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Dr. Richard Isaacson

The Use of Hypnotherapy in the Treatment of Addiction

The usual response to the suggestion to one of my clients that hypnotherapy might be useful in the treatment of his drug problem is typical of the general public’s misguided understanding of hypnotherapy:  “I’m afraid of going into trance – I might lose control”; “You’ll find out things about me that I don’t even know myself”, or, typically, “I’m just not the type to benefit from hypnosis”.

However, trance is really nothing out of the ordinary; it is a naturalistic experience that occurs routinely in daily life: daydreaming, fantasizing, driving a car, watching T.V., are all trance states.  Trance induction is merely using the power of the unconscious mind to re-work the neurological wiring, born of childhood experiences, that creates unwanted, self-destructive impulses and behaviors that continually result in adverse consequences that go along, hand-in-glove, with all addictions.
The realm of hypnotherapy is often used in the treatment of addiction.  Terms such as imagery, self-relaxation, inner child work, and self-affirmations are routinely used in rehabs for addiction.  Hypnotic techniques are effective in treating addicts because the compulsive state of longing for the drug, as well as the state of being under the influence of the drug is, in fact, nothing more than a trance state.  In fact, it is this trance state that is actually sought after in addictive rituals.  Addicts, in fact, feel right at home in trance.

So why it is that this particular hypnotic trance state is so compelling for the addict?  What makes the state so irresistible that money, time, family, self-respect and sometimes sanity are sacrificed? 

The answer is a complex one and varies for each individual.  One way of understanding the reason for the addiction to the erotic haze is that it is an attempt to re-create what the famous psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott, called “the holding environment.” The holding environment occurs when an infant and an emotionally adequate mother form a bond that nullifies the infant’s weakness and creates a sense of being “held” in the world as the child grows to be a man. During adulthood, the ability to draw on the earlier functions of the holding environment helps maintains a stable sense of self.  People who lacked an emotionally adequate mother who could not create this holding environment will more often find themselves feeling anxious, insecure, and emotionally isolated. Destructive messages from dysfunctional parents further enhance feelings of low-self worth and a feeling of not really belonging on the planet.  These relentless negative feelings about self and others result in a frenzied search for a drug that creates a holding environment to compensate for this lack of a secure sense of self and to rid oneself of unwanted and uncomfortable feeling states.
Addictive behaviors may represent attempts to find a holding environment, to somehow create for oneself some good-enough mothering that was largely missing in early development.  The choice of a specific drug may be a compulsive attempt to find exactly the right way to be held – to be soothed, to be comforted – to be re-assured.  The addict wants particular associations that will re-create a holding environment in just the right way that replicates some aspect of a childhood trauma.

The addict tries to use the euphoric feeling of being under the influence of drugs as a holding environment that supplies these longed-for states of being worthy, loveable, secure and unafraid.  However, the attempt is doomed.  The quest often becomes a futile and meaningless search for relatedness and wholeness.  Each failure to sustain the euphoria of this fantasized world where he can be the person he’s always wanted to be is anchored in unmet childhood needs.  When reality steps in with the inevitable unwanted consequences of addiction, the self is further devalued.

The addict may initially experience a sense of being held or satisfied, but when the trance is broken he feels dropped, disappointed and disillusioned – all feelings that harken back to the earliest disappointment of not being adequately held by the mother.
The use of a hypnotherapeutic trance in therapy enables the person to experience a valuing, ego-enhancing, resourceful trance state that may enable him to find a way to be held that leads to constructive, rather than destructive consequences.  These messages of self-worth, self-value, the ability to inhibit impulses and to bring to bear already existing resources onto the addictive behavior, are received at a deeper, unconscious level and have significant potential to effect personality change at a profound level.

Most addicts I know hate to be alone.  They often experience feelings of self-loathing, shame and emptiness following acting out.  The trance state has been broken; the holding environment has failed, just as it failed in the original child/infant bond.  Effective hypnotherapy helps the client to find parts of the self that sustain or restore the sense of self so that aloneness is tolerated without the concomitant drug seeking..  When trance states are co-created as a cooperative effort of both therapist and client, the patient can potentially experience trance as a calming and self-valuing experience in the context of a supportive and sustaining relationship to a therapist.

Hypnosis is also used to re-train the client’s neurology to increase the ability to tolerate unpleasant affects/feelings that are often triggers for acting out.  Moreover, hypnotherapy affords a process of age-regression and re-framing that allows for reparation of the original trauma of not being adequately held by an emotionally sustaining mother.

This article was written by Dorothy C. Hayden, LCSW.  To learn more about Dorothy, please see her listing on The Healing Directory by clicking HERE

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