What is Hypnosis?
When you hear about hypnosis, often you might think of an ominous figure waving a pocket watch back and forth or a stage hypnotist making people do things against their free will. While these images may be popular on TV or in the movies, the type of hypnosis I am going to discuss is not used for dastardly deeds or entertainment purpose. I promise none of my patients are turned into zombies, bark like a dog or cluck like a chicken after I hypnotize them.
Hypnosis is a deep relaxed state where you become open to intense focus, heightened imagination and suggestion. This hyper-attentive state is called a “trance.”
Counter to what many people assume, you do not lose your free will or ability to be in control of you own wits when you are in a trance. In a trance you are fully conscious and alert. You are not asleep, but rather you are intensely focused on the subject at hand. When you are in a trance, you feel uninhibited, relaxed and tune out the worries, doubts and self–conscious thoughts that restrict your ability to be attentive and focused.
Most people have experienced a trance like state. Milton Erickson, a world renowned hypnotist of the 20 century, contended that most people walk around in a trance on a daily basis. Have you ever spaced out in your car and miss your exit, day dreamed during a lecture, became so absorbed in a book or video game that you do not hear someone calling your name? Perhaps we spend more time in a trance than we would like to admit.
When done properly, hypnosis can be a helpful intervention used as part of the psychotherapeutic process. Hypnosis can be combined with psychotherapy to treat an array of psychological issues related to trauma, anxiety, stress, addictions, pain and eating.
The History of Hypnosis
Hypnosis is not a new procedure in the world of mental health. The medical community began using hypnosis to treat psychological conditions over two hundred years ago. In the 18th century an Austrian physician, named Franz Mesmer, was the first person to utilize hypnosis to treat both medical and psychological aliments. His name is still synonymous with hypnosis. A person in a trance is sometimes referred to as being “mesmerized. ”
In the 19th century, hypnosis was being used by the psychiatric community to treat psychosomatic related illness. Sigmund Freud was one of the first physicians to use hypnosis to treat patients who suffered from psychological conditions due to repressed memories. By using hypnosis, Dr. Freud was able to reduce the patient’s high level of anxiety so she could unblock and work through the past trauma that was causing her symptoms.
How Does Hypnosis Affect You Physiologically?
Most scientists today believe that hypnosis subdues the conscious mind so that it takes a less active role in your thought process. By calming your conscious mind, the psychologist can have greater access to your subconscious thoughts and be attuned to your deeper thoughts and emotions that affect who you are and how you think and feel. It can bring up past memories and experiences that you have either repressed because they were too painful or anxiety provoking.
There is ample evidence in the literature that hypnosis does in fact make significant physiological changes to one’s body and state of mind. Like many forms of deep relaxation, research has shown that hypnosis lowers heart rate and slow down respiration.
Utilizing electroencephalographs (EEG), researchers have demonstrated when in a trance there is a boost in the lower waves associated with sleep and dreaming and a decrease in the higher frequency waves associated with full wakefulness.
In addition, neurologists studying the cerebral cortex have demonstrated that hypnotized patients show a decrease in left hemisphere activities and an increase in right hemisphere activities. The left hemisphere controls logical and deductive reasoning and the right hemisphere controls the creative and imagination functions of the cerebral cortex.
Can I Be Hypnotized?
The literature suggests that 75 to 80 percent of the general population can be hypnotized. In my own practice, I have found most people are able to hypnotized, if they are opened to the process and do in fact want to be helped by the intervention. Motivation is an important factor in determining whether hypnosis will work.
Unlike a fixed gaze induction -- the method you often see on TV -- in my Westport, CT office I do a progressive relaxation and imagery induction that gradually relaxes the patient, keeps their conscious controlling mind busy, so he or she can relax into the trance in a non-defensive manner. The progressive relaxation and imagery method works well with individuals who are anxious, and have a hard time shutting off their minds or fear losing control. It works like the magician who has the audience focus on what they are doing with their right hand to distract them from the actual trick being done with their left hand. It is my experience that even people who find it impossible to meditate are able to relax with hypnosis because their active mind are being occupied by the continuous verbal cuing of the hypnotist.
In order to achieve a decrease in symptoms or a reduction in bad habits, I utilize a combination of hypnosis and behavior modification. Like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the patient learns techniques to reprogram negative thoughts and behaviors while in a trance. For example, the cigarette will taste bitter or take 3 sips of cold water and you will not feel anxious when you cross the bridge.
Will Hypnosis Help Me?
Prior to utilizing hypnosis, it is important for the clinician to do a comprehensive psychiatric assessment to determine if the person has the mental stability and ego strength to undergo such a procedure. Hypnosis is not for everybody. Hypnosis is not for individuals who suffer from severe thought or mood disorders. If a person is not psychologically stable, hypnosis, like many forms of deep relaxation, can have negative consequences, and lead to psychotic breaks or mood instability.
Hypnosis can be an excellent tool used as part of the psychotherapeutic process. I find it particularly helpful for individuals who suffer from anxiety. Many primary care physicians and psychiatrists refer their patients to me after all else have failed. Their patients tried all different types of psychotherapy and medications, but they are still anxious. In addition to general anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, obsessions and compulsions, hypnosis is an excellent tool in working with people who suffer from Post-Traumatic stress Disorder (PTSD). Hypnosis allows the psychologist to work on the traumatic issues in a safe and contained manner. By limiting the trauma work to the hypnotic session, the individuals gets to work through the trauma, while still being able to function normally when not in the doctor’s office.
How Long Does Hypnosis Take to Work?
I can often tell if a person will benefit from hypnosis in a couple of sessions. If the suggestions work, you should have results right away. However, hypnosis is an accumulative process and often takes numerous sessions to have a long term affect. Hypnosis alone cannot stop an addiction, eliminate an irrational fear, or modify how one thinks or behaves. Change takes insight and cognitive and behavior modification. In many cases hypnosis works best in conjunction with insight psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or medication management. When it comes to anxiety, learning how to relax one’s body is essential. I often tell my patients how important it is to do both aerobic exercises as well as yoga or stretching to loosen bodily tension. As part of hypnotic exercise, I relax each part of the patient’s body and can see first-hand where they hold tension in their bodies. An important component of hypnosis is self-hypnosis; learning exercises to do at home on a daily basis in order to achieve behavior modification, symptom relief and significant reduction in daily stress.
Dr. Martin Klein is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport, Stamford and Fairfield CT. He works with children, adults and couples.