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What is Hypnosis?

Hypnosis is a state of focused attention where a person's concentration is directed inwards (this process is known as absorption).  Because the mind is focused inwards in such a sharpened way, people in a hypnotic trance report diminished perception of external cues, such as noise, etc.  People in trance are dissociating from, or zoning out these external distractions.  
This hypnotic process happens naturally for most people at times during the day.  An example of hypnosis would be daydreaming:

Have you ever become really focused on a thought or image ñ so much so that you briefly lost awareness of your surroundings?  For example, you might be driving a car and sitting at a long red light lost in your thoughts.  Upon the light turning green, it might take a honk of the horn from the car behind you to re-alert you to the fact that it was time to drive.

Or perhaps there have been times when you've been listening to a really dull speaker or in a meeting that has been dragging on and on, and you find yourself drifting away into your thoughts and away from what is happening in the meeting.  You might find yourself jolting to awareness as you realize that you have no idea how much time has passed or what was just said in the meeting.

Hypnosis vs. Clinical Hypnosis

While hypnosis is a naturally occurring state of mind or being rather than a technique, clinical hypnosis is the targeted use of hypnosis by a trained health practitioner to specifically address a particular mental health or health concern.  The key in distinguishing the two is that hypnosis refers to a (naturally occurring) mental state, whereas clinical hypnosis is a method or technique used to facilitate this hypnotic state in a clinically useful way.

The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) is the association responsible for training and certifying medical and mental health practitioners in clinical hypnosis.  ASCH has standardized and rigorous requirements for certification in clinical hypnosis.  For more information on these standards, visit the ASCH website at www.asch.net

How does Clinical Hypnosis work?

Clinicians utilizing clinical hypnosis generally begin with an induction, which is a technique designed to focus a client's attention inwards.  This could be anything from directing the person's attention to a specific spot and giving directions for focusing to having them raise or lower their arms and imagine phenomena associated with this process (e.g. a heavy or light object).  The purpose of these and other inductions is to enhance the client's inward focus on their body.  Most clinicians will work to deepen the hypnotic trance by having the client visualize hypnotic imagery (imagination is an important component of hypnosis).  Once a client is in a hypnotic trance, the clinician will then give the client specific suggestions associated with addressing the problem.  These suggestions can range from imagery connected to alleviating the concern or specific instructions about doing so.  These suggestions are very similar to those given in a wakeful state.  However, research indicates that individuals in trance are more receptive to these suggestions because their active, conscious minds are disengaged, and they are in a more receptive state.  In fact, brain research shows that brain waves change from beta waves, which are active during a wakeful state, to alpha, theta and gamma waves (depending on the level of trance).  These types of brain waves are generally associated with sleeping.  Lastly, the clinician will prepare and then bring the hypnotized client out of trance in the re-alerting stage.  Following re-alerting, with the client in a wakeful state, the clinician and client will discuss the client's hypnotic experience.

What Does Hypnosis Feel Like?

Many people in a hypnotic trance report afterwards that they felt very mentally focused while at the same time feeling physically relaxed.  When re-alerted following a trance, many people report having a sharp awareness of what was being said to them, yet feel physically as if they just awoke from a nap.  They may feel groggy or a little tired, although this feeling quickly goes away.  However, there are many different sensations that people can report from trance, depending on one's level of hypnotizability (next question).  The bottom line is despite the fact that hypnotic phenomena (mental and physical sensations associated with hypnosis) vary by person, most people report it is a pleasant experience.

Am I Hypnotizable?

There is not consensus on the issue of hypnotizability.  Some hypnotherapists believe that everyone is hypnotizable, whereas many other hypnotherapists believe that one's level of hypnotizability is a trait.  As with other traits, this means that there will be a range of levels in the population, resembling the shape of a bell curve.  With a bell curve, most people fall in the middle or average range for this trait, whereas smaller percentages report high and low hypnotizability.  There are varying methods for assessing hypnotizability, the most prominent being the Hypnotic Induction Profile (HIP).  In addition, there are physical signs that a trained clinician can observe in clients to assess whether a person is in a light, medium, deep (or no) trance.  Although the research findings can vary to some degree, most estimate that higher than 90% of the population can experience at least a light hypnotic trance.  People in the much smaller group of the population who are highly hypnotizable can be put under trance for more intensive procedures such as surgery and childbirth!  My personal view on the matter is that since even light hypnosis can be of some benefit in addressing many clinical concerns, hypnosis can be useful to most people that I work with.   

Will I Lose Control During Hypnosis?

The answer is a simple NO.  No one can use hypnosis to make someone else do something that they do not want to do.  People in trance still have awareness of what is being asked of them, and they will only do it if they want to.  I'm sure that some of you reading this may wonder about stage hypnotists, who appear to have complete control over their hypnotic subjects.  This is not actually the case.  First, stage hypnotists scan the crowd prior to performing in order to identify possible participants who appear both extroverted and hypnotizable.  They are looking for extroverted types because those people are going to be more willing to go along with their suggestions in order to perform for the crowd.  So, when you see these participants barking like a dog or clucking like a chicken on stage, keep in mind the following: (1) some of these people may not even be in trance at all, and they may just be faking it (2)  some actually are in trance, but they want to do these things the hypnotist is asking of them.  Perhaps you've noticed at the end of shows when the hypnotist brings the participants out of trance that some appear confused and disoriented.  This is because these stage hypnotists are not trained to apply clinical hypnosis and do not adequately lead the person out of trance in a gentle, directed manner.  The result is a sudden re-alerting, which can be disorienting.  It is not harmful, in the sense that are no long-term effects to my knowledge, but nonetheless not a particularly enjoyable feeling.  The best analogy is when you are suddenly awoken from a sleep, such as by a loud alarm clock, it can be a jarring, unpleasant feeling.  

Can I become stuck in a hypnotic trance?

NO.  While it might be smoother to be re-alerted in a directed, gradual manner, we possess the ability to re-alert ourselves as needed.  Because the hypnotized client has control over her or his trance at all times, he or she can re-alert as necessary.

How do you use hypnosis in your work?

First, just like with therapy, I conduct a detailed intake evaluation (usually 60 minutes).  In addition to thoroughly assessing a client's history and background, with hypnosis clients I like to get a sense of what has been tried, what has and has not worked for them, and particular activities, imagery, and sensations they enjoy (as well as those that they do not).  All of this information helps me tailor the clinical hypnosis directly to the client and her/his needs.  I find that a more personalized hypnotic approach works the best.

Following the intake and a discussion of what to expect from the clinical hypnosis experience, I will use hypnosis in subsequent sessions.  I find that people become better at entering hypnosis as they get more practice with it.  For this reason, usually the first hypnosis session takes the longest because the induction stage is lengthier.  As clients become more experienced at entering hypnotic trance, we can shorten the induction and deepening phases and move more quickly into the actual hypnotic suggestions.  

Generally, I strive to keep the number of hypnosis sessions relatively limited (in the 4-6 session range).  However, the number of sessions really depends on the particular clinical concern.  In some cases, hypnosis can be used effectively in fewer sessions, and in some cases more are necessary.  It is possible to have a successful outcome in as little as one hypnosis session; on the other hand, certain chronic problems with a long-term complex history could require long-term hypnosis.  Regardless, my goal is on transitioning from something called hetero-hypnosis (two person hypnosis, where there is a hypnotherapist and a hypnotic subject) to self-hypnosis.  I enjoy utilizing hypnosis because it is such a portable, empowering skill.  Anyone can learn to effectively use hypnosis on themselves.  AND, by teaching my clients self-hypnosis, this allows them to frequently use it as part of a good self-care regimen.

In addition to working with clients exclusively using clinical hypnosis (e.g. someone who is referred to me specifically for hypnosis for a particular problem), I also often integrate hypnosis into the regular therapeutic treatment of my clients, with their consent.  I view it as one of many clinical tools that I use to address their concerns in an effective manner.

What is Self Hypnosis?

Self hypnosis is just what the name implies.  It involves putting yourself into a trance.  Since hypnosis is a naturally occurring state, as clients become more effective at going into trance they are able to induce it on themselves.  Usually, I will transition them into self-hypnosis by giving them a CD/MP3 recording with my voice on it going through a hypnotic script.  They can then follow the script and go into hypnosis on their own.  As clients become more comfortable with self hypnosis, they can substitute their own voice for the CD.  In this sense, the self-hypnosis becomes more free-form, but it can be just as effective.  The degree to which a person uses a recording or their own voice completely depends on their comfort level.  Either way is fine.  Some people feel more comfortable following an outside voice rather than having to concentrate on giving themselves suggestions.  Again, it is just a matter of preference.

Is All Hypnosis Done in a Relaxed Environment?

So far, as you read this, you may be thinking that all hypnosis involves closed eyes and a relaxed environment.  NO - this is not the case.  There is a type of hypnosis called active-alert hypnosis, which naturally occurs (and can be induced) in an active state.  This type of hypnosis is used particularly for performance enhancement, such as with athletes or test-takers.  The generally principle is the same as with regular hypnosis: a hypnotic state is being induced by focusing one's attention inwards.  However, in active-alert hypnosis, this process is occurring while the person is in activity.  Scratching your head over this one?  Consider the following example, and it may become clearer.  Many star athletes report "being in the zone" during peak performances.  "Being in the zone" means being in a concentrated state, in a rhythm, where everything else is blocked out.  Sound familiar?  Michael Jordan often reported this feeling during games where he was scoring bucket after bucket.  Of course, there aren't many Michael Jordans, but the principle still applies.  The individual is actively moving, but focusing her or his attention inwards and blocking out external stimuli.  Going with another basketball example (I am a big hoops fan), think about the players that are able to make pressure-filled foul shots with the game on the line and thousands of fans screaming and waving their hands behind the basket.  It could be said that they are in an active-alert hypnotic trance.  

I have used active-alert hypnosis with athletes to help them block out anxiety and external distractions in order to improve their performances.  If active-alert hypnosis is something of interest to you, let me know and we can discuss how we might utilize this approach together.

For More Information

These are some great resources that I recommend viewing:

(1) American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH), "Information for the General Public"

(2) American Psychological Association (APA), Division 30 (Hypnosis), "New Definition: Hypnosis"

(3) American Psychological Association (APA), Division 30 (Hypnosis), "Hypnosis: What It Is and How It Can Help You Feel Better"

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