What is Hypnosis?
Hypnosis is a natural process and provides a fantastic platform to quickly discover and adopt new ways of thinking, new ways of feeling and better ways of responding to life’s challenges. It can be used to help overcome difficult emotional issues, take control of unwanted habits and behaviors, and even provide pain relief.
Unfortunately, because of films, stage shows and TV programs, many people believe that hypnosis involves a loss of control. This is a misconception. All hypnosis is essentially self-hypnosis and provides a mechanism to gain better control of your life.
Meet the most powerful hypnotist…you!
We are actually doing self-hypnosis to ourselves on a daily basis, without even realising it! Unfortunately we are often engaged in negative self-hypnosis – when we run habitual negative patterns of thinking and behaving that seem to happen automatically – this automaticity can keep us stuck in habits that are unhelpful (perhaps smoking or overeating) and in unhelpful emotions (like anxiety, stress or anger). Even our internal dialogue – that voice that we can often be aware of chattering away at us, can be a powerful form of negative self-hypnosis. In fact that inner voice is perhaps the most influential hypnotist you have ever met!
But what if you could take more control of that negative inner voice? What if you could take control of, and change for the better, the way that you automatically respond to certain situations when you find yourself feeling distressed?
Goal directed hypnosis can act as an agent of positive change.
Scared of spiders?
One way of describing hypnosis is when your inner focus (what you are thinking and imagining) carries more weight than external reality. To illustrate this idea, consider this example of negative self-hypnosis. In the UK, spiders are typically small harmless creatures that we could easily ignore, outrun, or if we choose, crush under the heel of our shoe (not my preferred way of dealing with them!). The ‘external reality’ is that there is almost zero chance of a spider harming us. However if you consider the ‘inner focus’ of someone who has a spider phobia – their response does not reflect these facts. Chances are the spider phobic person may be visualising a terrifying outcome. They may experience an increase in heart rate and blood pressure and they may have sweaty hands. There is a possibility that they may scream and even if they don’t, they may be saying to themselves ‘this is horrendous – get that thing away from me!’
Such a response is not really proportionate to the actual risk of danger, but trying to reason with someone who has learned to respond like this is likely to be a waste of time. Such a response has been learned (and likely reinforced over many years) to happen automatically without making a conscious choice. Hypnosis can be used create changes to automatic behaviors like this. It can be used as a tool to learn and develop new and better ways of responding to the triggers that fire off many of our automatic responses. .
What do you do automatically, that isn’t helpful?
Maybe a fear of spiders is not your issue, but perhaps you can draw a comparison. A smoker may be aware of the potential health dangers of smoking, yet continues with the habit. At some level there is a perceived benefit of smoking, eg ‘it helps me relax (this is the automatic internal response – the inner focus) that outweighs the (external reality of) the risk to health. Any unhelpful emotional response is likely to be an attempt by the brain to keep you safe, but sometimes these responses need to be updated, re-shaped and developed with purpose, to produce a better response. Unfortunately some people may have endured difficult personal circumstances or traumas in the past which may have formed unhelpful ways of habitual responding in the present. Others may not have endured specific difficulties, but still struggle with negative feelings, emotions and behaviors. It seems that the brain is like a garden – weeds grow all by themselves and in order to keep the garden tidy and as we would like it, we have to intervene and take back control.
Hypnosis improves receptivity to suggestions
Modern hypnotherapy has moved a long way from the simple ‘look into my eyes…you are feeling sleepy’ stereotype portrayed by the sleazy hypnotist Kenny Craig in the BBC comedy ‘Little Britain’. The field of modern hypnotherapy has been advanced by a growing number of scientific studies and a wealth of evidence to support its use for many applications.
Deeper levels of hypnosis enable the ‘bypassing of the critical faculty of the mind’. Imagine that there is a doorman at the entrance to your mind, who will only allow suggestions that are consistent with our existing values and beliefs to enter. If this were true, then how could we expect to see change? Now imagine that the doorman gets distracted (by being hypnotised!)- now there is the possibility that new ideas can bypass him. New ideas can lead to new habits, feelings and skills.
This useful metaphor can be further illustrated by contemplating what happens when we are absorbed watching a TV drama or movie. As we watch and get caught up in the story line, we develop feelings for the characters and can become quite emotionally moved at times. As we watch, our focus of attention is narrowed, we become less aware and interested in what is happening in room around us and the events unfolding on the screen become our reality. (sounds a bit like hypnosis to me!). However, if we re-engage the critical part of our mind and snap out of ‘movie mode’ we can remind ourselves that the whole thing is an illusion – the characters are actors who have memorised a script, there’s lighting and special effects and the whole thing has been through months of post production cutting and editing. Yet whilst we are enjoying the movie, we have deliberately, though unconsciously suspended disbelief and the movie becomes our reality.
Hypnosis or Hypnotherapy?
Hypnosis in and of itself is not a mode of psychotherapy, but it can be used with great effect to support and enhance the efficacy of established modalities of psychology and in particular there is a large and growing evidence base to support the use of hypnosis with a cognitive behavioural (CBT) approach – CBT is itself supported by excellent empirical evidence.
Hypnosis begins with the narrowing of the focus of attention. Closing the eyes eliminates any visual distractions and by following the suggestions and instructions provided, the attention can be focused inwards rather than outwards, and it is here that the work can begin. With such a narrow focus, the mind is primed to learn quickly, new and positive information and new and better ways of responding. Hypnosis magnifies your subjective experience – it increases and amplifies your imagination and can make imagined experiences appear real. The brain can have difficulty distinguishing between imagined experiences and actual experiences and this provides the platform, through mental rehearsal in hypnosis, to create experiences and develop skills in the therapy room, that can be used subsequently in the real world.
For this to happen, the mind remains aware and awake throughout the hypnosis process. There may be times when the mind drifts away and still remains receptive to positive suggestions, but hypnosis is certainly not sleep, and the outcome will be greatly enhanced by adopting a positive and progressive mind set. There may be a misconception that you will not remember what happened in the session, but the more likely outcome is that you will remember about as much as you would in any other conversation.