What is hypnotherapy?
Hypnotherapy, also called clinical hypnosis, or clinical hypnotherapy, is a style of psychotherapy where the therapy is conducted while a person is in a hypnotic trance state. It uses the natural properties of the hypnotic state to direct a client’s attention to helpful experiences or ideas in the context of a therapy model such as CBT.
It essentially utilises a hypnotic trance state as a vehicle for therapy to be received by a client at a deeper level than is typically achieved through standard talk therapies. Hypnotic trance is a very focussed state of attention where a client will be closely in tune with their inner thoughts and the connection between the body and the mind.
It is a conscious state and a person in trance is fully aware of everything that is going on and able to choose how to respond in thought or action.
Trance involves the unconscious mind and the distinction between the conscious mind. This is often portrayed as unusual or a special experience, and while some aspects of the unconscious are not readily accessible to the conscious mind, most of what is unconscious is simply what someone is not currently consciously aware of.
As soon as I draw your attention to something, it goes from unconscious to conscious awareness. The part of your mind that monitors your conscious experience is like a spotlight that focuses on what you choose to pay attention to.
Official industry standard definitions and a description of hypnosis
World leader in hypnosis Michael D. Yapko describes hypnosis in his textbook Trancework 4th Edition as “A focussed experience of attentional absorption that invites people to respond experientially on multiple levels to amplify and utilise their personal resources in a goal-directed fashion.”
The American Psychological Association website describes hypnosis as “a therapeutic technique in which clinicians make suggestions to individuals who have undergone a procedure designed to relax them and focus their minds.”
The American Psychological Association has a division (APA Division 30: Society of Psychological Hypnosis) that “is devoted to exchanging scientific information, advancing appropriate teaching and research, and developing high standards for the practice of hypnosis.”
In 2014, the Div. 30 Executive Committee prepared the following official definitions related to hypnosis:
Hypnosis: A state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.
Hypnotic Induction: A procedure designed to induce hypnosis.
Hypnotizability: An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts or behaviour during hypnosis.
Hypnotherapy: The use of hypnosis in the treatment of a medical or psychological disorder or concern.
https://ijceh.com/apa-div30 They also provide an information brochure that is available at https://www.apadivisions.org/division-30/about/hypnosis-brochure.pdf
How does hypnotherapy work?
Hypnotherapy induces what is called a trance-state in the client. Within this state, the client typically maintains significant focus and concentration, often accompanied by relaxation. The focussed state in hypnosis facilitates a level of inward awareness that supports change and flexibility. It is often characterised by increased acceptance of suggestion and engagement with imagination.
This process is very similar to the state sometimes described as being in ‘the zone’, or in a state of ‘flow’ when you find yourself completely immersed in a task or something like a movie, book, or video game.
Through this trance-state, hypnotherapy connects your conscious mind with your unconscious thought processes, allowing therapy to work on automatic or unconscious patterns of thought and behaviour.
Many problems are based on unhelpful automatic thoughts, these are unconscious thought processes that have essentially been programmed by past experience.
People aren’t always aware of their thoughts unless they direct their attention towards them but when someone openly engages with their thoughts they can reconsider and challenge them.
Unhelpful thoughts and behaviours can become established as habits, or get stuck as automatic responses which are difficult to think yourself out of.
We all know of things that we think we should do differently, but actually doing or seeing things differently sometimes takes a step that our conscious mind finds difficult.
Hypnosis helps form the link between our mental resources, skills and experiences to promote functioning in a problem area. Since hypnotherapy works by directing attention inwardly and guiding clients on a path through a problem, it can help undo some of the negative influences in life and unhelpful thoughts.
The power of hypnosis is purely in the client’s ability and freedom to choose to explore new ways of thinking or approaching a problem. Hypnosis generally leads to an openness to possibility, and an insightful awareness of current and potential ways of thinking, feeling and acting.
A hypnotherapist will suggest the client attend to particular ideas or images, like shining a spotlight onto a potential solution or path through a problem.
Ultimately the client chooses their path and has complete free will. The hypnotherapist does not actually have any special power to force a choice or action.
Generally, results can be seen after 3 to 6 sessions but it is not uncommon for some gains to be seen after or even during the first session.
Everyone and every problem is different, so this is important to consider this when forming expectations of therapy. Hypnotherapy can be a powerful guide towards change but results can vary. Fortunately, most people can benefit from this therapy type.
What does a hypnotherapy session look and feel like?
A typical session starts with a discussion with your therapist, defining the problem, determining goals and strategies. This part is much like a typical counselling session.
The next part is quite different. The client will usually settle back comfortably in either a seated or reclined position and close their eyes.
There are options for hypnotherapy with eyes open if this is a concern. The client will normally not talk during the hypnosis except in some circumstances when asked for feedback.
The therapist will talk to the client using voice and language techniques that are specifically designed for hypnosis.
The language patterns of hypnotherapy can seem a bit different or unusual to the analytical observer, this is because the unconscious mind processed language somewhat differently to the conscious mind. The therapist will usually speak slowly and softly.
The content of a session may include imaginative stories, illustrations and metaphors, along with playful thought techniques and humour which are specially chosen to take the client on a journey and give them an experience that leads to productive change.
Some standard cognitive behavioural therapy techniques are also used during hypnosis.
Hypnotherapy sessions are often recorded so that a client may listen to it again at home, thus maximising the benefit of the session. People often find they get something new out of the recording each time they listen to it.
Since people in hypnosis may find their attention wandering to their own thoughts they may tune in and out of what the therapist is saying at different points throughout a session, they may discover something they previously didn’t hear in the session.
It is also possible that people in a very relaxed state can drift close or even into sleep, so a recording is a helpful way of ensuring they gain maximum value from the intervention.
Hypnosis generally does not involve touching; however, some light touch of the hands, arms or shoulders can be incorporated into practice. Some physical phenomena such as arm catalepsy may also be used as part of some therapeutic interventions or inductions.
Types of hypnotherapy
At Direct Focus Solutions, we offer a style of hypnotherapy called Ericksonian hypnotherapy based on the work of American Psychiatrist Milton Erickson. It is a modern approach to hypnotherapy which is more conversational and permissive than older directive or regimented approaches.
An Ericksonian hypnotherapist will generally offer suggestion and choice rather than telling you what to think or feel. Many people find this a more comfortable and respectful experience.
Hypnotherapy is can encompass many different styles and approaches; it is advisable to choose your therapist carefully as the therapeutic alliance is very important in hypnotherapy. The views, approach and style of therapy varies from therapist to therapist.
It is important to feel comfortable and safe with your therapist. Even though hypnosis is generally safe and it is uncommon for negative effects to occur, you might find a lack of fit diminishing the benefit of therapy. If you have a particular concern, you can address this with your therapist.
Things to look out for
The hypnotherapy industry is unfortunately not well regulated currently. While there is a push in the industry for robust standards of practice and qualification, there are plenty of people who call themselves hypnotherapists who have little to no psychological experience and very little training in hypnosis.
Fortunately, there are accreditation boards and professional bodies who enforce strict standards amongst their members, such at the Australian Hypnotherapists Association https://www.ahahypnotherapy.org.au/ who also have registers of therapists searchable by name or location.
Some signs to look out for are claims of curing any disease or mental illness, spiritual images (unless you feel this is particularly suitable for you), claims of supernatural healing abilities and association with other alternate practices such as Reiki, Crystal Healing or Tarot card reading.
Check that your therapist has a reputable qualification at a Diploma level with a registered training organisation and some clinical experience. Most professional bodies only endorse practitioners with Diploma level qualifications, although certificate level qualifications may also be accepted.
Some psychologists, counsellors, psychiatrists or general practitioners have experience with hypnosis, and these clinicians may be more appropriate for individuals seeking support with diagnosed mental illness or significant concerns.
A hypnotherapist should have suitable professional standards and practices. This includes professional indemnity insurance, training in first-aid, a police check and Working With Children Check if applicable. It is important to note that Past-Life-Regression therapy techniques are not covered by insurance even if your therapist states that they have insurance, as these techniques are associated more frequently with negative experiences or imagined traumas.
Hypnosis cannot be used to uncover forgotten, hidden or repressed memories as this process is unreliable and subjects in hypnosis may not be able to distinguish a true recovered memory from an imagined one. Hypnosis is a creative and imaginative process so information gained through hypnosis should be treated with caution. Steer clear of any therapist who promotes memory recovery.
Sadly, there are many myths and misconceptions surrounding hypnotherapy and hypnosis. You are invited to discuss any concerns with your therapist, there are no silly questions.
Misconceptions are largely driven by the use of hypnosis in stage shows and entertainment. They give the impression that subjects are under the control of the hypnotist, in a performance that is presented as magic.
Some common misconceptions and questions are:
Despite appearances, hypnosis is not control or something done to you, it is something you engage in. You cannot be forced to do something against your will while in a trance-state (such as the stereotypical “quack like a duck!”).
Hypnotherapy clients are fully conscious of their participation, thinking and memory. It is only with the permission of the client’s mind that any affects may occur. Hypnotherapy does not use any stage tricks or deception.
Hypnotherapy utilises the ability of client’s mind to willingly participate in the power of suggestion for therapeutic purposes.
In fact, suggestion plays a part in everyday life, and many problems have an unconscious or trance component which contributes to the development and sustaining of a problem. Hypnotherapy helps someone challenge unhelpful thought patterns and allows the negative effects of thoughts and beliefs to be corrected.
Hypnosis is a completely disconnected experience
Many people would be familiar with the variations in attention when they are doing something familiar. When someone’s attention is directed inward to their thoughts and feelings the part of their mind that generates their conscious experience is selecting only a part of what is going on within and around them.
It is particularly recognisable in driving, in what is called highway hypnosis. During highway hypnosis someone will usually feel like they are suddenly at their destination or realise that they had been zoned out or lost in thought and were unaware of what happened in their journey.
During the time they are unaware of, they safely navigated the traffic, stopped where appropriate, checked their blind spots and changed lanes.
They still had control over their attention and if something had happened that they needed to pay attention to, they would have become aware as needed.
The unconscious is a strange or unfamiliar place:
There is nothing inherently strange, dangerous or scary about the unconscious. The unconscious mind comprises all information, learning, behaviour patterns, thoughts and feelings that someone in not currently consciously aware of.
Most of these things may become conscious from time to time or be able to be recalled, but some things may be unavailable to the conscious mind. Consciousness can be thought of as an observer of the output of the unconscious mind, and your unconscious is just as much you.
Bringing something into consciousness can allow you to re-evaluate it but some change is needed in the unconscious, since that is where the problem originates. Hypnosis speaks directly to the unconscious so can help deeper issues, associations or responses to be resolved.
The unconscious is commonly associated with mastery of a skill and hypnosis often said to access ‘the mastery state’. You may be familiar with some phenomena such as thinking (or overthinking) a routine task, when you realise you aren’t quite sure how you do that and the process becomes clunky. This is because the unconscious drives this skill and the conscious part of you hasn’t actually learned it.
Revealing sensitive information:
Hypnosis does not decrease your ability to decide what information to share. Just like you cannot be made to do anything against your will, you will also not be inclined to reveal sensitive information.
Hypnosis is a natural state of mind that can occur briefly in everyday life. Hypnotherapy uses the properties of a trance-state for therapeutic applications.
You cannot get trapped in the trance, just like you cannot get trapped in sleep. Sometimes clients may become so relaxed in hypnosis that they do fall asleep but they can always be woken.
It is possible to a client to be reluctant to return to an outwardly alert state, since hypnosis often creates a comfortable, safe and enjoyable experience.
Some people may therefore take longer to return, particularly in clients with autism spectrum disorder.
As previously mentioned, hypnosis cannot be used to uncover forgotten, hidden or repressed memories. The hypnotic state is naturally a creative and imaginative state, and while sometimes unconscious information may become more available to you through hypnosis, it is difficult to distinguish imagination from memory. Information gained through hypnosis should be treated with caution.
Hypnosis is only for unintelligent people/Hypnosis won’t work on me
Hypnosis is an active mental process so it actually needs a reasonable level of intelligence in order to work. Hypnosis also works well with children due to their vivid and creative imaginations. There are however, circumstances in which hypnosis may be less effective or unsuitable.
It is generally less effective for people who find it difficult to sustain focus, such as those with intellectual disabilities, cognitive decline or severe disorders affecting attention or the ability to retain consciousness. Hypnosis is unsuitable for people with psychosis or severe dissociative disorders as this may prompt a dissociative episode or uncomfortable experience.
Hypnosis will feel different
This is not always the case, hypnotherapy can be effective regardless of whether it felt like a wonderful imaginative journey, or just listening with your eyes closed.
It feels different to everyone and can be different each time.
The number of sessions required to resolve a problem is determined by a number of factors and there is no fixed formula for how long it will take.
While results may be surprisingly fast and easy, some problems may take a number of sessions for desired results. Even if a problem seems to have improved after one session, it is important for some underlying thought processes to be covered to prevent recurrence.
How can hypnotherapy help me?
Due to its flexibility, hypnotherapy can be used to address a number of issues. These include:
• Management of depression, stress and anxiety
• Phobias and panic
• Dealing with trauma or PTSD
• Addictions (such as smoking or alcohol)
• Helping to reduce chronic pain