Hypnotherapy, Meditation, or Medication: Which Is Better?
Which is the best approach?
As therapists who integrate hypnosis and mindfulness into our practice, we’re often asked to weigh in on how these two approaches compare to each other, and what we think about the role of prescription medication.
It might come as a shock, but we DO support the use of medication and are not anti-pharmaceutical.
But as clinical psychologists working with hypnosis and mindfulness, shouldn’t we be entirely holistic? Shouldn’t we ascribe to the idea that working out problems in the unconscious and finding inner peace is all anyone needs to overcome life’s challenges?
No. Many times, the necessary approach to help our clients is the precise opposite. An important part of our work involves helping our clients understand the potential benefits and risks of any given therapy or approach—and that includes the understanding that taking antidepressants is not only not a sign of weakness, but it’s also something that can genuinely help.
We do “lean holistic” in our practice, and prescription medications are never our first choice. We believe it’s vital to use all the tools available to us in order to help our clients heal and move forward.
We focus on finding creative ways to meet people where they are, within the context of their thoughts, beliefs, and willingness to try new things—and that can include hypnosis, meditation, medication, or all three. Our purpose is to understand the client’s wants and needs, discuss and educate them about the pros and cons of different treatment options, and guide and support them on their healing journey.
Comparing side effects
When we compare the upsides and downsides of tools like hypnosis, meditation, and medication, it’s important to have a frank discussion about possible side effects.
If you’re wondering if hypnosis is safe, you should understand the well-documented side effects of increased self-esteem, reduced anxiety, and a boost to your overall well-being. No joke — these truly are the best known results of hypnosis.
The same goes for meditation and mindfulness practices, which help to focus your attention on the here and now. This is especially helpful when treating conditions like anxiety, in which our thoughts are likely to stray to the source of our anxiety and its triggers. A side effect of mindfulness, if you will, is an increased capacity to accept and even make peace with what had previously brought distress.
Both hypnosis and meditation produce a deep state of relaxation, with hypnosis promoting heightened awareness and focus.
Apart from encouraging a deep state of calm and well-being, hypnosis in particular can allow you to address deep-seated fears and trauma, better cope with pain or anxiety, and help you take control over problematic behavior you’d like to change.
As with any intervention, there can be mild and temporary side effects that accompany these benefits, and these side effects may include headache, dizziness, or drowsiness — but the same can be said of taking a nap.
Prescription medications, including antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are relatively safe and can provide relief from a wide variety of concerns, like anxiety and depression.
SSRIs work by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin into the neurons in your brain, which means there’s more serotonin available to carry signals between neurons. Possible side effects from SSRIs are broad and potentially significant. These can include drowsiness, headache, sleep disturbance, agitation, dizziness, sexual problems, impact on appetite, and nausea and digestive reactions.
It may take a few weeks before you feel the benefits of your prescription medication. Side effects can subside after taking the drug for several weeks, though sometimes you may need to work with your doctor to find a different medication or dosage that works better for you. If you’re taking an antidepressant, it’s important to watch for worsening symptoms of depression or suicidal ideation.
Effectiveness of hypnotherapy versus mindfulness versus medication
While there can be great variations in effectiveness between these methods, let’s take a look at what the research says about their use for treating anxiety — which is estimated to affect 34-percent of Americans during their lifetimes.
Some antidepressants, like SSRIs, are used to treat anxiety — including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorders, and phobias. These medications increase the serotonin in your brain and can help lessen your anxiety symptoms. It can take about a month for these medications to take effect, and side effects are possible. Sometimes, you’ll need to try several different medications, at different doses, to find the one that works best for you.
Hypnosis has also been shown to be highly effective in addressing anxiety, especially when combined with other treatment tools like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness. A meta-analysis of studies published in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis in 2019 found that, on average, study participants receiving hypnosis saw a 79- to 84-percent reduction in their anxiety over the control.
When comparing meditation and medication for the treatment of anxiety, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2022 found that the two methods are equally effective. Researchers specifically focused on comparing mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to the antidepressant escitalopram (Lexapro) for participants with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) over the course of eight weeks. Participants in both groups saw a 30-percent reduction in anxiety levels, which continued to decrease over the full twenty-four weeks of the study.
Taking a pill may be more convenient than carving out time for regular meditation, but that convenience can come with a cost. Among the participants receiving medication, side effects were significantly more common, with nearly 80-percent reporting at least one side effect, including headaches, sleep disturbance, nausea, and increased anxiety. In comparison, there was a single side effect — increased anxiety — reported by about 15-percent of members of the meditation group.
Weighing the pros and cons
Given that prescription antidepressants have far more side effects, and that some studies show hypnotherapy and mindfulness equally as effective, does that mean people shouldn’t take antidepressants?
Not so fast.
While medication is not our go-to tool, our therapists do not advise stopping a medication that is helping you. You should never stop medication without consulting your doctor, as you may experience withdrawal symptoms, which can include dizziness, lethargy, nausea, and flu-like symptoms.
A good example of when medication is not only appropriate but often necessary is depression, which can be mild, moderate, or severe.
When helping clients with mild depression, our therapists will tend toward other approaches, including hypnosis and mindfulness. Medication would not be the first option, and it might not come up at all during the course of treatment. Note that mild depression is a significant mental health concern, and it can interfere with daily living and cause both physical health problems and reduced quality of life.
Severe depression is more urgent and can be life-threatening. Untreated, depression can disrupt relationship, interfere with work and school, worsen existing physical illness, and lead to dangerous problems like drug or alcohol abuse. Both medication and psychotherapy are appropriate in the treatment of clinical depression.
Additionally, when a client is struggling with severe depression, it can be difficult for them to feel the benefits of therapy without the assistance of medication. They might otherwise have trouble concentrating or fully participating in the work of hypnosis, mindfulness, or other treatment modalities.
For these clients, being on the right medication brings a baseline of relief and allows us to work with them to build a foundation of healing and forward progress.
Understanding the pros and cons of all treatment options — including hypnosis, meditation, and medication — is an important first step on the road to healing. Being open and honest with your provider will allow you to work together to find the right path for you.
Our Hypnotherapy Experts are Clinical Psychologists at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy that specialize in combining hypnosis and therapy for treating mental health issues. To get in touch or learn more about how combining therapy and hypnosis can help you, please contact us here.
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