Hypnotherapy and Imagery

By Mary-Joan Gerson, Ph.D.

At the Mind-Body Digestive Center, we have found that our group hypnotherapy program has been very successful in reducing IBS symptoms in our patients. This blog entry describes a recent article, “Using art therapy to help understand the imagery of irritable bowel syndrome and its response to hypnotherapy” by Carruthers HR, et al in International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnotherapy, February 2009.

  • What does IBS look like? A group of psychologists asked IBS sufferers to produce an image of their condition which would be painted in watercolor.
  • Who could produce an image of IBS? About half: women more often than men, very anxious people and those completely focused on their symptoms.
  • What were the most common images? The three most common images were blocked or sore intestines (15.1%), a knife stabbing the stomach (15.1%), and the stomach looking like a balloon or ball (9.4%).

The research group wondered how the ability to create painted images would predict successful hypnotherapy treatment and what images would look like afterwards. The results?

More patients who responded to hypnotherapy (57% versus 35%) could offer an image before hypnotherapy.

How did the images change afterwards?

  • After hypnotherapy, the most common images of IBS were a flowing river (27.9%), a dissolved or melted image (11.6%), and healthy intestines (11.6%).
  • Also before hypnotherapy, people had more detailed imagery of their IBS. Afterward, images became more colorful and non-specific.

People with any type of illness may often hold a visual interpretation of their symptoms. And what better way to capture subjective interpretation than through art?

Furthermore, since hypnotherapy treatment depends on guided imagery, patients entering this kind of treatment can work with hypnotherapists to design individual protocols, which suit their particular distress.