscious mind, then the ability to contact the unconscious should not be underestimated.
Although hypnosis has not been explored to the same degree as other means of treating phobias such as systematic desensitization or flooding, it should be considered as an effective means of enhancing the effectiveness of existing treatments. Although some psychologists such as Sigmund Freud have had many of their ideas regarding the unconscious mind discredited, the fact nonetheless remains that the unconscious holds quite the sway over human behavior. It is every bit as vital to acknowledge the needs of the unconscious mind as it is those of the conscious mind. Perhaps to some, the unconscious mind holds even more significance, as it is as old as the human brain itself.