What is Hypnosis?
by: Mervin Lee
What is hypnosis? A trick or a scam? Some charlatan getting his mate from the crowd to cooperate and perform onstage in order to convince you that he has the power to override your autonomy and force you to do something against your will? Perhaps to cluck like a chicken or bark like a dog? Let’s set that aside for a moment.
What if I told you, at this very moment, you’re being hypnotised? Not by my words, but by the very fact that your full attention was focused on this article? How long did it take you to read it so far? Ten seconds? A minute? Chances are that you wouldn’t know for sure unless you’ve been keeping an eye on your watch.
Congratulations, you’ve just experienced a hypnotic trance phenomenon known as time distortion; in being so focused on an experience (reading this article), you disregarded your immediate surroundings (and the passing of time).
As a matter of fact, we are often in a hypnotic state of focused awareness throughout the day; have you ever daydreamt? Missed a bus stop because you were absorbed in a text conversation with a friend? Been so engrossed in a mobile game that you didn’t check for traffic before crossing a road? These are all examples of naturalistic hypnotic trances, and that’s how commonplace it is; it’s so natural that it may be that we live most, if not all, of our lives in various trance states (Wolinsky, 1991).
Trance is characterised by narrowed attention, dissociated awareness, heightened suggestibility, and access to the unconscious mind (Barber, 2000). Hypnosis differs from naturalistic trance in at least three ways. First, it is induced intentionally, rather than accidentally. Secondly, it is usually deepened beyond the light naturalistic state. Finally, the hypnotic trance is applied to a therapeutic purpose in hypnotherapy.
Akin to other forms of therapy, hypnotherapy is a two way process between the therapist and the client – a professional partnership. A person cannot be hypnotised unless they agree and cooperate; and whilst hypnotised, nobody can make them do anything which they do not want to do. Even in stage hypnosis, volunteers carrying out unusual or ridiculous instructions are doing it because they want to; they have chosen to participate. It must be emphasised that what hypnotherapists do is, by definition, therapeutic. Stage hypnosis is very different; it is a form of entertainment.
Hypnosis is typically experienced as a state of profound relaxation during which clients are nevertheless aware of the therapist’s voice. Trance is not sleep, though it may feel like so to some; in trance, clients will remember as much of what happened during the session as they would from any casual conversation (amnesia of the session is uncommon), and can emerge from the state of hypnosis any time they wish to. When hypnotised, clients are not immobilised; they can adjust their position, scratch an itch, sneeze, or cough. They can also emerge from the trance state any time they wish to, and reject any suggestions which seem uncomfortable or conflict with their beliefs.
A professional therapist can easily learn to put someone into hypnosis, but then what next? In traditional hypnotherapy, also known as suggestion therapy, direct suggestion of symptom removal is used, with some use of therapeutic relaxation and occasionally aversion to addictive substances or behaviours (Kraft & Kraft, 2005). While effective in the short-term, just putting the person in the state of hypnosis and giving suggestions does not resolve deeper issues. It is more like applying a tourniquet; the bleeding stops, but only for a short period of time.
Modern or analytical hypnotherapy was developed from the clinical work of such people as Milton Erickson, David Cheek and Leslie LeCron (Cheek & LeCron, 1968), and draws upon concepts and techniques of psychotherapy in order to discover and address deeper, longer standing concerns. The aim of modern hypnotherapy is to find and remove the root cause of the presenting problem, as opposed to simply masking or reducing symptoms. Analytical hypnotherapy requires longer-term treatment, and is an involved process often requiring significant commitment from the client.
Modern hypnotherapy is widely accepted for the treatment of anxiety disorders (including phobias) (Golden, 2012), depression (Alladin, 2009), certain behavioural disorders, as well as in the treatment of conditions such as insomnia and addictions (Tramontana, 2009). Hypnosis has also been used to enhance recovery from non-psychological conditions such as post-surgical procedures (Bowers, 1979), in breast cancer care and even with gastro-intestinal problems such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Barabasz & Barabasz, 2006).
While hypnotherapists currently receive little to no regulation in most countries, there are various professional bodies in existence that have taken on the role of self-regulation within the hypnotherapy industry. While there is no legal obligation for hypnotherapists to join a professional body, membership does mean that they have met certain requirements set by the professional body, and they must abide by a code of ethics and complaints procedure.
If you are wary about visiting a hypnotherapist, I would recommend that you choose one that is certified and belongs to a professional body.
Alladin, A. (2009). Evidence-based cognitive hypnotherapy for depression. Contemporary Hypnosis, 26(4), 245-262.
Barabasz, A., & Barabasz, M. (2006). Effects of tailored and manualized hypnotic inductions for complicated irritable bowel syndrome patients. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 54(1), 100-112.
Barber, T. X. (2000). A deeper understanding of hypnosis: Its secrets, its nature, its essence. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 42, 208-272.
Bowers, K. S. (1979). Hypnosis and healing. Australian Journal of Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis, 7 (3), 261–277.
Cheek, D. B., & LeCron, L. M. (1968). Clinical hypnotherapy. New York: Grune & Stratton.
Golden, W. L. (2012). Cognitive hypnotherapy for anxiety disorders. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 54(4), 263-274.
Kraft, T. & Kraft, D. (2005). Covert sensitization revisited: Six case studies. Contemporary Hypnosis, 22(4), 202-209.
Tramontana, . (2009). Hypnotically enhanced treatment for addictions: Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, gambling, weight control, and smoking cessation. Norwalk, CT: Crown House Publishing Limited.
Wolinsky, S. H. (1991). Trances people live: Healing approaches in quantum psychology. Norfolk, CT: Bramble.
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