Using the Imagination to Heal

By Célie Dugand

“My hypnotherapist saved my life. He got me through the worst phase,” asserts entrepreneur Brigitte Cardinal. Hypnosis is mainly known for its spectacular stage shows. But did you know that it can also be a form of alternative medicine? This technique, called therapeutic hypnosis or hypnotherapy, is becoming more and more common.  

For the Cardinals it’s a family matter. Everything started with Brigitte’s husband. He was suffering repeated panic attacks. Friends recommended hypnosis. Even though he was very sceptical, he tried it, with hypnotherapist Pierre Bouillon.

The benefits were instantaneous. He recommended this technique to his daughter, who was burdened by post-traumatic stress disorder and fearful of flying in airplanes; and to his wife, who was undergoing a very stressful period.

“Sports helped calm me,” recalls Brigitte, “but it wasn’t enough. I was against medication. I didn’t want to throw in the towel and take antidepressants.”

With hypnotherapy, Boullion explains: “In conventional therapy, the person’s intellect is called upon. You deal with their will to change. But hypnotherapy uses imagination and feelings.”  

A Process

There are several possible approaches. Bouillon is very direct. He discusses things with the patient beforehand. The therapeutic relationship is very important because it encourages the patient to deliver the goods. The hypnotherapist can talk of things the patient can relate to as he draws them into the realm of the imagination.

Bouillon then plunges the patient into a hypnotic state. This technique gets around the brain’s prefrontal lobe, which corresponds to the faculty of understanding and analyzing, and gets straight to the limbic system, where behavior and emotions are centred.    

“At first it was bizarre,” admits Brigitte. “I wondered if I’d been hypnotized. Then you let things proceed, you follow his voice and concentrate on what he’s saying.  You hear nothing else except Pierre.”

Bouillon appeals to the patient’s imagination and underlying impulses. For example, he might invite someone suffering from a fear of airplanes to mentally take that mode of transport and stay calm. That gets the patient to associate a state with an idea: “A feeling is always stronger than an idea, since it’s sensorial and emotional. The subconscious makes no distinction between imagination and reality, so for that patient, airplanes are no longer dangerous.”    

The same technique is used to treat both phobias and addictions. “If someone wants to quit smoking so that they can start running, I give them the image of them running with their dog. I use things from their own life. If I talk to them about their partner or their dog, and everything is turned into images. That’s why you have to pay attention to the person’s life story.”


The effects are immediate. Brigitte says: “When you leave a session, you have the impression of walking on a cloud. You feel good and calm, like you’re waking up from a nap. Nothing else has brought me the same results.” What’s more, her daughter no longer has a fear of flying on airplanes.

Hypnotherapy is widely promoted as a way to get people to stop smoking. But according to a U.K.-New Zealand review of different studies, there is no proof that hypnotherapy is more effective than counselling people to quit. Hypnotherapists point to studies that show results above and beyond those registered by other forms of treatment.

Bouillon points out that hypnotherapists aren’t doctors. They can’t cure diseases. But they can help people battle their addictions and phobias.

The Cardinal family goes back and visits Bouillon from time to time, when they feel the need. Brigitte, for example, makes an appointment whenever she feels her stress levels rising or she has physical tension she can’t seem to bring down.

Sometimes she doesn’t even have to make an appointment to calm herself. Her sessions with Bouillon have taught her to self-hypnotize. “The more you go and see Pierre, the more you learn to settle down, to breathe, to put yourself in the right condition. My subconscious thinks about everything he’s told me during those high stress periods. It’s a question of mental work. We have to reprogram our minds to reach our goals.”   

Not a Show

Hypnosis may scare some, but Bouillon is reassuring: “There is never a loss of control, there’s always an acceptance. Your free will is still there, and you won’t give me your PIN number if I ask for it. A little voice inside your head keeps you on your guard.”

Certain people do some pretty spectacular things when put under hypnosis. But that’s because they have been selected for their high receptivity. They remain conscious and hear the voice of the hypnotizer. They simply put up no resistance.

“When you find a good hypnotherapist,” argues Brigitte, “you understand that it’s rational and concrete. It’s not a spectacle, and it’s not occult. People judge hypnosis, but I don’t. Instead of choking your symptoms with pharmaceuticals, you deal with your problems at the source.”

In France, hypnotherapists work in a large number of hospitals as a way of offering alternative treatments. Bouillon hopes this is a trend that will catch on in Quebec hospitals in the years to come.     

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