Alcoholism and Hypnosis

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There’s an interesting video and seminar being sold to train people on using hypnosis to treat alcoholism.

The seminar is put out by Wendi Friesen. I ran into it through a group that uses hypnosis for entertainment, and was a bit shocked to find this offered as a way for otherwise untrained individuals to treat addiction.

What's the law?

I was surprised to learn that hypnosis treatments are largely unregulated (varies by state) and the extent of the claims made. For example, while dismissing AA and other programs as largely worthless, hypnosis is touted as “creating a new identity” that makes someone think he or she isn't an addict or an alcoholic. How many treatments? As few as one. That’s right, one treatment to cure addiction. That’s the exception, with most hypnotherapists selling CDs for use at home on a maintenance basis.

Techniques used are visualization – “imagine yourself how you are a year from now, clean and sober...” – and other “frame-shifting” commonly found in hypnotherapy. And none of this requires a degree in psychology or psychiatry.

According to the Hypnosis Union, the majority of the United States exert little or no direct regulation over the practice of hypnosis or hypnotherapy, although other laws generally affecting the operation of any business will usually apply (e.g., truth in advertising, unfair business practices, etc.). Only three states require specific, mandatory licensure or regulation: Colorado, Connecticut and Washington.

Does it work?

“Instead of making people want it, we let people go to a place in their brain where they are powerful and create a completely different reaction. Feeling really good about who you are and reinforcing that belief that you are a healthy person…”

Listening to a story about one, 12-minute session curing someone of a 13-year addiction to cocaine seems incredible. The old saying comes to mind: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” And the immediate reaction is: If this is so great, why isn’t everyone already doing it? Is there some nefarious conspiracy that keeps an actual, wonderfully successful treatment out of the hands of addiction specialists?

What makes me suspicious is the way “nero-pathways” and other scientific terms are mixed with generalities and anecdotes. So what do the experts say about it?

The easiest thing to check is for hypnosis used to quit smoking. According to the Mayo Clinic, under the heading “Methods to avoid” because there is no scientific evidence that these products work and little is known about their safety:

Hypnosis. Although no evidence supports the use of hypnosis in smoking cessation, some people say they find it helpful. If you choose to pursue hypnosis, talk to your doctor about finding a reputable hypnotherapist.

So why are they allowed to market this?

In the United States, if you do not claim to treat or cure a disease, you can market whatever you want, as long as it isn’t harmful. And even when you do imply or even state clearly that your treatment helps, it’s so low on the list of things law enforcement is interested in prosecuting, it might as well be legal.

According to the video linked earlier: “We don’t call them treatment centers. These are 'relapse prevention' [she actually makes air quotes on that phrase]. Cause we’re not getting people off alcohol or drugs, because that’s legally not something you are allowed to do.”

And there you have it. I can push any unproven therapy I like, as long as I don’t claim I’m offering a medical treatment – even if, you know, nudge-wink…

I have nothing against Wendi Friesen. She seems competent and responsible. And she is offering to “train the trainers” – those who already are certified in addiction treatment. But for every responsible hypnotherapist, there may be dozens who aren’t. Without strong regulation on the hypnosis industry, there’s simply no way to tell.

The best bet, for those wanting to try hypnosis themselves, is to first look at other qualifications to treat addiction, with hypnosis as a sub-specialty or added skill. Another tip would be to ask for a referral or find someone “in-network” that your health insurance recognizes as a trained professional.

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