Let's face it: The stress of coping with this pandemic is overwhelming. Not only are anxiety levels spiking, but directly experiencing Covid-19 can be traumatic and lead to long-term effects on mental health. And people are struggling to cope. Can hypnosis be an effective method to help overcome the trauma?
Pandemics are traumatic
Pandemics are nothing new. Over the past 12,000 years, pandemics are estimated to have killed between 300 and 500 million people worldwide. During the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague was responsible for the deaths of more than 60% of the population of Europe. During the past year alone, almost 2.5 million people have already succumbed to the virus, and that's only the ones we know about. According to recent reports by the South African National Blood Service (SANBS), it seems that far more people in South Africa have been infected by Covid-19 than the official figures indicate. According to the South African Medical Research Council, the annual death rate is also much higher than usual, which suggests that the current pandemic may be having a far more devastating effect than we realise.
Not only is it affecting the health and wellbeing of millions, but the lockdown has resulted in economic devastation too. With more than 30% of South Africans now officially unemployed (and again, that number is probably much higher than the official figures), and with businesses closing and people dependent on meager state grants to keep them alive, a large majority of the population is experiencing an overwhelming number of stressors.
Three groups of trauma
The psychological trauma for people exposed to infectious disease epidemics is of a particular kind and falls broadly into three groups.
Firstly there are those who directly experience and suffer from the symptoms of the disease and the trauma of treatment. People with severe Covid-19 may experience shortness of breath (dyspnea), respiratory failure, urinary and fecal incontinence, alteration of conscious states, a threat of death, tracheotomy, and more. This results in physical trauma, especially for those who land up in ICUs, hooked up to ventilators, and in some cases suffering from long-form Covid. For some 35% of patients who spend time in an ICU, this may lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Secondly, the trauma affects those who are witnessing patients suffering and, in many cases, dying from the viral infection. Other patients in a Covid ward may be impacted by it, as well as healthcare workers and the family members of patients.
Thirdly there are those of us who may fear the risk of infection, and it doesn't matter if that fear is real or not. Apart from this fear, the lockdown has also forced us into isolation where we are excluded and even in some cases stigmatised. This is having a negative impact on the mental health of literally millions of people, whether they realise it or not.
Just like in past epidemics of infectious diseases such as SARS, MERS, Ebola, the common flu, and even during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, we can expect a high level of mental health problems among not only the survivors and their families but also medical professionals and members of the general public.
For some, the trauma will be short-lived and it won't have a long-term effect on their mental health. The majority of people will recover from their trauma within thirty days and so not go on to develop PTSD. Of concern though is the lasting effect this may have on certain people. Research has shown that between 21 - 40% of healthcare workers may develop PTSD and that the symptoms may persist for 3 years or more. Covid-19 survivors may suffer the same fate, with almost 50% of them possibly prone to the debilitating effects of PTSD. There are even reports of teachers showing symptoms of PTSD because they have lost work colleagues due to Covid-19.
Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD is the result of a traumatic event when the person continually lives in the shadow of that past trauma.
Some of the symptoms of PTSD include recurring thoughts and intrusive memories of the trauma suffered. Some people may experience flashbacks or have nightmares. It is common for people who have experienced traumatic events to try and avoid anything that might remind them of the events that traumatised them. They may experience negative moods such as feelings of guilt or anger. In some cases they may even have increased arousal, resulting in a lack of sleep or hyper-vigilance.
Individuals who have what is called a "lifetime trauma load" are more prone to developing PTSD. These include those with a history of childhood trauma such as physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse while growing up. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men.
Whether it's anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide, or full-blown PTSD, it is clear that this pandemic is having a detrimental effect on mental health which, if left untreated, may result in issues and problems that may last for many years to come.
In order to address this major mental health issue, there are several interventions that can be made. Healthcare workers will for instance have to address burnout. A solution might be to rotate staff away from high-risk areas, as well as ensuring the safety of their family members. Self-care needs to become a priority. Taking regular breaks and having access to information is crucial, as is being excused from non-essential tasks and having open communication with their managers.
Covid-19 survivors may need a variety of interventions. Some may need management of chronic pain while others may need to address their psychological problems. Indeed, reports are surfacing of people developing fears and phobias, such as claustrophobia, from being attached to ventilators, or being afraid to be left alone for short periods of time. Even something as simple as going to the bathroom may become severely stressful.
And so mental health professionals are going to have their hands full with the fallout from this pandemic. And while therapies such as cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy may be useful in the emotional processing of the trauma, there is a therapy method that has for the past hundred years been proven to be most effective, but because of some stigmas attached to it, is largely ignored.
Hypnosis offers solutions
It was the French "magnetiser" Pierre Janet who first demonstrated the effectiveness of hypnosis in treating "hysterics" more than a hundred years ago. The "shell shock" of World War 1 and "combat exhaustion" of World War 2 were effectively treated using this method too. In fact, much has been learned about trauma and hypnosis as a treatment from war situations. And while the lessons learned led to PTSD being accepted as an official mental disorder in 1980, hypnosis has been mostly sidelined as an effective treatment method.
Unfortunately, hypnosis is still regarded with suspicion and as being "from the devil". This may be partly due to the way it has been portrayed in Hollywood movies and by stage hypnotists. What most people fail to realise is that hypnosis can have dramatic and lasting outcomes. It is a perfectly safe method that works by inducing relaxation to the point where the critical faculty is bypassed so that the problems can be addressed at a subconscious level. And by working at this deep, inner level, problems can be directly addressed through using imagination, memory, and emotions.
Hypnotherapy is scientifically proven as arguably the most effective and quickest way to treat trauma, specifically PTSD. New techniques that have recently been developed have added to the already many different ways in which PTSD can be addressed. In fact, it may take as few as six sessions for a professional hypnotherapist to help a client overcome this debilitating disorder. And the effects will be long-lasting, as the work is not merely taking place in the conscious mind. The subconscious mind is the domain of a skilled hypnotherapist, as this is where trauma lodges itself, leading to physical and mental afflictions.
According to research, hypnosis has several advantages when it comes to working with PTSD sufferers. For one, it may work because of its producing a dissociative state in the client. The aforementioned Pierre Janet first described the dissociation during or after the trauma as an indicator of a person developing PTSD. By using reframing techniques, hypnosis treatment can be tailored to the nature of the symptoms. Hypnosis is also a flexible form of treatment. Not only can it target the non-dissociative symptoms, but it can also directly address anxiety and emotional withdrawal. Furthermore, hypnosis can be integrated as an adjunct therapy with other approaches to treatment. Add to this the fact that it has been found that people who have PTSD are more highly hypnotisable than the general public, and it should be clear that hypnosis should and must step to the fore during this pandemic in order to offer solutions.
In fact, interviews with practicing hypnotherapists for a new podcast series are highlighting the fact that the number of trauma cases seen by hypnosis practitioners has increased dramatically and that more people than usual are opting for hypnosis as a preferred treatment method. Hypnosis is also well-proven for pain management and a slew of other issues and problems that may be associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Perhaps one of the benefits of this current pandemic is that hypnosis will finally shed its mantle as stage entertainment and step forward as a valid method of helping people solve very real problems. It is up to those who are suffering from the terrible effects of Covid-19 to seek out the help of a properly trained and experienced hypnotherapist in their area, so as to find lasting solutions that are natural, non-invasive, and empowering. And it is time for Hypnotherapists to step into the public domain and offer their services to the general public in a professional manner. In this way, we can start overcoming the trauma caused by Covid-19.
Hendrik Baird is a certified non-medical Hypnotherapist who helps people overcome their problems using advanced hypnotic techniques. His practice is in Centurion, Pretoria and his services are also available online. He can be contacted through hendrikbaird.com.