‘I rarely tell fellow GPs about my interest in hypnosis’

If you have trouble sleeping, why would you take tablets instead of learning to relax?

If you have  trouble  sleeping, learn to relax   instead of taking tablets.  Photograph: iStockphoto

If you have trouble sleeping, learn to relax instead of taking tablets. Photograph: iStockphoto

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I saw a hypnotist on a talk show recently and it brought me back to a time when I sat in the basement of a castle and a cultured voice led me into a deep, deep trance.The television hypnotist seemed to be very good at his job, but there was a lot of discussion about his jet-setting lifestyle and his celebrity friends, which put me off him.

I suppose hypnosis has always had an aura of showbiz about it, which is why I rarely tell my fellow doctors that I am interested in hypnosis. But I recently attended an Irish college of General Practice CME workshop on mindfulness and I was gratified to see an appreciation of the place of mediation, relaxation and indeed hypnosis among the participants.

Mind you, the doctor who introduced me to hypnosis had about as much of a resemblance to a stage hypnotist as a performance of King Lear has to Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. He was Jack Gibson, an impeccably qualified and experienced surgeon. He had learned his brand of hypnosis from a Beduin in the desert in the 1920s.

Gibson had to perform surgery on a man who refused anaesthetics and put himself into a trance. He was so impressed at the medical potential of this that he applied his considerable scientific powers to hypnotism.

Gibson specialised in putting victims of road accidents into a trance, and operating on them without delay. He performed more than 4,000 such operations. When he retired from surgery he practised hypnotherapy from his castle home in Naas and treated everything from acne to stage fright.

I first met him at a medical conference, and I was impressed so I visited him in his consulting room at the castle. I still remember the calm voice gently guiding me into the depths of my subconscious. He was in his 90s at the time. You would have thought that there would have been a horde of researchers,doctors and scientists at his door, trying to find out out how he did it, but much of his wisdom died with him.

You can see many of the extraordinary results that he obtained on YouTube and there is no lack of evidence for his achievements. It seems a sad fact that medicine can be driven by the pharmaceutical industry and if there is nothing to sell, many researchers are not interested or funded to be interested. There is, however, a huge market in books, CDs and DVDs about self hypnosis.

It’s a pity that chemicals are readily accepted as treatments for many conditions that are a by- product of modern living, and techniques that are forms of meditation are still looked on with suspicion by many doctors and patients.

Gibson looked on what he did as addressing the subconscious mind. The mind can be likened to a person riding an elephant. The rider is the conscious mind, who decides what to do and the elephant is the subconscious mind that arranges the steps, crosses the road, and does all the stuff that you don’t really think about, like changing gears. The rider tells the elephant what to do but the elephant does not always listen

“We’re stopping smoking,” says the rider, but the elephant knows that it likes smoking so it ignores the command. And as it is a lot stronger than the rider, it usually gets its way. The hypnotist guides the subject into a level between sleep and being awake and talks directly to the subconscious mind, which is now happy to listen. In short, it explains to the elephant why it should stop smoking. “Right,” says the elephant. “Now I see your point.”

It is difficult to fit a hypnosis session into the work of a modern GP. No matter how good you are at it, it takes a fairly quiet unhurried atmosphere to get a good trance going. You need to clear the decks and take the phone off the hook. So if the patients ask should they get hypnotherapy, the GP is often in a quandary. I send those patients to Niamh Flynn, a reputable psychologist in the Galway Clinic.

It beats me why anyone who has trouble getting to sleep would want to risk taking tablets instead of learning how to relax.

There are many different ways of managing stress addictions, phobias and bad habits. In my experience they tend to work very well, but of course there is as yet no scientific evidence. I hope that some enterprising researchers are looking into it.

*Dr Pat Harrold is a GP in Nenagh.

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