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In a couple of week’s time, I shall be hosting an open evening to address some of the questions and concerns I’ve had in recent months from people interested in hypnosis. Of these, many have expressed a very wide range of ideas on hypnosis – what it is, how it works (or doesn’t), from whence it originated and (importantly) what it’s for. It’s in this last domain – the purpose of hypnosis – that I’ve heard perhaps the widest variations of opinion. These range from “well, it helps you sleep doesn’t it” to the more sinister “hypnosis is used to control people”.

When asked what hypnosis is, some people think that it’s a process whereby a man (almost always) puts a person into a “deep, deep sleep” via a swinging watch, after which the patient knows nothing about what’s happening TO THEM until they awaken on the instruction of the hypnotist. It would appear that many people still share the same construct: that hypnosis is done TO YOU, you have NO CONTROL over the process and that it always involves GOING TO SLEEP. One of the implications from these assumptions is that the relationship between the client/patient and the practitioner of hypnosis is basically unequal; it is a relationship whereby the client/patient is subservient to the superior skills and ‘white coat’ knowledge of the practitioner. And one in which the client/patient has little or no say in the process.

When asked how it works, there are many that contend that either it simply doesn’t work or, more commonly, “it doesn’t work on me” (note the preposition ‘on’ – suggesting that the underlying premise is that hypnosis is a ‘done to’ process, one that we either submit to or resist. Those that subscribe to the base-line notion that hypnosis does work/can happen, often express various descriptions of how hypnosis works and the act of ‘being hypnotised’. But here, again, is the idea that for those who are ‘willing’, they allow the hypnotist to do ‘IT’ to them. Many believe that hypnosis originated in either the world of the travelling fairs and show troupes or somewhere in the murky depths of the dark arts and even witchcraft.

It might be useful here to understand the difference between a hypnotist and a hypnotherapist. Whilst this distinction can, at times, be confusing, it seems clear to me that there are some fundamental differences between the two. The main distinction, in my view, is:

hypnotherapists are trained to help people work through, heal, change, modify some of their thinking/behaving/emoting and to help them live healthier, happier more fulfilled lives; they are trained to be therapists first and foremost, whilst utilising various techniques of hypnosis to assist their clients/patients. Hypnotists are people who use certain techniques of hypnosis to induce trance-like states in others – and then they….well …they….. er? Well, that’s the bit that’s not at all clear.

The truth is that hypnosis is a naturally occurring phenomenon. At it’s purest definition, hypnosis is a state of altered consciousness. Many hypnotherapists now prefer to use the term ‘trance’ and ‘trance-like states’ to describe hypnosis. And they will often aim to put people’s minds at rest by explaining that such trance-like states happen all the time to all of us. In truth, whenever we ‘zone out’ (or zone ‘in’ with singular attention), we are in trance. Have you ever driven a very familiar journey without really paying much conscious attention, or ‘zoned’out’ when watching TV? Did you brush your teeth this morning on ‘auto-pilot’? All examples of going in and out of a hypnotic state. We all probably do this unconscious shifting into trance several times each day. Why? There are several theories: that this state allows the mind to relax and not get bogged down in too much conscious thinking; that trance states are a symptom of the unconscious mind working ‘below the surface’ to find solutions to problems, choices for new behaviours, working through emotional challenges etc. One thing is certain; all of us at some time have experienced some sort of trance-like state, be it lapses in memory (amnesia), unexpected control of our own pain (self-induced anaesthesia), experiencing moments where you see/don’t see something – the “I’m sure I saw my car keys just there!!” moments (hallucinations), journeys without conscious awareness (‘auto-pilot) – all examples of naturally occurring trance phenomena. It would take several more articles from other eminently more knowledgeable people than I to explain what we know (and don’t yet know) about the neuroscience of such altered states of consciousness. Suffice to say in this regard, we recognise the mind to be a complex set of matrices of inter & intrapersonal, neurological and biological operations and trance is one example of these matrices at work.

And yes, hypnosis can help you sleep!

So, what about the purpose of hypnosis? In regard to its use within a hypnotherapy context, it’s used as part of a suite of tools available to the practitioner to aid the client/patient. For a long time now, the idea that the human mind has both a conscious and an unconscious aspect is widely undisputed. Also, Daniel Siegel’s definition of the mind is worth quoting here:

“The human mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information”

(Siegel; Mindsight; 2010; p52)

This excellent working definition of the mind points to an important consideration regarding how we use hypnosis in therapy: if hypnosis is all about the workings of the mind (both conscious and unconscious dimensions) then we need to take note of what this ‘mind’ is: “embodied” in that it is a neurobiological mechanism; “relational” in that the human mind functions in relati0n to others; a “process” in that it is not a static ‘thing’ but, rather, a dynamic entity that influences and is influencable; and the mind “regulates the flow of energy and information” such that this regulation affects our thinking/feeling/doing selves.

In the field of therapy in general (and, indeed, increasingly in coaching), there is a broad consensus about the power of the unconscious mind to help generate new learnings, behaviours, thoughts and feelings that the conscious mind is sometimes not able to do by itself. One of the main constructs that hypnotherapy works with is the notion that human beings function at their best when there is collaboration¬†& cooperation between the conscious and unconscious parts of our mind – when there is a generative and mutually supportive ‘relationship’ between these two aspects of our consciousness. By definition (e.g. “conscious” – those things that we are consciously aware of at any given moment; “unconscious” – everything else), working as a hypnotherapist to assist the integration and harmony of the whole mind involves the practice of induction (and other hypnotic processes). In simplistic terms, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helps the client/patient to consciously behave differently; hypnotherapy engages both the conscious and the unconscious parts of the client’s mind.

So, finally, to how it works. As mentioned before, trance-like states are common, frequent and natural. Particularly in Ericksonian hypnotherapy, practitioners will simply tap into the client’s natural abilities to go into trance. There’s no magic from the practitioner that ‘makes’ people go into trance; rather, the practitioner facilitates the client to do so via their own (the client’s) permission. It’s a subtle, beautiful dance of words, gestures, voice tonality & timbre and the elegant matching, mirroring and pacing the client’s on-going experience. It’s the quality of attention from the practitioner and the level of trust and connection (rapport) between the two that allows trance to occur. In a sense, it is the relationship of trust, integrity and a strongly-held belief in the power of the client to create positive change for themselves that creates the optimal conditions to gracefully facilitate the client to go into trance – and then the practitioner has the privilege to witness, validate, encourage and support the client on their journey to trance and back again. At certain points in the trance, the hypnotherapist will continue to facilitate the client’s experience and, where appropriate, make post-hypnotic suggestions that tap into the client’s rich resources in their unconscious minds.

There’s much more to say on this subject…….perhaps another post from me on this after my next hypnosis session (as clients teach me more about this process than any other method of learning I’ve had so far!) If you’re around on the Isle of Wight on the evening of the 29th March, do pop in to the Open Evening…..you’re most welcome.