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Austrian physician, Franz Mesmer (1734–1815), is credited with being the first person to scientifically investigate the idea of hypnotherapy, in 1779, to treat a variety of health conditions. Mesmer studied medicine at the University of Vienna and received his medical degree in 1766. Mesmer is believed to have been the first doctor to understand the relationship of psychological trauma to illness. He induced a trance-like state, which became known as mesmerism, in his patients to successfully treat nervous disorders. These techniques became the foundation for modern-day hypnotherapy.

Mesmer's technique appeared to be quite successful in the treatment of his patients, but he was the subject of scorn and ridicule from the medical profession. Because of all the controversy surrounding mesmerism, and because Mesmer's personality was quite eccentric, a commission was convened to investigate his techniques and procedures. A distinguished panel of investigators including Benjamin Franklin, the French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, and physician Jacques Guillotin acknowledged that patients did seem to obtain noticeable relief from their conditions. Still, the whole idea was dismissed as being medical quackery.

 Pioneers in this field, such as James Braid and James Esdaile discovered that hypnosis could be used to successfully anesthetize patients for surgeries. James Braid accidentally discovered that one of his patients began to enter a hypnotic state while staring at a fixed light as he waited for his eye examination to begin. Since mesmerism had fallen out of favor, Braid coined the term hypnotism, which is derived from the Greek word for sleep. Braid also used the techniques of monotony, rhythm, and imitation to assist in inducing a hypnotic state.

Around 1900, there were very few preoperative anesthetic drugs available. Patients were naturally apprehensive when facing surgery. One out of four hundred patients would die, not from the surgical procedure, but from the anesthesia. Dr. Henry Munro was one of the first physicians to use hypnotherapy to alleviate patient fears about having surgery. He would get his patients into a hypnotic state and discuss their fears with them, telling them they would feel a lot better following surgery. Ether was the most common anesthetic at that time, and Dr. Munro found that he was able to perform surgery using only about 10% of the usual amount of ether.

 It took more than two hundred years for hypnotherapy to become incorporated into medical treatment. In 1955, the British Medical Association approved the use of hypnotherapy as a valid medical treatment, with the American Medical Association (AMA) giving its approval in 1958.

Hypnotherapy involves achieving a psychological state of awareness that is different from the ordinary state of consciousness.

Hypnotherapy is used in a number of fields including psychotherapy, surgery, dentistry, research, and medicine.

Hypnotherapy is commonly used as an alternative treatment for a wide range of health conditions, including weight control, pain management, and smoking cessation.

 Hypnotherapy is also useful in helping patients overcome phobias as well as those who wish to overcome bad habits.

 Hypnotherapy has been shown to help those who suffer from performance anxiety, such as in sports, and speaking in public. In academic applications, it has also been shown to help with learning, participating in the classroom, concentrating, studying, focusing, attention span, improving memory, and helping remove mental blocks about particular subjects.

In more general areas, hypnotherapy has been found to be beneficial for problems such as motivation, procrastination, decision making, personal achievement and development, job performance, relaxation, and stress management.