What is hypnosis?
The term ‘hypnosis’ has long been associated with entertaining side-shows in which the unsuspecting member of the public is made to cluck like a chicken every time they hear a bicycle bell. However, more recently, hypnosis has become a key psychological tool in assisting patients to re-tune their mind and to relax. It is a term derived from the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos (James 1) and indeed, hypnosis does involve the patient going into a sleep-like ‘trance’ or sorts. It was first used in the 1800s by James Braid who called it ‘neurypnosis’ and thought that it was a form of paralysis of the nervous system whilst in a sleep-like state (James 1) and the term was quickly changed to hypnosis instead. It remains a somewhat mysterious art which still has a number of negative associations attached to it – largely due to the image which I presented at the beginning of this essay. However, hypnosis has been perceived as being a form of mind control, a symptom of hysteria and, much more recently, as a structured therapeutic tool (James 1). In the course of this paper, I will attempt to dispel any fallacies attached to hypnosis and discuss its benefits when used to induce a state of relaxation as well as to treat medical conditions and controlling phobias.
It first seems pertinent to discuss how hypnosis works. First and foremost, hypnosis is a conscious activity which allows the individual to be entirely in control throughout (James 1) but many also see it as a way of accessing the side of our brain which we cannot do in everyday, waking life: our unconscious mind. For some, hypnosis provides a type of ‘uncovering’ tool which reveals our sub-conscious thoughts to ourselves (the place where our dreams are manifested from and which contains unknown amounts of data from our awake life). These thoughts or behaviours can often be perceived as having taken place of their own volition: one author states that, “some of the behaviors in question are reported as having been experienced as being willed and consciously controlled others are experienced as having taken or taking place on their own.” (Weitzenhoffer 248). In its most basic form, hypnosis works by relaxing the patient to a state where they are able to access parts of their brain which were previously inaccessible. Urusula James says that “hypnosis can be described as an extension, or amplification, of normal states of awareness.” (James 1). In this sense, hypnosis works by working with the mind to produce results that would otherwise be locked away in the unconscious part of the mind. Some psychological characteristics of hypnosis involve the patient needing to expect a change to see one; the likelihood that a patient will only remember a small part of their experience; a sense of separation between the conscious and unconscious mind due to the brain focusing on the suggestion being made; a sense of objectivity in exploring the suggestions being made – the patient may feel like they are observing things happening in front of them, rather than to them; much like in a dream state, the patient may feel an increased willingness to accept inconsistencies (Yapko 188-191).
Hypnosis works on the basis of suggestion. This is a term which refers to “the uncritical acceptance of an idea” (Kroger & Yapko 7). It is the practice of placing an idea into the mind and letting it manifest itself – suggestion is not persuasion, and persuasion is not suggestion (Kroger & Yapko 7). The suggestion in hypnosis is carried out as an onslaught on the senses: it is a suggestion via the individual’s sense of sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste – i.e. chicken is a tasty food, its smell wafts throughout your home and leaves your taste buds tingling at the thought of eating its golden, crispy skin – would induce a sense of desire to eat some chicken. However, the suggestion can also be carried out through other sources such as environmental factors such as temperature, pressure sensations and kinesthesia (Korger & Yapko 7). The hypnotist can also work on a suggestive basis through a number of other means: verbally, which refers to the transmission of information through sounds and words; nonverbally, which refers to communication through gestures and grimaces; intraverbally, which refers to communication through the modulation of the voice – different pitches, tones etc.; finally, extraverbally, which focuses on the phrasing of words to best induce suggestibility and concurrent actions. These four types of communication are required to best induce the idea of a suggestion in the mind of a hypnosis patient. Aristotle stated that, “nothing is in the mind that did not pass through the senses” and this is true (Korger & Yapko 7) – our senses provide us with a broad amount of information regularly, opening our mind up to suggestions such as smelling a roast chicken and being able to taste it from memory, and wanting to eat it as a consequence.
Hypnosis can take on physical forms of characteristics. It is often difficult to ascertain whether the patient it under a state of hypnosis or not but in the interest of having confidence in the individual’s ability to absorb suggestion, there are some physical symptoms that can be recognised as being as a result of hypnosis and can designate when a person is hypnotically engaged. The recognition of physical symptoms can also help the hypnotist to induce a relaxed physical state of hypnosis too – Michael Yapko gives the suggestion that as a patient shifts in their chair, point it out to them and suggest that whilst they shift their position, they can become more comfortable and relaxed as their progress into a hypnotised state. Some physical symptoms of hypnosis can include: muscle relaxation, where the patient’s body relaxes and by default, their mind too – allowing them to be more open to hypnotic suggestion and when the tension leaves the patient’s face and muscles, it is fair to assume that they are in a relaxed, hypnotised state; this level of relaxation can often produce the effect of muscle spasms too which happen involuntarily; in a state of complete relaxation, often the patient’s eyes will water (known as ‘lacrimation’) and should not be misconceived as the individual shedding a tear; often, in a state of hypnosis, the patient’s eyelids will flutter rapidly in an unaware and involuntary way; the patient’s breathing will change – it can become faster or slower, and the individual’s breathing style should be subtly assessed prior to the session to properly ascertain any changes; as well as breathing, the patient’s pulse rate can become faster or slower; the patient’s lower jaw will often drop open slightly as they begin to relax; frequently, when a patient is under hypnosis, they become remarkably immobile because it is too much effort for the mind to control the body whilst in such a state – more often than not, the patient will become disassociated from their body and will almost forget about it entirely – whilst some patients will move about a lot more; finally, the patient may feel a sensory shift which leads to their body feeling heavier or lighter (Yapko 198-200). The physical effects of hypnosis should be used as an assessment of how relaxed and ‘hypnotised’ a patient is and should be assessed altogether.
A major use of hypnotism is to induce a state of total relaxation in patients. Once the patient is in a state of relaxation, their mind is more open to powerful suggestion which enables hypnotism to be more effective. There are various methods used to produce such a state and all aim to de-tense the muscles throughout the body and encourage the patient to be lulled into a comfortably and serene sleep-like state. A popular form of relaxation technique is the ‘progressive relaxation’ which involves the individual tensing and relaxing each muscle in their body, working up from their feet, through their legs and torso and up to the jaw and eyebrows. It works by tensing on the inward breath and relaxing on the outward, attuning your body with its breathing. Sometimes, this sequence is less focused on the whole body but rather on the upper half as the lower half tends to feel stress less (Hartland et al. 72).
Another relaxation technique is to ask the patient to rest their arms in their lap and focus on either one of their arms becoming heavier and heavier. The hypnotist should then tell the patient that he will lift their arm up and let it drop back into their lap; they will feel how heavy the arm is now and that when it drops, the patient will feel a sense of “deepening relaxation.” (Hartland et al. 73). A further technique is the use of imagery which is often used at the end of these deepening, relaxation techniques. The purpose of the exercise is to deepen the patient’s level of relaxation and consequently, to increase their openness to suggestion. A common form of this exercise is to ask the patient to visualise themselves walking down a set of twenty steps, gradually going further and further into a hypnotic, relaxed state (Hartland et al. 73-74). These relaxation techniques help to enhance the patient’s experience and create a stronger chance of the hypnosis having a lasting effect as it opens the patient’s mind up which allows for the seed of suggestion to be planted more deeply.
So, in short, hypnotism is a relaxation technique which allows for the mind to be opened up on a sub-conscious level and to have a seed of suggestion planted deep within. Hypnotism is, in effect, a psychological key which opens up the door to the mind in order to allow the individual to become susceptible to suggestions which can help them to lose weight, quit smoking or overcome a particular phobia. Hypnosis is a psychological took which is still gaining respect and shaking off its previous image as a side-show act.
Hartland, John et al. Hartland’s medical and dental hypnosis. London: Harcourt Publishers, 2001. Print.
James, Ursula. Clinical Hypnosis Textbook: A Guide for Practical Intervention. Oxon: Radcliffe Publishing, 2010. Print.
Weitzenhoffer, André Muller. The Practice of Hypnotism. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000. Print.
Yapko, Michael D. & Kroger, William S. Clinical and experimental hypnosis in medicine, dentistry, and psychology. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2008. Print.
Yapko, Michael D. Trancework: an introduction to the practice of clinical hypnosis. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2003. Print.