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Help for quitting

Diana Fong, Cologne
January 6, 2015

The pledge to stop smoking ranks among the top 10 New Year resolutions. An unusual tool for quitting is hypnotherapy. One ex-smoker who tried it suddenly lost his desire to light up, after only one session.

Burning cigarette with smoke on black background
Image: Fotolia/nikkytok

Smokers know that tobacco use is linked to cancer and heart disease. However, it's not the rational, cognitive mind that keeps the nicotine habit in place - but rather, the recesses of the unconscious. And these can be reached through hypnosis.

In Germany, hypnosis has been recognized as a treatment method in the field of psychotherapy since 2006 - but it still suffers from an image problem. This can be linked to how the practice of hypnotherapy is often confused with stage hypnosis, where a subject might be instructed to gulp down half-a-dozen raw eggs in front of a television audience and then have no memory of it afterwards.

"In stage hypnosis, a person is in such a deep trance that cognitive thinking is switched off," explained Bonn hypnotherapist Norbert Schick. "Less than a third of all adults are capable of being hypnotized to that extent - it's like a blackout," continued Schick, who has been helping clients overcome their fears and addictions for the past 20 years.

Bridge from conscious to unconscious

By contrast, a smoker undergoing hypnotherapy to stop smoking is keenly aware of what's happening around him or her.

"It is a natural state that everyone is capable of. When you're deeply engrossed in a great book or film, you're in a state of hypnosis," Schick said.

A woman in a hypnotic state, concentrated with her eyes closed
When someone enters a trance-like state, the hypnotist is able to communicate with the unconscious mind

The mind knows that it is watching a fictional film with actors playing characters, but is able to suspend disbelief for two hours in a dark movie theater.

"In this trance-like state, the hypnotist communicates with the mind. You laugh, you cry, emotions swell, and the unconscious opens up," Schick added.

Where there's a will, there's a way

Cologne lawyer Jochen Gerhard, 58, had smoked at least a pack a day for 40 years until he quit cold turkey two years ago. In spite of coronary bypass surgery in his forties, Gerhard continued to smoke until his doctor gave him a hypothetical but realistic ultimatum: Quit smoking or die of a heart attack. The doctor then recommended a local hypnotherapist.

"At that point, my will to quit was so great I said, okay, I'll try it," said Gerhard, who had nothing to lose except the 150 euros ($180) cost of a day-long group session.

Gerhard was at first skeptical about hypnosis - especially when the day started with the hypnotherapist giving a pep talk like a Baptist preacher in a revival church.

"He shouted and kept repeating: You don't want to smoke anymore! You can quit, you are strong! And we shouted back, 'Yes, we can, we are strong!'" he said.

The motley group of young and old, men and women, were shown images of a smoker's lungs blackened by tar and yellow tobacco-stained teeth, among other grisly photos. Afterwards, they went outside to smoke their last cigarette.

Pack of cigarettes with a health warning depicted (Photo: Jonas Güttler/dpa)
The European Union strengthened tobacco product regulation in 2014Image: picture-alliance/dpa

From skeptical to convinced

When they returned to the gym, they lay down on mats to soft soothing music. The lights went out and a candle was lit to induce a hypnotic state.

"I wondered if it wasn't all just hocus-pocus - but I tried to put aside those thoughts and concentrate on the hypnotist's voice," Gerhard said. "He kept repeating what he'd said earlier, but this time very slowly and emphatically."

Then it was over, the lights went back up, and Gerhard threw out his remaining pack of cigarettes.

"Since then, I've not had the urge to smoke. I don't miss it. I can't explain it," Gerhard said.

The test of Gerhard's resistance to cigarettes came last Christmas when he and his wife Sabine spent the holidays with his relatives, who are all heavy smokers. "He didn't light up at all," said Sabine Gerhard, who had lived through Jochen's previous failed attempts to quit.

"He used to be a nervous wreck (without cigarettes) - but now he behaves like a normal, emotionally balanced person," she said.

Reprogramming the mind

Hypnotherapist Norbert Schick explained what happens during hypnotherapy: "It's like reprogramming the unconscious mind. The cigarette becomes less and less appealing until the smoker is indifferent to it."

A woman hypnotizes man with a swinging watch (Photo: Sinisa Botas - Fotolia)
Hypnotherapy gets a bad rap, as some confuse it with stage hypnosisImage: Fotolia/S. Botas

First attempts to quit smoking often fail - but it's not addiction to nicotine that keeps smokers from quitting, since the quickly metabolized chemical leaves the body in a matter of days.

Martina Pötschke-Langer, head of the cancer prevention unit of the German Cancer Research Center, describes how a smoker's mind must be primed for quitting. "Quitting is a mental decision, and if a person is not ready, then no method will be successful," Pötschke-Langer told DW.

"More than 80 percent of people quit without any support or methods. They decide they want to quit, and they do it," she said, adding that less than 1 percent of all ex-smokers in

Germany had used hypnosis to quit smoking.

"There is no recommendation by medical associations for hypnosis as an appropriate method to quit smoking," Pötschke-Langer said. But she conceded that in individual cases, hypnosis may help smokers kick the habit - depending on the skill and qualifications of the hypnotherapist.

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