Hypnotherapy: How does it Work?
Definition of Hypnosis.
The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis defines clinical hypnosis as:-
“…a state of inner absorption, concentration and focused attention. It is like using a
magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun and make them more powerful.”
Firstly, the process of hypnosis involves deep mind and body relaxation. Following the relaxation phase is an altered state of consciousness that leads to a heightened focus. This increased focus, in turn, results in a higher susceptibility to suggestion.
Firstly, we will examine the hypnotic state that is induced with the help of somebody trained in hypnotherapy or hetero hypnosis.
The majority of clinical hypnotherapists today follow a model more closely aligned with the ideas of Milton Erickson (1901 – 1980).
The approach of Erickson is centred around the belief that each person holds their own, unique ability to heal and problem solve.
Thus, the hypnotherapist simply facilitates the individual and unique creative process.
The approach of Erickson to hypnotherapy challenged earlier beliefs surrounding the subconscious and unconscious. Indeed, it was generally accepted that these hidden parts of the mind contained suppressed, negative conflicts. For example, dark sexual desires or urges.
Erickson turned such ideas completely around and stressed the wisdom and creativity of the unconscious mind in problem solving. Furthermore, Erickson put emphasis on the intelligence of the unconscious mind.
The most important legacy of the work of Erickson is the stress on the interactive therapeutic relationship and an extremely individual based approach. Thus, the emphasis is placed on the uniqueness of an individual and a therapeutic approach tailored to that uniqueness.
The Hypnotic Process: What happens?
i. Hypnotherapy: Preparation or ‘Screening’
A hypnotherapy session with a ‘guide’ or hypnotherapist is usually carried out in a calm, relaxing, safe environment free from interruptions.
The preliminary ‘talk’ between the person to be hypnotised and the ‘guide’ normally highlights expectations and past experiences of hypnosis (if any). Furthermore, there is a discussion of the specific problem to be worked on.
Oftentimes, these problem areas include behaviour or thoughts that need to be re-balanced or changed completely. For example, help with stopping smoking or losing weight.
During this preliminary talk, a skilled hypnotist gains a lot of information. Thus, the initial talk will help the hypnotist to work out the best induction technique for a particular individual.
A hypnotherapy session usually follows a ‘loose‘ pattern:-
- The preparation or screening, of a client
- Induction of an altered state of consciousness
- Deepening of the trance state which is known to open up suggestibility’
- The post hypnotic suggestions: Suggestions are given regarding the problem or area in the psyche to be worked upon
ii. The Induction
Typically, in a hypnotherapy session, the first fifteen minutes are designed to relax the body and mind. This first stage of hypnosis is called the induction. The induction phases involves encouraging a person to enter into a ‘light trance’ using relaxation techniques. Such relaxation methods work on both the mind and the body.
The ‘gradual induction’ process, encourages the person to be hypnotised to focus on and relax all of their muscles. Furthermore, this physical relaxation technique helps to get rid of tension and release anxiety.
Usually, some attention will be given to slowing and controlling the breath; this again, encourages relaxation and distracts the conscious mind.
There are many different induction methods and different individuals will respond better to some than others. Thus, it is important to use a highly individualised approach for hypnosis sessions.
iii. ‘Deepening’ of the Trance State
The second stage in the hypnotic process is to deepen the trance state. This ‘deepening’ prepares the unconscious mind to be more receptive to new suggestions. behaviour. Furthermore, once the new suggestions have been accepted new patterns of thinking and behaviors will follow.
Sometimes the techniques used to deepen the trance are simply continuing and reinforcing the chosen induction method. However, such methods usually involve deepening bodily relaxation combined with in-depth visualization techniques led by the hypnotist.
For a more in depth look at some of these ‘deepening’ techniques see the full hypnosis script.
It is very important to ensure the subject has entered a ‘deep’ state of altered consciousness before moving on to the ‘hypnotic suggestion’ phase of the process.
The three levels or stages of the hypnotic state:-
- Hypnoidal State: The first stage of hypnosis is entered into on induction. This is a ‘light’ state of relaxation and inner focus. The hypnoidal state is characterized by fluttering eye movements.
- Cataleptic State: The second stage of hypnosis is a ‘deepening’ of the altered state. This level is characterized by side to side eye movements.
- Somnambulistic State: This stage is the deepest ‘trance state’ characterized by rolling upwards of the eyes. Suggestions are received on a unconscious level and the person may have no memory of hearing them.
How deep is your Trance?
Interestingly, most of the work on overcoming bad habits and/or self improvement is achieved when a person is in a hypnoidal or Cataleptic State.
Moreover, it is believed that the deeper the trance state, the better the results.
However, because the hypnosis process is so subjective it is only really the person who has been hypnotised that can assess the depth of the trance state.
The fact that memory may be impaired in the hypnotic process only adds to the difficulties in assessing levels of trance.
The three states described above are more of a ‘guide‘ into hypnosis.
With the advancement of imaging equipment of the brain, the hypnotic trance has started to receive some attention and accreditation.
The Scientific Study
In a study by Kosslyn (2000), eight people were examined under a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan whilst hypnotised. The subjects were asked to see a color pattern, then the same pattern in gray-scale. Next, participants saw a similar gray-scale pattern in color and finally the gray-scale pattern as gray scale.
The areas of the left and right hemispheres of the brain were activated when they were asked to perceive color, whether or not the subject was looking at a color pattern or a grey-scale pattern.
This resulted in the conclusion that observable changes in subjective experiences during hypnosis were actually reflected by changes in brain function.
The work of Kossly is important because it illustrates how hypnotic suggestions influences brain activity and not just behaviour and experience.
iv. The Therapeutic Utilization of Hypnotherapy
The next stage of the hypnotic process is the suggestions that are designed to change thought patterns and behaviors. Often these suggestions for self improvement will have been agreed upon by the hypnotist and the patient in the initial introduction.
Thewording of the suggestions is very important. Research has shown that the unconscious mind responds well to open suggestions or questions but does not recognise negative suggestions.
A skilled hypnotist will be able to couch the suggestions to affect the change in a way that each individual will respond to. Furthermore the suggestions need to be put in a way that fits in with the ‘worldview’ of the subject.
A post-hypnotic suggestion is made during the hypnotic process but has an effect at a later point in the future.
Furthermore, a suggestion may be accepted immediately, but more often the suggestion will need to be repeated regularly over several sessions to take root in the unconscious mind. However, once the suggestion does take hold, thought patterns will begin to change. Finally the new thought patterns lead to real behavioural change.
Post-hypnotic suggestions can be either visual or auditory – it depends on each individual and how they respond to the world.
How sensitive a person is to visual or auditory stimulation should be assessed by a good hypnotist in the preparatory or ‘screening‘ phase. In addition, extra physical clues may be given as the hypnotherapist guides a subject from a light trance into a ‘deepening’ trance.
In future posts on hypnotic scripts we will examine the different stages of hypnotherapy with some examples of hypnotic suggestions.
v. Termination of the Hypnosis
The ending of the hypnotic session is quite straight forward and involves a gradual return to full consciousness.
Again, this process can be brought about by a number of methods.
A common method is the counting backwards from 10 with the person becoming fully aware and conscious on the number 1 with a gradual ‘lightening’ of the mental state along the way.