What is hypnosis in psychology?
This article focuses on the question, “What is hypnosis in psychology?” Clinical hypnotherapy exists on the fringes of modern medicine. It is what most doctors might call a complementary, or alternative, therapy. There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence that clinical hypnotherapy works well to treat a variety of psychological (and other) disorders. Also, there have been some scientific experiments to prove its validity as a method and the prestigious American Psychological Association did a feature on hypnosis in 2011. Unfortunately, people have many misconceptions about hypnosis and the industry is full of people who behave unethically as well as people who don’t really understand hypnosis.
This article will be the first of a series of articles on this site to clear up some of the misconceptions about hypnosis, discuss its value in treating mental health problems in particular, and to suggest avenues for hypnotism training and/or hypnotherapy certification as well as what to look for in a good hypnotherapist.
What is the difference between hypnosis and hypnotherapy?
The answer is that while hypnosis is simply a state of mind, hypnotherapy is the use of this state of mind for a clinical purpose. In hypnotherapy, a hypnotherapist is guiding the client to recover from a mental or physical condition through the use of hypnosis. So there is a big difference between hypnosis and hypnotherapy.
The state of hypnosis can be attained in many ways and for many reasons. However, the main two ways it is used are for stage hypnosis shows and for hypnotherapy. Stage hypnosis can be entertaining, and it does show some of what can be possible in hypnosis. However, it is also misleading in many ways because it gives many people the incorrect perception that hypnosis is mind control (continued…).
What is biofeedback? By using the power of your mind and awareness of what is happening inside your body, you can gain control over a wide range of health conditions. This can be done in a medical setting, but now, it can also be done relatively inexpensively at home also.
In reality hypnosis is a technique that we can use with (or without) the assistance of a trained professional to learn to attain better control and awareness over our own minds. In a similar way mindfulness meditation is a technique that people can use to gain a deeper insight and awareness. Hypnosis has a bad reputation because so many people have seen their friends on a stage clucking like a chicken and they simply do not understand what is actually happening.
What is hypnosis?
First of all, what is hypnosis? There are many definitions of hypnotism, but the one that I like the best is that it is a state that allows the mind to bypass the critical factor. In this state, we are highly suggestible.
What does it mean to "bypass the critical factor"?
Most of our waking lives, our conscious minds are "in charge". The induction of a hypnotic state is a way to get past the conscious mind and allow us access to our unconscious mind. Why do we want access? It would seem that the conscious mind can only process a tiny fraction of what the five senses can take in. You might have heard that you only actually use a small portion of your brain -- that would be the conscious mind.
However, the unconscious mind holds many times more memories of sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings that we have experienced throughout our lifetime. Imagine being able to harness that power and use it to help you solve problems. The key to hypnosis seems to be access to our unconscious minds.
There are two times a day when you enter a hypnotic state naturally (for most people there are more, but there are at least two): one is right before you fall asleep, and the other is right before you wake up. You may have had the experience of having an expanded awareness at those times and being able to solve problems that you were not able to solve prior to those times.
Some people pass through these states very quickly and are less aware of them whereas for other people these states are very familiar. When I was in high school and I had a difficult essay to write, I used to lie down in bed and think about it as I was passing into the hypnotic state that bridges between being awake and asleep. In that state I usually could suddenly "see" my entire essay from the beginning to the end. I knew exactly how it should be written, word for word. It is such a beautiful, relaxing state that the last thing a person would want to do is jump up and get a pen to write down such revelations, but I forced myself to grab a pen and paper and write at top speed (before I could forget). Then I finally allowed myself to drift back into that beautiful state of relaxation and expansion.
Interestingly, if you consciously "ask" your brain to solve problems for you before going to sleep and "ask" for it to provide the answer to you consciously when you wake up, it is very likely to do as you have requested. Once you realize that you have an unconscious mind and that it is has these abilities, it is like having a very powerful ally living in your head, helping out.
Anecdotally, my daughter went through a period in her adult life in which she had night terrors. I suggested to her that she write a letter to her unconscious mind prior to going to sleep. I suggested something like this:
Dear unconscious mind,
I realize that you are unsettled and that you have a message for me. However, these night terrors are horrifying, and I am not understanding what you are trying to tell me. Could you please serve up some dreams tonight that will help me understand what I need to know to move forward in a way that my mind can process and in a way that is not so frightening to me? I would really appreciate it. Thanks.
I did not know if this would help, but I thought it could not hurt. The unconscious mind is always listening, and I view it as a "friend". Many of the things that might seem self-destructive (like night terrors) actually serve some purpose that our conscious mind simply does not understand. The key is getting along well with your unconscious, and that takes communication.
What was the result? Danie stopped having the night terrors. Instead, she had nightmares. They were unpleasant, but not terrifying. She was able to process them and think about them and why they were happening at that point in her life.
A good hypnotherapist can be your guide as you navigate these unconscious waters so that you can more efficiently resolve whatever issue is bothering you.
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What does it feel like to be in hypnosis?
I imagine it feels different for different people. However, when I was first hypnotized formally (i.e. not the "natural" state of hypnosis that happens between sleeping and waking), I was surprised. I was surprised and I wondered the same thing that most people wonder when they are first hypnotized -- Was I hypnotized?
Because of years of watching too much television and movies in which people had been hypnotized, I had this idea of hypnosis as being a deep state of compliance, coupled with a lack of awareness. I expected it to be like sleep. I expected that I would be giving up control.
The reality is that, first of all, most people, when they are initially hypnotized, only go into a mild trance. This is for several reasons. One, you are new to the process, and you might be feeling some anxiety. Because of this, your conscious mind interferes with your ability to go into a deeper state of hypnosis. Secondly, what many people do not realize is that the ability to be hypnotized is a learned skill.
So many people show up at a hypnotist's office defiantly almost "daring" the hypnotist to try to put them into hypnosis. They have the misconception that if they cannot be hypnotized, they have a "stronger will". This is a lot like going to a math tutor and proudly telling them that it is not possible to teach you anything. First, if you believe that, why are you hiring this person, and secondly, it is nothing to brag about.
Since hypnosis is a learned skill, you can get better at it with practice and over time. It is similar to meditation that way. Your ability to go into a trance and for your unconscious mind to communicate with the hypnotherapist will improve if you practice and do not get in the way of the process. Nearly everyone with an undamaged brain is capable of going into a hypnotic state. However, some can more easily go into deep levels of trance than others.
Personally, I envy such people. I practice self-hypnosis often, and, while I am able to attain a certain level of trance, and one which is useful for a number of purposes (including lovely relaxation and stress release), I would really love to attain some of the deeper levels of hypnosis I have read about. The ability to get to those levels is a complex interplay between an individual's ability (natural and through practice) to go into a deep trance and the hypnotherapist's ability to guide them to that state.
One hypnosis instructor I had told us of a student who easily and immediately fell into a deep state of hypnosis. That is an amazing skill. He had it naturally. Through practice, I one day hope to attain that.
So, what is clinical hypnotherapy?
We have already touched on this a little. Clinical hypnotherapy is hypnosis that is used by a trained hypnotherapist to help you resolve a particular problem. While you can hypnotize yourself, it is helpful to have a guide. Clinical hypnotherapy is in contrast to stage hypnotism.
Stage hypnotists are in the business of entertaining people, so that is what they do. They use some of the same techniques used in clinical hypnotherapy, but they use them purely for demonstration and entertainment value.
What many people don't realize is that the audience members who end up on stage "clucking like a chicken" and such usually have latent exhibitionist tendencies -- this means they actually, at some level, want to make a spectacle of themselves (whether they would like to admit it or not). They might not even realize this consciously. However, if you go to such a show, you will notice that the stage hypnotist accepts many volunteers and then sends the ones who are non-compliant back into the audience.
Although clinical hypnotherapy allows the bypass of the critical factor, your brain is still your brain and it is on your side. So, your brain will not do anything that it believes goes against your best interests. It will not do this in hypnotherapy any more than it would do this out of hypnotherapy.
I have taken the training to become a neuro linguistic programming (NLP) Practitioner. NLP is a form of hypnosis, and a topic for another article. However, I once had the experience of putting a lady into hypnosis, and, unfortunately, she misheard what I said to her. She thought I was giving her a suggestion that was the opposite of what I was actually suggesting. I can't remember what it was, but it was something about releasing tension and she heard me saying "do not" release the tension. We spoke about it afterwards, and she said she followed the correct meaning behind my suggestion rather than what she misheard me to say. The reason was that what she thought she heard felt jarring to her, and so she automatically gave herself the opposite suggestion. (continued...)
I mention this anecdote because it shows that our minds are never passive recipients of information, even when we are in a state of hypnosis. By being in a state of hypnosis, we have bypassed our critical factor, so we are accepting suggestions without the normal resistance of our conscious minds. However, at the same time, our unconscious minds will not allow us to be harmed.
A caveat to this that most people don't like to say is that it is possible for a skilled hypnotist to give a person who is in hypnosis a suggestion that is contrary to their best interests. However, it cannot be obviously contrary to their best interests. Hypnotism is not brainwashing. One example of a suggestion that is not obviously contrary to someone's best interests is if you hypnotized someone to give up smoking, and they did give up smoking, but then they started to develop other problems because smoking was playing a role in their life that was psychologically protective even though it was clearly physically damaging.
In that sort of case the hope is that the person would return to the hypnotherapist to address the other issues that were arising. Similarly, some people, when treated for quitting smoking, end up smoking more. Why? Well, this is a mystery for the person and their hypnotherapist to figure out, but usually there is something going on at a deep level that is related to the smoking. For example, one hypnotism instructor of mine told a story about a man who started smoking more after a series of quitting smoking hypnosis sessions. After working with him, she discovered that he had started smoking soon after a hunting accident in which he had shot and almost killed his best friend.
Even though his best friend was okay, and forgave him, he did not forgive himself, and he had a deep-seated desire to die, which he was manifesting by smoking. So the well meaning suggestion to quit smoking was causing him harm until they go to the bottom of it. It takes time, skill, and experience for a hypnotherapist to get to the point where they are able to competently deal with these sorts of complex issues. The mind is, after all, a complicated thing.
Myths about hypnosis
I have already dispelled a few myths about hypnosis, but here are a few more:
- Only some people can be hypnotized - This is untrue. As I mentioned, we naturally go into hypnosis at least twice a day. It is an interesting function of our brain. You can get better at going into hypnosis with practice. Many people think the extent of a trance is set by the clinical hypnotherapist, but actually it has a lot to do with your experience and natural aptitude for going into trance. It is a skill.
- Hypnosis is spooky and supernatural (and bad?) - Actually, hypnosis is, as I mentioned, a natural state. Some people refer to meditation as a form of hypnosis. Some people have found other names for the hypnotic trance so that it does not worry others. There is nothing magical about hypnosis -- well, no more magical than any other aspect of being a living organism. (P.S. Weird fact of the day: When traumatized, pigeons go into a hypnotic trance and here is the BBC Earth youtube video to prove it.)
- People can get "stuck" in trance - Just untrue. People will emerge from trance naturally. The famous hypnotherapist Gerald (Jerry) Kein speaks of a time when he had a heart attack in the middle of a session. His client, upon not hearing his voice for a couple of minutes, emerged from her trance and called for help. Sometimes people might be reluctant to emerge from trance because it is so cozy and comfortable like a soft, comfy bed. However, regardless, they will come out eventually and are aware of their surroundings should they need to come out quickly for emergency reasons (e.g. the building is suddenly on fire).
- Hypnosis is a miracle and can cure anything - Many effects of hypnosis are amazing. However, it really upsets me when I hear about hypnotists claiming they can cure cancer, etc. If someone had cancer, then, in addition to mainstream therapy for their cancer, it might be advantageous to have hypnosis sessions that suggest tumor size reduction and/or pain relief. (Note: Anything the body can do naturally is something hypnosis can suggest that it does -- can the body naturally shrink tumors? I have heard some hypnotherapists say it is possible, and I cannot imagine how it would hurt to try.) However, hypnosis is not a panacea and anyone who says they can cure everything should be regarded with skepticism.
Clinical Hypnotherapy - Choosing a clinical hypnotherapist
Use caution when choosing a clinical hypnotherapist. Many clinical hypnotherapists offer a free half hour consultation. Need I say that if you don't feel comfortable with the therapist, you should not go into therapy with them? This is true of any therapist.
The legal requirements for hypnotherapy certification may differ in different areas, but in many places, such as where I live, it is still unregulated. This means that literally anyone can hang his/her shingle out and say they are a hypnotherapist. It gets worse.
Most hypnotherapy training programs are about 100 hours long (and cost between $2500 and $7000). So, basically, if you have a few days and a few thousand dollars, you can quite easily become a "certified" hypnotherapist.
This is why it is important to do a little research and maybe ask for a referral to find a good hypnotherapist. To me, a good clinical hypnotherapist is someone who has been practicing a while, has a working knowledge of psychology as well as hypnotherapy, and who can effectively achieve the goal of getting most of his/her clients into a somnambulistic state (which is a "deeper" state of hypnosis).
What is hypnosis in psychology? Clinical hypnotherapy is an amazing therapy that can help you resolve problems quickly and effectively. However, it is essential that you find a trustworthy and professional clinical hypnotherapist to guide you on your journey.
In this article, I have discussed what clinical hypnotherapy is and dispelled some common myths about hypnosis. Additionally, I have talked about what qualities to look for in a good clinical hypnotherapist.
In future articles, I will be discussing the value of clinical hypnotherapy in treating mental health problems in particular. I will also suggest avenues for hypnotism training and/or hypnotherapy certification.
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