Hypnosis: An Introduction.
A Brief Introduction
“Hypnosis is the epitome of mind-body medicine. It can enable the mind
to tell the body how to react, and modify the messages that
the body sends to the mind.” New York Times
Hypnosis, has been around since the beginning of time, or should we say, as long as people have existed.
Hypnosis has been defined as an ‘altered state of consciousness‘ in the Meriam-Webster dictionary. It has also been likened to a ‘trance‘ state, this infers more of a ‘natural‘ trance state that we all enter into many times a day.
Even the idea that hypnosis is some sort of mental ‘state‘ as opposed to a ‘non-state‘ is still hotly debated and has become known as ‘the altered state debate‘.
The ever elusive definition and understanding of hypnosis will continue to intrigue many because it is a very subjective and conceptual idea that is extremely difficult to pin down and explain.
Trying to describe hypnosis, and it’s very powerful effects, is a little like trying to explain a very vivid dream that is fading fast during the telling, or describing the taste of an extremely delicious strawberry to somebody who has never encountered a strawberry.
It is now generally accepted that everybody experiences episodes of hypnosis, or ‘trance’ states throughout the day.
It has even been suggested by psychotherapist, Steven Wolinsky, in his book, ‘Trances People Live – Healing approaches in Quantum Psychology‘ that we live most, or possibly all of our lives, in a combination of various trance states.
These trance states, it is suggested, are actually the phenomena behind our problems and therefore hypnosis may work to assist people in breaking the pattern of unhelpful trance-like states – a kind of purposeful de-hypnosis.
However, I digress a little. Let’s take a look at some of these everyday trance-like or hypnotic episodes.
One of the best examples of an everyday trance state is one that is common to most drivers.
You set off in your car to a certain destination, and somehow you arrive at said destination without any memory of the journey.
You obviously drove your car or vehicle in a safe, responsible manner because you’re not in a ditch or the back of a police car, so you’re bodily movements and reactions were all working fine, but the ‘conscious’ mind has temporarily ‘checked out’ and an altered state or trance has taken it’s place.
Trance state in this instant, simply means a state of focused attention; the attention can be focused on something internal or external.
The Conscious and The Unconscious Mind
(i) The Conscious Mind
What I am essentially interested in examining here is the use of hypnosis for good, or you could say for positive change or for healing (both psychologically and physically) or to help with personal development issues.
In order to explain the process of hypnosis, it is necessary to take a brief look at the idea of the conscious and unconscious mind.
The concepts of the ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ areas of mind are simply different faculties or functions of mind in general.
The first and most important thing to remember is that they are only concepts of mind and this can be summarized very well in the following quote:-
Don’t get caught by the words ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious.’ They are not real.
They are just a way of describing events that is useful in the context called
therapeutic change. ‘Conscious’ is defined as whatever you are aware of at a
moment in time. ‘Unconscious’ is everything else.
Bandler and Grinder (1979) Frogs Into Princes.
The conscious mind involves any and all of the physical and mental processes of which we are aware, for example, on a very basic level, we become aware that we are hungry and we go and search for something to eat.
The conscious mind communicates to both ourselves and the outside world through what we say, images, writing, actions and thought.
We are always aware of what is going on in the conscious mind.
“Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms
part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once
the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives”
Schneider and Velmans (2007) Psychology of Consciousness.
(ii) The Unconscious Mind
The unconscious mind is the whole area of physical and mental processes that we are not aware (or conscious of), in some ways then, it only exists as an opposite concept to consciousness.
The physical processes controlled by the unconscious are the easiest to understand. A good example of this is respiration; we do not go about our day thinking ‘breathe in’, ‘breathe out’ or even ‘I am breathing in’ or ‘I am breathing out’.
Respiration or breathing is a process of which, for the main part, happens automatically.
There are many other physical unconscious processes, such as the immune system, heart rate, blood pressure etc.
This physical aspect of the unconscious is important because it links in later with theories of the mind/body connection and interactions and becomes significant when talking about ‘healing‘ or pain control in hypnosis.
I like the image of a river to illustrate the two concepts of mind. The surface of the river can be likened to the conscious mind.
It processes and reflects it’s immediate surroundings whilst maintaining a constant flow (of thoughts).
However, in places where the river runs deep, (representing the unconscious mind), under the calm surface there can be undercurrents and tides that can distort the surface reflection of the surroundings.
I’m hoping that this natural metaphor illustrates the connection between the concepts of conscious and unconscious mind.
The problem with definitions of the unconscious mind is that, by it’s very nature, it defies description.
There are many wide and varied theories of the unconscious mind within the field of psychology but the one thing that most agree on is that the unconscious mind has an extremely powerful influence on our behaviours and beliefs.
The unconscious mind is believed to store memories and experiences from our past that combine to form patterns.
The unconscious is a kind of ‘subjective map of reality‘ then and drives a lot of our conscious behaviours, although we are not aware of this process.
It is believed that for deep therapeutic change, information that has been stored and connected with emotional responses in the unconscious mind needs to be ‘reprogrammed’ or altered before real change on a conscious level can evolve.
(iii) The Subconscious or the Preconscious Mind
The subconscious mind in it’s original concept, can be imagined as sitting between the conscious and unconscious aspects of mind and can communicate with both.
This is the part of mind that stores and recalls recent information and experiences that are not immediately in use but can easily be brought to the attention of the conscious mind if focused upon or needed.
The subconscious mind holds memories such as phone numbers of loved ones that you can automatically remember when you pick up a telephone and imagine your loved one.
The subconscious is also thought to act as a filter for new ideas and perceptions, and stores information about your behaviours, habits and moods.
Attention must be paid when reading or thinking about the subconscious because it is often confused with, or used as an interchangeable term for, the ‘unconscious‘.
If we examine two physical phenomena it might help illustrate the difference between the two: Blinking of the eyes is a automatic or ‘unconscious’ physical behaviour, but if we focus on that particular behaviour we can become aware of and alter the amount or type of blinking that we do.
This is more in keeping with how the subconscious mind is believed to work.
Now if we look at the workings of the immune system, we are only intellectually aware of the concept and the processes.
We can not bring the experience of the workings of the immune system to the conscious mind at will, although we may be able to affect it – this is more likened to the unconscious mind, it’s all going on but we are not consciously aware of it.
Mind and Body Interaction.
‘The body achieves what the mind believes.’
For many years, particularly in Western cultures the mind and body were seen as very distinct and separate entities.
In recent years however, the mind-body connection and interaction is increasingly recognised.
In order to see how practices such as hypnotherapy and meditation can affect not just our mental and emotional state, but also our physical bodies and therefore assist in healing, it is necessary to examine this concept.
Thoughts and emotions in the mind directly affect the physical body and vice versa, physical processes and chemicals directly impact on our thoughts and emotions.
It is well known that if a person perceives a situation as ‘threatening’ the ‘fight or flight response’ is activated.
This is a primitive, automatic response whereby chemicals such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood stream.
This chemical bombardment triggers a whole physiological response; the respiratory and heart rate increase as does the blood pressure. Blood is directed into the muscles and limbs in readiness for the forthcoming fight or flight.
The digestion and immune system close down and the mind has difficulty focusing on anything other than where the perceived threat is coming from.
This is all fine if there is a life threatening situation, however when the stress response is triggered to everyday frustrations or anxieties, over time this can adversely affect our physical well being.
Repeated exposure to the fight or flight response can have a negative impact on the cardiovascular system and may increase the likelihood of heart attacks.
It’s not just the extreme stress response that produces negative physical effects it has also been shown in many studies that our thoughts and beliefs can directly impact on our physical bodies for good and for bad.
A study carried out by Kivimaki demonstrated an increased mortality rate due to cardiovascular disease in working environments that had little reward incentive.
In addition stress and repeated exposure to the fight/flight response may also be related to a lowered immune system.
A study by Miller in 2002 of parents of children with cancer showed that ongoing chronic stress reduced the immune system’s response to anti-inflammatory signals.
Findings indicate that there may be a pathway whereby chronic stress may alter the course of inflammatory disease.
There are many studies and resources now that examine the relationship between stress, negative thoughts and the body’s response.
Likewise, bodily changes can directly affect mood and mental well being. It is known that depression is a common complication of chronic illness and it has been estimated that up to a third of all patients with a chronic illness show symptoms of depression.
Negative emotions and ideas have been long accepted as predictors for increased likelihood for illness and even death.
Theories that the more positive emotions such as joy, happiness and laughter improve health are now starting to be empirically proven, even though they have been around for a very long time.
‘Cheerfulness is the best promoter of health, and is as friendly to the mind as to the body’.
Joseph Addison (1672–1719)
Studies have shown that people who respond to stress with humour and laughter may improve the functioning of their immune system.
It has also been shown that positive emotions in those suffering from cardiovascular disease have a positive effect on recovery.
In a study by Middleton and Byrd elderly patients with cardiovascular disease who judged themselves happier for 90 days after their hospital stay had lower readmission rates regardless of factors like health on discharge and the length of the hospital stay.
Another study showed that male war veterans who were seen as optimists had higher levels of pulmonary function and lower levels of pulmonary decline and were less likely to suffer from both angina and heart attacks. (Kubansky).
There is a wealth of information and studies that illustrate the mind-body link.
As more and more people become aware of both the power of all aspects of mind and the connection to our physical bodies, practices such as hypnotherapy, meditation and mindfulness will become increasingly accepted and utilised for self improvement on all levels.