Can Catholics Use Hypnotherapy?

Sue from Pennsylvania asks about the use of hypnotherapy as well as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy to treat anxiety disorders.

Sue writes: “I have been struggling with anxiety disorder for three years after illness and a breakdown. I am getting much better, but have some hard work ahead of me. However, I rightfully lost faith in my last therapist and had to find a new one. Sadly, I do not have access to a Catholic therapist in my area. I had to start seeing a new secular therapist this past month. I have been making good strides, but he likes to use a form of hypnosis in order to open my mind and feed some positive thoughts. I told him I do not feel comfortable with hypnosis due to my faith. He has done some guided hypnosis on me and I feel so clear headed after, but after discovering he has been doing hypnosis, I have become leery of it. I do not want to be misled and have found various opinions on the subject in the Catholic circle. What should I do?

“What would Suzanne Barr’s say? What do you know about the subject? I am willing to stop it for the sake of protecting my soul.

“I also ask if you can tell me about EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy and its position in Catholic teaching. Is it right to disconnect emotions from memories?”

Sue raises many important issues surrounding the use of hypnosis in therapy.

First, it’s important to note that the Church has only issued a warning – not a condemnation – of hypnosis. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, citing the Response of the Holy Office of June 2, 1840, “She has condemned only abuses, leaving the way free for scientific research. ‘The use of magnetism, that is to say, the mere act of employing physical means otherwise permissible, is not morally forbidden, provided that it does not tend to an illicit end or one which may be in any manner evil.'”

As we all know, the openness to suggestion and subsequent behavioral implications of hypnosis have proven to be an irresistible temptation to a variety of charlatans and stage entertainers for many years. Unlike its legitimate medical uses, “stage” hypnosis can be very damaging when used by individuals for the purposes of staging a show. The danger of posthypnotic reactions is so real that several nations have banned all public displays of hypnosis.

The use of hypnosis by legitimate medical professionals was approved by the American Medical Association in 1958. Hypnotherapy is typically used as part of a broader treatment plan, rather than as a stand-alone therapy and is best known for helping people to change negative behaviors such as smoking and over-eating, and to conquer fears and anxiety.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are generally three types of hypnosis used:

The first is the most widely recognized form where the hypnotist leads the patient into a trance-like state by speaking gently. While in the trance, the hypnotist suggests ways to achieve a specific goal, such as quitting smoking, reducing pain, etc.

The second type of hypnosis involves bringing the patient into a hypnotic state, then stimulating their imagination by suggesting images to visualize. Called mental imagery, it’s a way to bring about what one wants to achieve. For instance, the athlete will visualize the performance they desire.

The third type is self-hypnosis, which is taught to a patient by a qualified hypnotherapist, and allows the patient to use the skill on their own to help themselves.

Sue sought the opinion of Suzanne Baars, M.A., ( a well-known counselor, marriage and family therapist and chemical dependency therapist, who is a great friend to the Women of Grace (R) ministry. Suzanne offered this advice about the use of hypnosis.

As far as hypnosis goes, of course if it’s used in a bad context, such as New Age concepts/activities, it’s going to be a tool for something harmful for people. However, my father used hypnosis (as do I) – which is always truly self-hypnosis anyway – to aid people to learn how to relax physically and mentally, so that they could be more amenable to new ways of thinking and being. It simply is learning how to be in a fully relaxed state. Frankly, in the hands of the right persons (i.e., Christians), it’s an excellent aid for those with anxiety disorders.

“Also, it’s important that people know that no one can be hypnotized without their consent, nor can they be coerced under hypnosis to do something they would not do in any other setting.  Naturally, it’s important that no one allow someone they do not trust to use hypnosis with them, as I do believe that the evil one can use that to his advantage – as he can many other things.”

Sue also asked about EMDR therapy, which Suzanne Baars was kind enough to explain to us:

“EMDR is simply a technique discovered by Francine Shapir some years ago.  She noticed that, as people recounted trauma, if their eyes moved in a particular way, it appeared that they did not experience the trauma as strongly anymore, and that it would eventually disappear as the person utilized this technique over time.  I’m not trained in it, but I’ve heard it is very helpful in treating PTSD and therefore also anxiety disorders.”

It should be noted that some scientific journals have published articles showing a link between EMDR and mesmerism. A peer-reviewed journal known as the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practices has also stated that studies of EMDR (e.g., Feske & Goldstein, 1997; Shapiro, 1989) have methodological limitations and problems.

One of the most egregious uses of hypnotherapy these days involves a practice known as past life regression therapy (PLRT) which uses hypnosis to allegedy help patients remember past lives. PLRT is one of several uses for the controversial recovered memory therapy, or RMT, which is also used to uncover suppressed memories of incest, satanic ritual abuse, space-alien abduction and regression into infancy.

Proponents of these practices are generally an eclectic mix of feminists, Christians, New Agers, and science fiction enthusiasts; however, in spite of its total lack of scientific evidence, 28 percent of U.S. therapists also subscribe to belief in PLRT/RMT.

Fortunately, professional medical associations such as the American Medical Association (AMA) have condemned the technique. In 1993, the AMA issued a statement saying that recovered memories are “of uncertain authenticity which should be subject to external verification. The use of recovered memories is fraught with problems of potential misapplication.”

The main problem with RMT, whether it be of a past life or alien abduction, is that it is relatively easy for a therapist to implant a false memory.

For this reason, many courts of law also refuse to accept testimony from people who have been hypnotized for purposes of “recovering” memories, “because such techniques can lead to confusion between imaginations and memories.”

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