PARIS — They're sitting face to face, barely one meter separating the hypnotherapist from his patient. "You stare at the handle of the window behind me," the hypnotherapist says. "You don't look at anything else. Your eyes see only the bright reflection of this copper handle. You're settled comfortably in this armchair. You think only about looking at this fixed point, peacefully. When your vision becomes muddled, when looking at this point starts tiring you, if it’s OK for you, when you feel it, you'll close your eyes."

The woman's eyelids close and her right arm drops as she slips into a hypnotic trance. She's sitting straight, but she looks asleep, having succumbed to the therapist's slow, deep voice.

"You feel your body relaxing, your shoulders, your chest, your arms and your legs down to your feet," he says. "Your body is kind, it doesn't hurt you." The woman tilts her head very slightly, her jaw loosens, she seems far away, "within herself," as professionals say. It's the second time Marie (not her real name), herself a physician, has been hypnotized. She had tried everything before that.

"My body stings"

For the past five years, the pediatrician and medical professor has been struggling with a strange malady. "In the evening, when I go to sleep, my body stings, the itches are more and more intense, to the point that my skin can't bear the sheet anymore, as if it were a grater," she says. "I get up, I try to calm down. Sometimes, I manage to do so, but often, I don't sleep at all."

The energetic and organized woman describes it as "unbearable," explaining just how debilitating the symptoms are. After consulting half the university and trying countless sedatives, anti-inflammatories and other painkillers, she decided to try hypnosis. "I thought to myself it would be the last therapeutic resort once I'd run out of options."

The session described above happened not in the intimacy of a private doctor's office but in the main lecture hall at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, in front of more than 100 junior doctors undergoing hypnotherapy training. The icing on the cake is the exceptional presence of François Roustang, the French master of hypnosis.

On this particular spring day, the 92-year-old philosopher and former psychoanalyst participated in the lecture of Dr. Jean-Marc Benhaiem as part of the university's medical hypnotherapy degree. The program includes a live session and presentations of clinical cases by the students.

Right from the beginning, Roustang sets the tone: "There's no thought process or practicing in hypnosis," he says. "You don't prepare the leap. It's a total beginning. The very essence of the therapy is the moment where you're no longer aware of anything and where you can be aware of everything."

Enigmatic, like an old wizard, he observes "the therapeutic union" that's building on the stage between Marie and Benhaiem. The therapist's voice vibrates like a tantric chant in absolute silence.

French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot demonstrating hypnosis, 1887 painting by André Brouillet — Source: Wikimedia Commons

"Your body becomes empty," Benhaiem says. "It's an empty shell. You let go everything inside it, you feel well in this empty sheath. Your body is your ally. Through your arms, your legs, what disturbs you goes away, escapes, your body becomes light."

At this stage of the trance, Marie seems completely loose, relaxed. And she's actually not the only one. The voice has put much of the audience in a state of half-asleep. Some are even completely asleep.

Reaching the subconscious

"It's normal," Benahaiem explains later. "The hypnotherapy session starts with what is called induction. In other words, the relaxation preparation is what will allow the patient to go into trance. And everyone can take advantage of that. It's what happened in this lecture hall."

Once in a state of hypnotic trance, the body and mind are passive, consciousness is on standby. According to the theory of American psychiatrist and psychologist Milton Erickson, that's what makes reaching the subconscious possible. 

At this point of the session, Benhaiem's eyes are closed. He speaks to Marie, more and more slowly, about her relaxed state, her tranquility. As if they were alone. "It's precisely what's called the therapeutic union," he says later. "A session is a collaboration, a partnership, a commitment between the patient and the therapist to fulfill the goals that were set."

After 25 minutes, the therapist's voice returns to a normal rhythm. "You return here. One, two, three, you can open your eyes if you want to, relax your body, stretch your body. That's it, you're back."

What happened during this suspended period of time? And Marie, what does she feel at this very moment? We won't know right away because practitioners tend not to immediately debrief with their patients.

"It's a position I take," Benhaiem explains, "but it's mostly because the person remains numb for quite a while after the trance."

A mysterious process

Hypnosis is establishing itself more and more as a therapeutic tool, especially in the treatment against addictions (tobacco and food, in particular) and stress, but it's still enshrouded in a certain mystery. "It's precisely this lack of definition, this unknown, that gives the case all its chances," Roustang says.

Angélique, a young psychologist working in a retirement home, managed to bring a 73-year-old resident out of a several-months-long period of silence with a hypnonsis session. But, she notes, "without understanding why."

Roustang explains: "You created the union with this person. There was nothing at stake between you, no intention to succeed, not from you or from him."

Among the audience members, this seems obvious. Naida, a doctor and a geriatrician, describes the case of a patient who is being treated for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with antipsychotic medication. The patient had been tearing her hair out since the age of 16, to the point of creating bald spots in her scalp. "She knew I was training in hypnosis," Naida says. "She asked me to do a session with her."

A few weeks later, the patient no longer had bald spots on her scalp. And she was able to go off her meds. "I don't know what happened," Naida says. Roustang explains it to her. "You freed an indefinite period of time for her, an open space. Who knows if anyone had previously listened to her or heard her. You awakened her own decision inside her. It's exactly this empty space that allowed her to emerge and intervene for herself."

As for Marie? "The treatment of my problems without drugs reassured me," she says. "Hypnosis helped me become aware of my body and use the advice of the therapist to go to sleep or back to sleep. But, for now, my sensory problems are still there." 

The pediatrician has booked another appointment with Benhaiem for a third session, but a real one-to-one this time.