What is Hypnosis?
You arrive in your driveway, surprised to find yourself already there, having been lost in thought, not having paid attention to how you got there. You attend a lecture and, without realizing it, begin to daydream. Upon re-alerting yourself, you find that you hadn’t heard anything of what the speaker had said for the previous few minutes. Your child is engrossed in a TV show or video game and has not heard you call his name to come to dinner for the third time. These everyday experiences are examples of normal trance states, or dissociative episodes that occur spontaneously and pre-reflectively in our consciousness of the world around us, others, and ourselves. These experiences share certain characteristics that are essential to hypnosis and utilized by the hypnotist to create a special state of consciousness.
There are a number of theories developed to explain hypnosis. Nonetheless, it is now generally accepted that hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness in which certain normal human capabilities are heightened while others fade into the background. These include a narrowing down of one’s attention and concentration such that one’s perception of and interaction with the external environment are different than in a normal waking state and that one is more deeply absorbed in internal experience, as exemplified in the above examples. In hypnosis, access to trance states is facilitated utilizing a structured series of suggestions to enhance a subject’s expansive-receptivity or to become selectively focused. As trances are deepened beyond the everyday occurrences described above, alterations in perception and in cognition can be enhanced and a variety of hypnotic phenomena can be elicited depending on the depth of trance a person is able to achieve. These include but are not limited to enhancing either deep relaxation and peace or active-alert states, the sense of being detached from one’s body, over- or underestimating the amount of time passing while in trance, purposeful behavioral responses that are perceived by the subject to be involuntary, as in noticing an arm seeming to float up all by itself without the subject’s awareness that their focused attention and imaginative involvement causes the arm to rise.
Hypnosis, as practiced today in clinical settings, is a collaborative process between the clinician and subject/patient. It is not something the clinician does to the patient. In fact, the efficacy and success of clinical hypnosis depends on a number of factors related to the hypnotic relationship. Theses include trust, rapport, expectations, style of communicating and relating, a good working alliance, and confidence. Health professionals seek to utilize a patient’s particular hypnotic abilities, with his/her consent, to develop trance states useful for solving the problems that motivated the patient’s request for help. Absorbed in a highly focused state of attention, the subject is able to access a wealth of unconscious resources for change and growth that are unavailable in normal waking consciousness.
There are three main ways clinical hypnosis is used to help patients solve problems and alleviate symptoms. The first is enlisting the imagination, creating mental images that serve to bring about change. The second is to provide ideas and suggestions consonant with what the patient wants to have happen. Third, to better understand underlying motivations, conflicts, or identify past experiences that are associated with current difficulties, hypnosis can be utilized for unconscious exploration.
Over 80% of the general population is hypnotizable. Research shows that between 10%-20% of people are not hypnotizable. There is general agreement that about 20% of the general population can be considered “high hypnotizables.” Within this group reside the virtuosos of hypnotic abilities who are able, for example, to go through surgery without anesthesia and who respond most rapidly and dramatically to hypnotic interventions. The remaining 60% of the population are people whose hypnotic talents vary and for whom the qualities of therapeutic relationship play a significant role. Since only a mild to moderate trance state is required to help with most health related concerns that have been shown to be responsive to hypnotherapeutic interventions, fully 80% of the population could benefit from clinical hypnosis.
There are certain myths and misunderstandings regarding hypnosis that I’d like to address. First of all, no one can be hypnotized against his or her will. No one can be made to do anything that goes against his or her values and beliefs. No one gets stuck in a trance unable to come out of it. No one can be made to say things they are not ready to share. Hypnosis does not make one’s mind weak. In hypnosis, the patient is not under the control of the hypnotist. Rather, the hypnotist serves as a facilitator helping the patient to utilize his/her hypnotic responsivity in the service of solving a problem.
Hypnosis is not a treatment or therapy in itself. It is a powerful technique that can be incorporated within psychotherapeutic, medical, or dental treatment plans to shorten or make a particular treatment more efficacious. Therefore, it is recommended by the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, the largest American hypnosis organization for health and mental health care professionals, founded in 1957, that people seeking help for health related problems and symptoms, work with licensed health professionals with advanced degrees and certification in clinical hypnosis. Lay hypnotists may have skill in inducing trance states, but not have the proper clinical training and background to navigate complex psychological issues that could be encountered. There is a Zen saying that pertains here: “The right tool in the wrong hands becomes the wrong tool.” The American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association approved clinical hypnosis for use with patients in the 1950s.