Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy - correcting a few misconceptions

When I first became a hypnotherapist I discovered that hypnosis is a topic that everyone has a view on, but not many people know much about. Most people’s understanding of hypnosis is based on what goes on during a stage show or TV programme. They may have seen this for themselves, been told about it, or just picked up impressions of what it’s like from jokes they’ve heard in the pub.

These impressions usually involve volunteers clucking like chickens, dancing with brooms or singing as Tina Turner – not something that would inspire you to look at hypnosis as a way of dealing with personal problems!

The fictional version of the hypnotist is just as bad. From Kaa the snake ('Jungle Book') onwards I have never yet seen a film or read a book in which the hypnotist was the good guy. Even 'Neighbours' and 'My Hero' got in on the act recently as the dastardly Doctor Darcy and the nasty Mrs Raven misused hypnosis for their own personal gain.

In fact, although I help people go into a hypnotic trance on a regular basis, I don’t have revolving or multi-coloured eyes, and I’m not bent on world domination (although getting the kids to clean their rooms would be nice). Clinical or therapeutic hypnosis is in fact a very relaxing and enjoyable experience and can be very effective in helping you improve your life. It’s often faster than many other therapies and without the side-effects sometimes connected with drugs. So what is this miracle really about?

The word hypnosis is relatively new, having been coined less than 200 years ago by a Scottish surgeon named James Braid. But the process of hypnosis, under other names, is thousands of years old. It appeared in Egypt as early as 3,000 BC, and references can be found in many other civilisations too – Greek, Mayan, Hindu, Chinese, Persian, Celtic/Druidic, and African. Even Genghis Khan is said by some to have dabbled in ‘group suggestion’ as a method of motivating his followers.

Early or tribal uses of hypnosis are often connected with spiritual and occult practices as well as healing, and this is probably responsible for its modern reputation as something esoteric or simply a bit weird. Around the 18th Century, hypnosis came to the attention of doctors and scientists, and hypnosis began to be seen as a scientific process rather than a supernatural phenomenon. The most famous of these early pioneers was probably Anton Mesmer (1734-1815); we still sometimes speak of mesmerising someone, and for a while the process was even known as Mesmerism. Another name that will be familiar to modern readers is Sigmund Freud. Freud had studied hypnosis at schools in both Nancy and Salpetriere, and was important to the field because he discarded the then current theory that it was only useful for hysterics. Working both from his own experiences and those of another doctor, Joseph Breuer, Freud’s interest in hypnosis helped him to develop his ideas about free association and psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, by many accounts Freud was not a particularly good hypnotist, and even found it boring! On one occasion, finding himself unable to induce a hypnotic trance, he apparently decided to take a chance and continue his free association work with his patient in the waking state. The patient recovered, so Freud, followed by many other doctors and therapists, stopped using hypnosis altogether.

For many years, the use of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool almost died out, but during the First and Second World Wars it began to be used again to treat shell shock and trauma. In prisoner of war camps, where medical supplies were limited or completely absent, it was also used successfully as emergency anaesthesia.

After the Wars, impressed with reports from returning soldiers, doctors began to experiment again and the use of hypnosis spread. The field of hypnosis is currently split into two reasonably distinct groups, which I shall call medical practitioners and lay practitioners. Medical practitioners are those who (obviously enough) have some medical qualification in addition to their hypnotic training – dentists, GPs, psychologists, psychiatrists. They may use hypnotism frequently as part of their work, or hardly ever.

I fall into the second group, that of lay practitioners. They use hypnosis with all or most of their clients and may in fact have more practical experience of it than some medical practitioners. They are also probably cheaper if you’re going privately, and some have NHS provider numbers if your GP wants to refer you.

The catch is that hypnotherapy (or clinical hypnotism, or whatever else you want to call it) is an unregulated industry, which means that there is no legal or governmental control over who can practice the profession. In theory, you could read this article, get interested and put a sign offering hypnotherapy in your window tomorrow. You could read a book about it first, but you don’t have to.

This lack of regulation is soon to be rectified by the Government but in the meantime it has led, quite understandably, to concerns about safety. Despite this, if you’re willing to do a little research it’s relatively easy to make sure you have a therapist who knows what they are doing.

The usual advice is to choose someone who belongs to one of the professional associations. This is definitely helpful because the associations will not admit anyone who cannot prove that they are trained to a reasonable standard. Reputable associations also have a Code of Ethics for practitioners and a complaints procedure for clients in case it is breached. My personal advice actually goes a step further. Look for someone who is a member of a large professional association and who also has insurance. Not only does it say that your therapist is responsible enough to safeguard their business and their clients, but insurers only gain from taking on people who are not likely to be sued. It’s another way of checking up! If you’ve found someone who looks good on paper, chat to them before booking an appointment. Ask about the training they’ve received, whether they undertake career development to keep up with the latest techniques, and if they have other relevant experience or qualifications. If you are talking to a lay practitioner, are they prepared to refer you on if they feel your problem needs to be seen by a doctor, or even another therapist with more specialised training or experience?

You also need to find someone you can relate to on a personal basis. You might need to reveal quite personal information to your therapist, so it’s important you feel comfortable with them. Some therapists, including myself, offer a free information session to potential clients. This is a 20-minute chat with no strings attached, and although no therapy or hypnosis takes place, it does give you a chance to meet me and ask your questions face to face.

If you do go ahead and book a session, what have you let yourself in for? Well, everyone probably has their own approach but with me there’s a lot of paperwork at the first session. Although all hypnotherapists use hypnosis, there are many different ways of approaching any particular problem once you ’re in trance. It’s important that I get a full history of your health, your personal circumstances and your problem to make sure that you’re a suitable candidate for hypnosis and to identify the best approach for you. Once the background stuff is out of the way, I go on to help you experience hypnosis itself. (Hypnosis is not something I do to you, by the way – it’s something you do to yourself with my guidance.)

Some people are quite nervous about going into trance for the first time, and a few take a couple of attempts to get it right. This isn’t a problem. Most people, quite understandably, ask me what it will be like. Unfortunately for me, as everyone experiences hypnosis differently, it’s a difficult question to answer.

In general terms, hypnosis is a state of very deep relaxation. Contrary to popular myth (and despite the fact that the name comes from hypnos – the Greek word for sleep) it is not the same as being asleep. If you are asleep, you don't know what's going on around you: anything obvious enough for you to notice wakes you up. In a hypnotic trance, you stay aware of your surroundings. Many people tell me their hearing seems better than usual, but background noises do not cause you to come out of trance. Your body may feel heavier or lighter than usual, and in either case you will feel wonderfully relaxed.

Once you’re under hypnosis, most therapists work with the idea of a conscious and unconscious mind (though a few use different terms for them). Your conscious mind is the one that decides what’s for dinner today and whether your socks match your tie. It’s the part you’re aware of when you’re thinking. Your unconscious mind is behind it and acts a bit like an attic. Everything you have ever known or experienced is up there somewhere - but it ’s not always easy to find what you need!

Experiences or beliefs that are stored in the unconscious can be negative or positive. Hypnosis allows you to use identify and release any unrealistic negative beliefs, and use your positive knowledge and resources to resolve problems. In very broad terms, it is a way of bypassing the part of your mind that limits your abilities or undermines your confidence by saying "I'd like to … but I can't".

Hypnotherapy excels in resolving problems where this type of emotional conflict is involved: smoking, phobias, stress reduction, motivation and weight control. Hypnosis can also be used to engage the body’s natural pain relief mechanisms to relieve long-term conditions like arthritis, although you would need your doctor’s permission before using it for this purpose. As mentioned elsewhere it’s a fairly rapid therapy (though rarely instant) and most people need only a few sessions to see a result.

Hypnosis is not mind-control. If it was, all hypnotherapists would have a 100% success rate! Even in trance, you will not do or say anything you do not wish to do or say. You are quite capable of bringing yourself out of trance or rejecting any suggestions made to you. If I suggested you should rob a bank and send me the proceeds, for example, you’re unlikely to do it! If I suggest that you see yourself as a permanent non-smoker, it will work because it’s what you want too.

Going right back to where we started, this point about mind control is also true of stage hypnotism. Volunteers who are not open to the idea of going along with a few daft suggestions do not agree to go on stage in the first place.

The same goes for hypnotherapy. If you do not believe it can help you, it probably won’t. You’ll resist going into trance or reject the suggestions to prove yourself right.

But if you do believe it might help, and are willing to give it your best, it can perform the odd minor miracle.

About the author:

Article written byDebbie Waller, Yorkshire Hypnotherapist
BA (Hons). GQHP. GHR Reg. R Hyp. PNLP.

Website: http://www.debbiewaller.com

Author: Debbie Waller
Copyright © 2023 Debbie Waller. All rights reserved

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