Understanding Hypnosis

Adapted from article by Mitch Smith, LCSW

Hypnosis is being utilized as a therapeutic tool by increasingly more healthcare professionals.  Two of the most recognized uses of hypnosis are to lessen pain and to control habits such as smoking or overeating.  It is also used to eliminate anxiety and panic attacks successfully, often when other approaches have failed.  Hypnosis is without equal when it comes to uncovering and healing psychological trauma such as rape, car accidents or childhood abuse.

Often psychotherapy that utilizes hypnosis is called hypnotherapy.  This term is rather confusing because it implies that the trained therapist abandons every other psychotherapy approach when the hypnosis is used.  Rather, the hypnotic state can speed up other techniques and amplifies the mind’s ability to help people reach their goals and resolve problems.

The following are frequently asked questions of a professional using hypnosis:

1. Can I be hypnotized?

Basically all people can be hypnotized.  The professional begins by explaining what it is like to be hypnotized.  An explanation ensues of how we often experience spontaneous states of hypnosis with the eyes open.  For instance, you may have had the experience of driving down the highway where you go many miles through towns, past exits and all of a sudden you say to yourself “I can’t believe that I’m here already.”  During the process of driving, we frequently become absorbed in a variety of activities like the sound of the tires going over the road, the scenery we are passing, the sound of the music on the radio or music to which we are listening.  There are many things which take us into a state of absorption during the process of driving.  The state of absorption is a hypnotic trance.  It is an example of an eyes opened hypnotic trance typically called “highway hypnosis.”  You may also have experienced reading a book or watching a television program and someone comes into the room to say something to you, but you don’t respond.  It may seem as if you don’t hear them at all until they raise their voice or tap you on the shoulder.  This again, is an example of an eyes opened hypnotic trance.  Being able to be hypnotized is very much about being absorbed in something.  When hypnosis is used clinically, which means we are going to use it to solve a problem or achieve a goal, clients usually close their eyes to go into the trance state.  Closing the eyes helps to focus and go even deeper into the absorption process.

2. Will I be asleep and will I remember what happens?

You will not go to sleep and you will most likely remember.  There are many misconceptions about what it’s like to be hypnotized.  The most common misconception is that people think you will lose awareness in hypnosis.  Really quite the opposite occurs.  The eyes are closed so you don’t see anything around you, but your awareness about all your senses is dramatically heightened.  In the office of a building, you may become more aware of the sounds of traffic outside, sounds in the building, and very aware of any sound in the office, like the ticking of a clock.  It is a heightened state of awareness, not a lessened one as many people think.

A second misconception about what it is like to be hypnotized is that people believe you will spontaneously begin to reveal secrets, or anything you have ever kept secret in your life will come babbling out for some reason.  Again, hypnosis is a heightened state of awareness.  You are more aware of anything you would be thinking about saying, and most certainly aware of anything you would say.  No one speaks spontaneously in hypnosis, perhaps even less so in hypnosis.  Again you are in a heightened state of awareness and may become aware of thoughts or behaviors that can help you with your problem.

A third misconception about what it is like to be in hypnosis is that of amnesia.  A misunderstanding is that you are going to come out of the hypnosis and not remember a thing that happened while you were in the hypnosis.  Where that myth comes from is a tidbit of fact which has been highly sensationalized by books, movies and stage hypnosis.  There is a small portion of the population which are capable of such intense states of the absorption process and have an ability to follow through with a suggestion to fail to remember something that is suggested.  They do not remember once they come out of the trance.  Most people are not capable of this phenomenon even if they thought it would be a nice thing to happen. Even those capable of the amnesia phenomena will reject the suggestion if they find it undesirable.  Even when the person is capable of the amnesia phenomena, it most likely will not hold up for more than a few minutes after the person comes out of the trance.  The typical scenario is the stage hypnotist act where the amnesia phenomena is demonstrated with a person in the small percentage who is carefully selected from a group of volunteers coming up to a stage to participate.  Within minutes after the trance is terminated, the person will spontaneously remember everything that was suggested they not remember.  A post hypnotic suggestion for amnesia simply will not hold up for very long at all.  Most people remember everything that happens in hypnosis, whether it is suggested they remember or not remember.

3. How does the hypnosis help with things like smoking cessation, weight control, anxiety and pain?

If you revert back to some of the spontaneous states of hypnosis (i.e., driving, reading or watching a movie), a very soothing physiological effect occurs in the body.  We experience a relaxation response in our physiology.  Muscle tension lessons.  Blood pressure is reduced.  Respirations slow down and it feels good.  It is said that “all hypnosis is self hypnosis.”  What that means is that hypnosis is something that most everyone can do but rarely learns how to do systematically.  The professional can guide a person into hypnosis and then embed and condition a cue which will allow the person to easily induce the relaxed state again when needed or desired.  Most people report experiencing a relaxation in hypnosis more intense than ever previously experienced.

Being able to do the self hypnosis is very empowering and comforting for lessening cravings for cigarettes or food if that is your purpose.  It can also help to dramatically change one’s response to stressors in life and conditions such as pain.  Hypnosis has been used by women as the only anesthesia during child birth by Caesarean section, as well as dental work and surgical procedures, thereby making its other uses seem quite plausible.

A second way in which hypnosis works is that when a person goes into the hypnotic state, the mind encodes and imprints on things differently.  So if we program the mind, so to speak, in the right way, then our mind will encode that program and as a result tend to follow through. The client can be introduced to desired suggestions in the work with the therapist and then can amplify and reinforce the effects of the suggestions when they hypnotize themselves periodically.

If you are interested in speaking to someone who specializes in hypnosis you should be cautious and ask about credentials.  Hypnosis is not an independent science, but only one modality of medical, psychological and dental treatment.  Training in hypnosis alone does not make one a clinician or therapist.  The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis ( www.ASCH.net )  is a national society of physicians, dentists, nurses and psychotherapists which trains only licensed health care professionals in clinical hypnosis.  Certification by this organization represents a minimum of standards and training having been met.

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