Hypnotherapy and Functional Neurological Discorder
Updated: Jul 6, 2022
I cowrote this article with Alison Hayes who has been living with FND (Functional Neurological Disorder) since 2000. Over the years she has found and explored many treatment options, many of which helped to some degree, however she has never been symptom free more than a few days at a time.
Alison had read about hypnosis and FND treatment, when she met me it clicked that I might be able to help her manage her symptoms.
what is FND?
I had never heard of FND until I met Alison, a bubble of fun, very aware and in tune with her own condition, who wanted to learn self-hypnosis methods to de-stress and relax.
As I discovered, functional neurological disorder (FND) is a strange disorder, difficult to identify or classify, that can affect people in different ways.
Having FND means you can suffer from uncontrollable physical movements, spasms, or vocalizations.
You may also experience unexplained pain or numbness or tiredness or epileptic-type seizures.
The number of ways this disorder can manifest itself is long and differs with each individual and can also change for each individual over time. As well as this, different triggers can spark off symptoms in each person.
FND has been compared to most neurological conditions, the most recent being Tourettes.
There is no known neurological explanation for this disorder.
It’s as if somewhere between the mind and the action the communication has dropped out.
What causes it? What can stop it? Why are there so many different symptoms? Why do these symptoms shift and change within each individual?
Questions with no answers.
The unpredictability of the disorder, its myriad ways of manifesting itself, and the fact there is no one cause or cure can understandably lead to low mood, low self-confidence, and increased levels of stress, and anxiety for those who live with it daily.
Alison: why i chose hypnosis
Neurologists have been able to identify that trauma in some form is often responsible for FND symptoms starting. It seem to be a maladaptive response in an attempt to protect the person with FND from the trauma they’ve experienced.
This condition is still frequently misdiagnosed by neurologists and too many patients experience medical gaslighting and are accused of malingering.
I was grateful when I met Morag to realize that she was entering without any of those preconceptions, and by guiding her towards quality information resources about the condition, she was quickly able to understand my treatment goals.
My primary goal is to help settle my nervous system out of fight-or-flight mode and relax.
Meditation was helpful for that, but I felt that hypnosis could help take that progress to the next level, with me able to enter a relaxed state more quickly and easily and able to calm my symptoms or even prevent them from starting.
How it started – Morag‘s perspective
When you relax completely your stress levels drop, your breathing calms, and your muscles soften. Your mind and body can hit the pause button and reset, as you naturally recharge your batteries. You can move from the flight and flight mode that Alison mentioned above to one of rest and restore.
Once in this calm and peaceful state, you can practice techniques to help self-regulate your emotions and physical tension, and in so doing gain greater self-mastery. This often has the delightful spillover effect of improving your self-confidence and helps you feel more positive about life in general.
When you live with FND you may feel you have no control over your body as it doesn’t respond as you want it to, or indeed as it used to. You lose trust in it. Hypnotherapy can help you rediscover that trust.
Alison: my expectations
I knew that others with FND had found relief with hypnosis, and I understood the basics of the mechanisms.
I knew from experience that treatments that end up helping me often trigger symptoms while I first use them. I remember working with a pelvic floor physical therapist and being symptomatic at points during treatment, and sometime my legs collapsed from under me as I left her office.
I had a similar experience with meditation.
Initially, my attempts to meditate were interrupted by violent severe movements, my body jackknifing or rolling violently back and forth, or having full body spasms.
I’ve learned over time that treating my movement symptoms the same way as I treated all other distractions worked.
I expected something similar for hypnosis, so I knew that I needed to find somebody knowledgeable in hypnosis and very accepting of how my condition worked so that they would be able to maintain their calm as my body freaked out.
Morag: hynosis and Hypnotherapy
Hypnosis is a state or mindset of deep, focused yet relaxed concentration. You close off to everything else around you as you focus on a particular situation, behaviour or feeling. You suspend reality as your imagination opens out maybe beyond your usual boundaries.
Hypnosis is something that everyone can learn to do, it’s completely natural and safe.
You are active in the hypnosis process, it’s something that you do and not something that is done to you as you remain passive. You need to work!
Hypnotherapy is a collaborative process in which you allow yourself to follow the guidance of the therapist. The hypnotherapist’s suggestions let you explore and rehearse different feelings, thoughts and behaviours in your imagination in order to help you overcome your current challenges in real life.
Hypnotherapy is often used as an effective technique to help manage chronic or acute pain, feelings of stress or anxiety, overcome certain sleeping disorders, help conquer unwanted habits and help treat certain stress-related illnesses. It can also be used to gain confidence in certain areas such as public speaking or sports performances.
In a nutshell, when you rehearse situations, feelings, and behaviours in your imagination, you discover that you can make significant shifts in your real life. This is quite mind-blowing in many ways, and yet so hopeful and welcoming.
As we said earlier, when you have FND a connection between the mind and what you want the body to do has broken somewhere.
Hypnotherapy is a tool that can help you build a bridge to repair some of the brokenness.
Alison : research on Hypnosis and FND
Because FND tends to be very responsive to stress, treatments that reduce stress often help reduce symptoms. Hypnosis is a recognized treatment for FND and can be very successful for patients.
In hypnosis we enter a dissociative (“a disruption or discontinuity in the normal integration of consciousness, identity, emotion, perception, body representation, motor control, and behavior” DSM) state, which is the same mechanism that’s broken for folks with FND.
With FND, our symptoms are the product of uncontrolled, unintentional disassociation. Hypnosis is the process of intentionally entering that state in a controlled way, with purpose.
It focuses on managing the mechanism that causes the symptoms, which means that we don’t need to recognize the triggers or treat those initial causes, but can experience the dissociative process and regain control over symptoms.
I’ve practiced mindfulness for years to try to better manage my FND symptoms, and I’ve heard it explained that hypnosis and mindfulness are basically opposite ends of the same spectrum of altered states.
Morag : the sessions
And so, we started our journey together. Originally we had three sessions booked, with the objective of giving Alison tools to achieve deep relaxation.
We worked online via zoom. This meant that Alison could set herself up comfortably in her own space and not worry about having to negotiate traveling to and from an appointment.
During our first session, Alison’s symptoms were quite severe, she had warned me that this could happen, just hang on in there she said, I’ll be alright!
It was the idea, the words, and the emotions around relaxation that triggered her body spasms. It was as if her body was fighting against the idea of relaxing.
Alison : the sessions
I used to get frustrated with this.
I’d reached a point of having hours to days at a time symptom-free, but whenever I’d do the exercises, my symptoms would come out.
While doing a course on Mindfulness-based stress reduction and doing some further research into FND, I realized that my symptoms were emerging in part because of my own anxieties about symptoms occurring.
I also was letting down my guard, so to speak, by relaxing, and releasing a tether on symptoms that I wasn’t consciously aware of.
Shifting my mind to recognize that my symptoms were just another part of my body’s existence, and feeling neutral about it, I found that my movement symptoms would decrease in duration and intensity both as the meditation or hypnosis session went on (and my mind-body got used to it) and with practice (as I started to meditate or run a self-hypnosis recording daily).
Whenever I am doing something new and different, my symptoms shoot up, but then they calm down with processes like this, and often I’d find that I’d be symptom-free as I moved into more relaxed states.
After our three sessions together we observed that hypnotherapy was allowing Alison to gain more control over some of her FND symptoms.
We decided to continue the sessions and see how hypnotherapy could help Alison feel less pain, gain more mastery over certain symptoms and simply feel better.
As Alison practiced the exercises we did together and deepened her self-hypnosis skills, her confidence grew and her self-belief and trust blossomed.
From the outside, It was a privilege to see Alison gaining control over her body.
Over the course of our sessions, her body became more and more responsive to calm and stillness.
Part of my morning routine was to play one of the self-hypnosis recordings.
I’d lie back in my bed and listen, putting myself into that dissociative state, and would relax more deeply, adjust my pain dial, or whatever else the exercise was focused on.
I could hear the sound of my legs pounding the bed, or my body thrashing around the first time I did the exercise, but in each session, my actual symptoms in the moment were less severe, more manageable, or simply nonexistent.
It gave me a sense of pride, knowing that I wasn’t having those symptoms anymore.
Morag: the outcome
Over the course of 4 months, this is what Alison achieved.
The ability to relax deeply and completely with no or very minor interfering disruptive movements. She can now benefit from the healing power of mental and physical calm.
She can lower the intensity of a persistent and annoying pain sensation in her leg and keep it in the background of her life.
Alison uses a physical gesture that is connected with certain happy, confident, strong memories (an anchor) when she walks, and this has greatly reduced a physical limping symptom.
I had learned a whole lot about this disorder and just totally admired Alison’s determination to find ways to manage it more.
We have no way of knowing if the improvements will last or not or if different symptoms will appear.
However, the skills and techniques that self-hypnosis, hypnotherapy, visualization, and relaxation can offer will stand Alison in good stead, not only for all things FND-related but also for other goals, positive energy, and general well-being.
Alison: the longer-term outlook
Morag and I finished our sessions in November 2021. It’s now April 2022.
I maintained the habit of using the recordings we made to help me get back into a relaxed state, and as needed to regain control over the symptoms for months, though I’ve had a few periods where I didn’t maintain the practice as much.
I may have symptoms for the first few minutes of any exercise, which I view as an adjustment period. The longer my breaks between sessions, the longer it may take for my body to quiet.
I view these symptoms as my body’s way of blowing off steam, but I’m usually completely still much more quickly than I used to be before using hypnosis.
The numbness/pain in my leg isn’t as constant as it used to be and I’m better able to reduce the severity on the rare occasions when it flares.
I’m grateful to have this additional arsenal of tools to help me manage my FND.
I have noticed an uptick in symptoms over the past several months, during which I’ve been less focused on maintaining my meditation and self-hypnosis exercises, and I also have had several major changes in that time, including a medication adjustment that I knew could increase my symptoms.
I still have fewer symptoms than I had before Morag and I began our work together.
My goal with my FND is to improve my management, minimize bad symptom days and live my life as freely as possible, and I’ve found hypnosis to be another useful and supportive tool in that process.
Morag: finding the right hypnotherapist
When you decide to choose a hypnotherapist here are a few things to consider.
Do you want to have sessions in person or online?
There is no right or wrong, both options are valid. However, your choice of therapist will be less and may even be nonexistent if you live in a more remote, rural location.
There are several kinds of hypnotherapy. Hypnosis is in fact a technique that is connected with therapy. Here are the main three schools of hypnotherapy.
Cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy integrates CBT with hypnosis. It focuses on identifying and changing the beliefs, emotional behaviour and thoughts that are keeping your challenge/problem in place.
Ericksonian hypnotherapy or NLP uses indirect suggestion, metaphor and storytelling to alter behaviour, rather than direct suggestion.
Hypnoanalysis is connected with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy and is interested in uncovering the originating cause of the problem or challenge you face.
Most therapists offer a free initial chat – use this as an opportunity to ask questions and get a feel for the person. How do you feel talking with them, what do they spark in you? Read through the website and the testimonies, watch any video testimonies.
And then ….. make a decision!
Alison : Conclusion
FND occurs much more commonly than most people think, and it needs to be treated appropriately.
While there are some treatments out there of dubious value, hypnotherapy is a proven tool for managing FND and it can help you to manage your symptoms.
You need to be sure that you feel comfortable with your hypnotherapist, as while hypnotherapy isn’t mind control, you aren’t going to get much out of the session if you are instinctively fighting against their suggestions.
You want to have the option of multiple sessions and work with the understanding that the process may take some time.
Hypnotherapy helps you to break mental habits by exploring options or practicing control. While your symptoms may increase during treatment, I’ve often found that in the long run, symptoms are reduced.
We all deserve to be happy and have better control over our symptoms.
Hypnotherapy is definitely a tool I’d recommend exploring to help manage your FND.