Hypnosis – blessing or curse?
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.”
The word ‘hypnosis’ has always had a bit a mysterious connotation. Some people seem to encourage the believe that they have a very special or even esoteric skill, when they use hypnosis. This is added to by the fact that, although hypnosis has been known about for centuries, and been the subject of scientific research for over 200 years, there is still widespread misconceptions about what it actually is.
Unfortunately, hypnosis has become more widely recognised as ‘entertainment’ than as an instrument to change negative behaviours, ameliorate mental problems and ease some physical difficulties.
But there are other, more useful and safe ways of using hypnosis. Namely as a methodology in psychotherapy and to help people improve their performance in life, business or sports. We prefer to call hypnosis as Guided Imagery when it’s used in a therapeutic context.
What is a trance state?
Hypnosis or Guided Imagery induces a state of trance with the objective to make changes and learn new responses to the challenges we face.
The fact is that anyone who can focus their attention, use their imagination or who can become emotionally aroused, will, regularly, enter trance. We are in a self-induced trance whenever we are highly emotionally aroused. We can be in a trance when we are absorbed in creative activities or using our skills (gardening, writing, cooking, singing, dancing, playing football, etc.)
The famous state known as “being in the zone’ or ‘peak experience’, when we know how to do something really well and we effortlessly become one with what we are doing is also a trance state.
The deepest trance we experience is while sleeping, during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) state. We all spend part of our sleep time dreaming. It is during this state that we learn essential skills for our survival and we process emotional arousal.
So, hypnosis is not just a state of relaxation and concentration – It is the way we learn survival templates, the way we are conditioned, and the way we form our beliefs – and also the way we solve problems.
Thus, we should be very careful about the therapist we choose. In fact, hypnosis is not always safe – It is an extremely powerful process1 and anything powerful can be used to do harm as well as good.
Careless use of hypnosis can interfere with people’s development and well-being.
The literature is full of unpleasant effects that have been experienced after hypnosis. It can go from extreme fatigue, headaches, and confusion to creating false memories and to the extremes of inducing hallucinations.
It is known that, if the memory of childhood abuse only occurs after therapeutic intervention, it is most likely a false memory.
Hypnosis is practiced by all cults and political parties. The use of abstract language like ‘positive change’, ‘values’, or ‘principles’ is a way of forcing people into an internal trance to search for the meaning of these words. As they do not explain what they mean by that, each of us gives a different and personal meaning to those words. That’s how they can aggregate their followers in a mass movement – just saying a lot of unmeaning words (abstractions). All dangerous mass movements involve hypnosis and the programming of people, once they are emotionally aroused.
Of course, in good therapy, abstract language is used with benign intentions, to send clients on their own internal search to find meanings for ‘inner resources’, ‘creativity’ and ‘strengths’ etc. However, it is important to remain mindful both of how power can easily be abused and of how unintended consequences can occur when language is used loosely. Abstractions should be always deconstructed in concrete ways, otherwise, we (client and therapist) have nothing tangible to rehearse and imagine.
For example, it is dangerous when therapists repeatedly try to encourage a psychologically damaged person by telling them that they are brilliant or desirable or have a great future ahead, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever and doing nothing concrete to help make this a reality.
The hypnotic induction is, in fact, a form of trespass upon the private mental territory of another’s essence. This is territory that we should only enter reverently if invited in, and we must be careful to close the gate properly when we leave.
That is one reason that therapy should be as brief as possible. The aim of therapy is to help people detach and cope by themselves, not to become dependent.
The use of Guided Imagery in therapy
Guided Imagery is a powerful tool to help people change. Once a person is in a trance state, therapists can make powerful, positive psychological interventions, such as embedding empowering suggestions, giving direct instructions, and guiding the rehearsal of desired outcomes in imagination.
Guided Imagery (trance) also provides the best platform for desensitizing from strong emotions from traumatic events. This is why, using specific techniques, offers the fastest method to help people overcome phobias and PTSD.
Trance plus therapeutic interventions are what constitutes hypnotherapy.
Whether therapeutic trance work does harm or not depends on many factors including:
- the integrity of the person doing the therapy
- the therapist’s sincerity and intelligence (emotional and otherwise)
- their level of skill and how well they use language skills; especially metaphor
- the therapist’s level of knowledge about emotional and psychological problems
- how well the therapist knows himself
- their understanding of innate emotional needs about what a patient really requires
- the therapist’s ability to put their own ego aside
- the nature of the ideas absorbed by the patient.
Good therapy should include a combination of methodologies. We are all different, and improving life performance or tackling emotional problems always involves taking into account several factors, such as how our thoughts and beliefs are built, our social and cultural background, and the habits we already have. Nevertheless, Guided Imagery is a powerful tool that should be used as an essential part of the treatment.
The science behind Hypnosis / Guided Imagery
Scientific research about the benefits of using Guided Imagery in several circumstances and to several different problems had been increasing since the early history of hypnotherapy. Here are some of them:
For pain relief and physical health2,3
Several studies show that people who are hypnotized before undergoing medical procedures like biopsies needed less sedation during the process, and experienced less pain, nausea, and emotional distress afterwards. Hypnosis has been found to be effective when treating acute pain after accidents and for chronic long-term pain, as well as increasing the immune system response.
For stress and anxiety4
Hypnosis has long been used to overcome fear and anxiety and also to quickly and comfortably cure phobias. Many therapists use a hypnotic technique to help people dissociate from negative events, which has been shown to reduce fear by making difficult memories feel comfortable and indifferent.
Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine carried out a study on children who were anxious about medical examinations. Forty-four children participated. The group who were taught self-hypnosis reported much less anxiety and the examinations in their group even took less time.
Hypnosis can be used for all kinds of motivational issues, ranging from starting a healthy style of life, achieving goals, starting something new, feeling motivated to learn and change, etc. Research has shown that people are more likely to actually do something they’ve hypnotically rehearsed.
Hypnosis has been used to improve concentration, reaction time, sports performance, and muscle strength. A study showed that basketball players taught to visualize a free throw radically improved their skills without physically touching a basketball. Another study published in 2007 found that hypnotic visualization can increase muscle strength almost as much as actual exercise.
For self-esteem and self-confidence7
Guided imagery uses the imagination constructively to embed self-confidence and encourage a strong sense of who you are and what you can become.
For changing habits and stop addictions8
We know something is a ‘habit’ when we no longer have to really think much about it
Bad habits can be replaced with good habits.
Of course, some habits are easier to change than others but Guided Imagery has been proven effective as a way of changing habits and stopping addictions.
For example, a meta-analysis at the University of Iowa looked at more than 600 studies about the best way of stopping smoke. The results included 48 studies of hypnosis covering 6000 smokers. They clearly showed that hypnosis was three times more effective than nicotine replacement therapy.
Hypnosis has long been used to ease anxiety and pain in labour and childbirth.
The findings of a systematic review and a randomized controlled trial demonstrated significantly improved outcomes among women who used hypnosis during childbirth. The researchers concluded that “outcomes are consistently in favour of hypnosis”. They suggested hypnosis could be considered an effective alternative to epidural anaesthesia because it is less invasive, and not associated with serious complications, and many women seem to find it a more satisfying way of giving birth, handing control back to the mother.
Hypnosis can be used to encourage conception and increase fertility (in men and women). In 2004 an Israeli study involving 185 women showed that the success rate of IVF treatments doubled in a test group (from 14% to 28%) when the subjects underwent hypnosis during implantation.
For insomnia and sleep disorders11
Insomnia and other sleep disorders can be caused and, in turn, worsened, by anxiety and stress.
College students with insomnia were assigned one of three treatments for a study:
- No treatment
- Progressive relaxation (with no other suggestions)
- Hypnotic relaxation (with suggestions to sleep better).
After three therapy sessions, the progressive and hypnotic relaxation groups showed significantly greater improvement than the no-treatment controls. And hypnosis proved significantly more effective than just relaxation training.
Now we know that hypnosis, used expertly, is a wonderful tool in helping treat depression. It helps to still the mind, which is just what depressed people who chronically ruminate need. It calms down the mind and body – extremely helpful, as depressed people always have higher than normal levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Hypnosis helps people sleep better, recoup lost energy and rehearse new positive behaviours, as well as build motivation to meet their emotional needs in satisfying ways.
2. Mind Prepared: Hypnosis in Surgery | JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute | Oxford Academic (oup.com)
3. Hypnosis as a treatment of chronic widespread pain in general practice: A randomized controlled pilot trial | BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)
4. Psychological approaches during conscious sedation. Hypnosis versus stress reducing strategies: a prospective randomized study – PubMed (nih.gov)
5. Picture yourself at the polls: visual perspective in mental imagery affects self-perception and behavior – PubMed (nih.gov)
7. J Ilmi, T Suharsono, M Ingarianti – … Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research Volume 128, 2017 – atlantis-press.com.
8. A meta-analytic comparison of the effectiveness of smoking cessation methods – PubMed (nih.gov)
Hypnosis for pain relief in labour and childbirth: a systematic review | BJA: British Journal of Anaesthesia | Oxford Academic (oup.com)
10. Australian Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis Vol. 31, No. 2, 2003, 121–127 http://www.hypnosisaustralia.org.au/wpcontent/uploads/journal/AJCEH_Vol31_No2_NOV03.pdf#page=31
11. Controlled investigation of the effects of progressive and hypnotic relaxation on insomnia. – PsycNET (apa.org)
*How does hypnosis work? eBook from Mark Tyrrel