What Is Hypnotherapy?

Hypnosis is often portrayed as something mystical and magical. It’s ability to control people’s minds is often highlighted in the media, as are other supposedly ‘dark facts’.. However this is actually quite far from the truth. This is not the first time that the media have portrayed something in a wildly exaggerated light. There are basically two different uses for hypnosis. Stage hypnosis and therapeutic hypnosis, or hypnotherapy. The two are quite different, yet both still rely on the phenomenon of hypnosis. So what is hypnotherapy?

The American Psychological Association has perhaps given the most comprehensive definition of hypnosis, which is the following…(skip past it if you wish!)

“Hypnosis typically involves an introduction to the procedure during which the subject is told that suggestions for imaginative experiences will be presented. The hypnotic induction is an extended initial suggestion for using one’s imagination, and may contain further elaborations of the introduction. A hypnotic procedure is used to encourage and evaluate responses to suggestions. When using hypnosis, one person (the subject) is guided by another (the hypnotist) to respond to suggestions for changes in subjective experience, alterations in perception, sensation, emotion, thought or behavior. Persons can also learn self-hypnosis, which is the act of administering hypnotic procedures on one’s own. If the subject responds to hypnotic suggestions, it is generally inferred that hypnosis has been induced. Many believe that hypnotic responses and experiences are characteristic of a hypnotic state. While some think that it is not necessary to use the word “hypnosis” as part of the hypnotic induction, others view it as essential.

Details of hypnotic procedures and suggestions will differ depending on the goals of the practitioner and the purposes of the clinical or research endeavor. Procedures traditionally involve suggestions to relax, though relaxation is not necessary for hypnosis and a wide variety of suggestions can be used including those to become more alert. Suggestions that permit the extent of hypnosis to be assessed by comparing responses to standardized scales can be used in both clinical and research settings. While the majority of individuals are responsive to at least some suggestions, scores on standardized scales range from high to negligible. Traditionally, scores are grouped into low, medium, and high categories. As is the case with other positively-scaled measures of psychological constructs such as attention and awareness, the salience of evidence for having achieved hypnosis increases with the individual’s score.”

dreamstime_2065615This definition is obviously quite a mouthful and is not at all easy to follow. However there is no universally accepted definition for hypnosis. This is probably because it is so difficult to uncover what exactly is happening when in a trance. To understand exactly what hypnosis is and how it works, we need to ultimately discover how the human mind works. What exactly happens in the mind when a hypnotherapist guides a subject into trance, and what exactly happens when suggestions are given. Due to the immense power and complexity of the human mind, this is practically impossible with any level of certainty.

Psychiatrists understand the general characteristics of hypnosis, and they have some models of how it works. It is commonly accepted that hypnosis is a trance state that is characterized by greater suggestibility, relaxation and increased imagination. It is a natural state of mind rather like daydreaming. You are fully conscious, but you become consciously unaware of most of the stimuli around you. This is rather like when you are deeply absorbed in a book or film, and cannot hear someone trying to talk to you because you have ‘blocked it out’. You still remain fully in control.

The problems of explaining how hypnosis works are compounded by the fact that everyone’s experience of hypnosis is unique, and the readiness and ability of patients to be hypnotized varies. Hypnosis is the very opposite of a trip down to McDonald’s – no two experiences are exactly the same. However modern technology is beginning to allow us to take a deeper look, and almost peer inside the mind at what is actually happening to the brain whilst in hypnosis.

The University of Geneva published a study in the journal ‘Neuron’ using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) for a series of hypnotic studies. They noted that there were differences in the activity of the brain when a subject was placed in a hypnotic trance. The researchers used fMRI to scan brains of 12 people who were tested on hand movement before and after being hypnotized for left hand paralysis.

Despite the paralysis, neurons in the motor cortex region were still firing in preparation for the task. However the cortex appeared to be ignoring parts of the brain that it normally communicates with for controlling movement.

These results suggest that hypnosis does not inhibit the motor cortex and directly stop the hand from moving. It seems like the hypnotic suggestions allow the individual to choose to have left arm paralysis.

This makes sense from my observations of being a clinical hypnotherapist for many years. It is commonly accepted in hypnosis that a hypnotherapist cannot actually make a subject change. They can only facilitate it. For example a clinical hypnotherapist could do a very good and professional job for helping someone quit smoking. However the subject can choose to ignore this and immediately light up as soon as you have left them. They can (and sometimes do) take the attitude “I’ll show them that I can still smoke…see it doesn’t work”. However it makes it far easier for the subject to quit smoking if they choose to.

This runs counter to some popular myths of hypnosis that are often portrayed in the media. For example the classic clucking like a chicken when the doorbell sounds. In reality the person has a choice, and if they don’t want to, then they can easily resist any poultry related urges. If an emergency should break out whilst a subject is in hypnosis, then they can easily snap out and deal with it in an appropriate way. You simply cannot be ‘stuck’ in a hypnotic trance, despite what the media sometimes try to suggest.

Since it is difficult for science to fully describe hypnosis, then maybe it’s best to describe what the experience feels like. I have experienced hypnotic trances many hundreds, if not thousands of times so I can tell you what I experience, and what my patients commonly experience. When in a trance I am usually quite aware of what is being said. In fact I remember the first time I experienced a hypnotic trance. I must admit I was expecting some weird and magical state of mind, due to what I had been hearing for years in the media.

A hypnotic trance is rather like meditation. You have your eyes closed and feel deeply and pleasantly relaxed. You can move your fingers, toes, or whatever you want to move, whenever you want. Most people experiencing hypnosis for the first time usually subtly try this just to make sure.

Millions of people around the world have experienced success with hypnotherapy.

There is no loss of control, just deep relaxation, like in a daydream. And just like in a daydream state, time can pass a little differently. What can seem like just a few minutes can be an hour. Its the same feeling of time distortion as when you are deeply engrossed in a movie and it suddenly ends and you realise you have been watching it for 2 hours, not 20 minutes!

It is difficult to accurately describe the experience, but it isn’t really anything that new to what you experience at times in your life. If you ever put on headphones and chill out to some good music, then this is quite a similar experience.

Once in the trance, the therapist can then give you agreed suggestions that are beneficial to you. Your subconscious mind is then more able to absorb these and act on them in the future. It is really a means of better communicating with the subconscious mind. Once the subconscious mind is adequately communicated with, then there is usually permanent change. You can for instance tell the subconscious mind that spiders are harmless, and it then no longer feels the need to trigger the automatic fear responses.

At the end of the session when you open your eyes, that is usually when you realise just how deeply relaxed you actually were. The world can seem a little surreal for a minute or two. Often because you were so deeply relaxed, you can kind of remember what was said to you, but it can easily slip from your mind because you were so relaxed and didn’t really care at the time. It is fine if you didn’t consciously follow what was being said – the subconscious mind will still absorb it.

There are still many questions regarding hypnotherapy and how it actually works. It would seem that hypnosis can help us make changes, but ultimately it is up to you to choose whether to accept these changes, or whether to resist them. Modern technology is beginning to help us to uncover what hypnosis is and how it works…A stronger scientific foundation for hypnotherapy can only help people realise what a powerful and effective form of therapy it really is, and dispel some of the myths that are wildly distorted. Perhaps the best way for you to really understand what hypnosis is and how it works, is to try it for yourself. Then you can be sure what it feels like, and what it can help you achieve.


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This hypnotherapy session has been recorded by clinical hypnotherapist Jon Rhodes DHyp who also recorded the Gastric Band Hypnotherapy Pack. This gives you a chance to try hypnotherapy for free.