Hypnotising pupils in schools: addressing anxiety, fear and anger

First posted on Tales From The Reach on 28 May 2018 and then the Herts & Bucks TSA blog on 1 June 2018.

When I heard that my school was introducing hypnotherapy to help some of our pupils cope better with stress and other emotional issues, I was somewhat cynical. My knowledge of hypnotherapy extended no further than TV shows like Penn and Teller. Nonetheless, as the Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett argues in Hypnosis in Popular Media, the portrayal of hypnosis in popular culture is generally based on misleading stereotypes that pay little attention to any positive application of hypnotherapy. Subsequently, after seeing the positive impact it has had on some of our pupils, I have to admit that my cynicism was misplaced.

What is hypnotherapy?

The central aim of hypnotherapy is to create a heightened state of personal awareness through the use of tried and tested relaxation techniques. As the person becomes more relaxed, they enter a state of hypnosis, which – despite its connotations – is merely a semi-conscious state that dampens the distractions of external stimuli, such as the often noisy and chaotic school environment.

In this trance like state, a pupil can be guided by the therapist to focus on specific thoughts or issues that may be hindering their learning, affecting their behaviour or impacting on their emotional well-being. This is because the hypnosis facilitates a more open discussion and, in turn, allows the therapist and pupil to uncover any difficult feelings or memories that their conscious minds may bypass or suppress. Once in the state of hypnosis, the therapist may suggest practical solutions for avoiding negative behaviours or various coping strategies for difficult situations that the pupil might find themselves in.

Therefore, hypnotherapy can be used to help pupils struggling with stress, anxiety, anger and controlling their emotions. However, it is important to stress that pupils are fully in control of the sessions and can ask for it to be stopped at anytime. Moreover, therapists will discuss the process of hypnosis with the pupil beforehand; this will include agreeing what the pupil hopes to achieve by undergoing the therapy and what methods will be used to help them deal with the issues they are trying to address; these methods can include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), as well as guided imagery, suggestion therapy and mindfulness.

Is there any evidence to back it up?

Although many question the efficacy of hypnotherapy and a number of studies into its effectiveness have been inconclusive, the use of cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy (CBH), which combines CBT with hypnosis, has been found to have some effectiveness on improving emotional wellbeing. Whereas research has regularly shown that the use of CBT in schools can reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety in pupils, a meta-analysis of various studies found a 70% “greater reduction” for patients suffering from acute stress after receiving hypnotherapy than those only receiving CBT. There is also emerging empirical evidence, which needs to be confirmed by larger scale clinical trials, suggesting that hypnotherapy may be effective for a wide variety of other psychological conditions, including depression and anxiety. Nonetheless, this does not mean that there is in anyway a consensus on the effectiveness of hypnotherapy in schools and many practicing hypnotherapists would welcome more conclusive and scientific studies into its impact on pupils’ well-being.

Pupil feedback

In a similar vein to counselling, what pupils discuss with their hypnotherapist is confidential and not shared with school staff; it is up to the pupil to implement any suggestions made by the hypnotherapist and whether they continue with the sessions. However, the pupils who I am responsible for pastorally do suggest that the therapy has benefitted them immensely, with many saying it has helped them cope with stress, anxiety or anger issues more than any of the other interventions we have put in place to help them.

A word of caution

However, it is important to note that our hypnotherapist was recommended to us and had worked successfully in schools with a number of my colleagues. Therefore, any schools considering using a hypnotherapist should be aware that it is not a well regulated field. It is important to check the therapist’s experience of working with children and people with psychological conditions. Schools should also ensure they only work with hypnotherapists that are part of a professional body, such as the National Council for Hypnotherapy and, of course, that that the therapist is DBS checked and has had safeguarding training. Moreover, as with all therapists and counsellors in schools, it is essential they become part of any multi-disciplinary team overseeing a pupils’ wellbeing.

Featured image from Pixabay and used under a Creative Commons Licence. 

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