When people hear that I practice hypnotherapy, I’m often met with a sense of wonder, genuine interest and usually a hint of ridicule. Mentions of quacking ducks and of the film “Get Out” are very common in my life even though they have very little to do with my profession.
There is always a hint of truth about hypnosis in those pop culture references, but usually that grain of truth is overshadowed by grand exaggerations, mistruths, and dramatizations. Of course, we also have good ol’ stage hypnosis, which makes it easy to come to negative or “magical” conclusions about the topic at hand. It doesn’t take much more than a basic understanding of hypnosis and quick Google search to figure out what a stage hypnotist is doing and why it’s having the effect it’s having on participants. I’ll suggest that, when in front of others, people are way more willing to “play along” with a stage hypnotist, whether or not they are aware of it. In other words, they are hypnotized before the hypnotist has done anything.
It’s a shame that Hollywood and pop culture in general have built a negative reputation surrounding hypnosis. Part of the reason why it’s been easy to cast this image surrounding hypnosis is because it wasn’t well understood for so long. When we don’t have a full understanding of something, we usually turn to the supernatural to make some sense of it, even if it’s completely wrong.
But I’ve already spent enough time on that side of hypnosis and, after all, it isn’t what this article is about. My purpose here is to bring hypnosis back down to earth, share my insights, explain what is happening from a neuroscientific point of view, and give an understanding of how hypnosis is used in a therapeutic context.
Hypnosis, or more specifically hypnotherapy, is indeed fascinating and magical, but not in the ways that we’ve all been made to think pretty much right from its inception. My hope, as the title suggests, is to demystify hypnosis and illustrate just how wonderfully useful it can be in a myriad of ways.
A good place to begin is with the myth that, when you are being hypnotized, the hypnotist or the hypnotherapist is doing something that is completely outside of you and your control to get you into a hypnotic state. Again, a quick Google image search for “hypnosis” will usually render a mustachioed man dressed in a goofy hat, swinging a watch or shooting thunderbolts out of his hands to put you in a trance.
So, let’s start there - what exactly is “trance?”
Everyone goes in and out of a trance state naturally throughout the day. A perfect example of this is being immersed in a good movie. A part of your brain is completely aware that you are sitting at home on your couch watching a film. At the same time, to varying levels of degree, that critical factor of your brain is pushed aside as you’re fully engaged in the film and have totally disregarded that you are watching actors performing on a set with dozens more people working behind the scenes. You’re reacting to what you’re seeing as if it was happening right there and then.
Daydreaming can be considered our own way of making movies and getting fully immersed in them while being physically engaged in something else. Experiencing anxiety is another example of experiencing trance.
The point here is that the trance state is something that occurs naturally when it comes to holding attention. It is more accurate to say that the hypnotherapist is eliciting a naturally occurring state rather than doing something outside of your control.
The negative states that people suffer from and oftentimes seek hypnosis for are, from a hypnotherapist’s point of view, unfavorable trance states. What a hypnotherapist aims to do is to replace the unfavorable state with one that you’d rather experience.
As I mentioned before, trance and hypnosis offer a state of focused awareness that bypasses the critical factor of the mind. The fact that your conscious chatter is pushed aside, or at least no longer at the foreground of awareness, creates an opening to directly work with your unconscious mind. You may experience a sense of relaxation, focus and openness to change that allow you and your hypnotherapist to work through beliefs, fears, and patterns that run on autopilot because the roots of all these processes all mostly reside within your unconscious mind.
One of the best ways to understand further how this process works is to illustrate how we develop unconscious beliefs. Once we have an understanding of how beliefs are formed, we can then understand how the process can be reversed using hypnosis.
Let’s say you were either bitten or chased by a dog at an early age. Maybe you had another encounter with a dog that felt scary a few years later that reinforced the fear you were already starting to feel around canines. Your brain will take this experience and make a grand generalization which then turns into an unconscious belief that “all dogs are scary,” even though you might have had only a couple of encounters that elicited fear. Your brain is excellent at generalizing and making associations. This is why, although you consciously recognize that your fearful reaction to the furry schnauzer walking down the street is beyond what seems reasonable, the unconscious program is wired in and running as a sort of primitive means of protection.
As I mentioned before, the same process of generalization can be used in reverse through hypnotherapy. If you’d like to work through a phobia of dogs, once in trance, there are a variety of different techniques to work through that scenario so that you no longer associate that encounter with a dog with fear and actually experience it calmly.
In my practice, I find visualization in trance, with additional methods to resolve unfavorable emotions to be the most effective.
As I’ve mentioned with watching a movie, visualization is effective because, on one level, your brain is fully aware that it’s sitting in a chair listening to a hypnotist and, on another level, your brain is rehearsing what we are working through as if it was reality. From a neuroscientific point of view, once you have rehearsed feeling and looking differently in a specific situation, you have started the process of rewiring your brain.
Now, in order for this rewiring to work, the same process needs to happen with other instances where dogs have felt like they were a threat so that your brain can begin the generalization process. Typically, a hypnotherapist will also “future pace” and have you imagine a future instance of you hanging out near a pooch and feeling calm. If you knock down enough of these triggers, your brain will begin to associate the desired state, which is calmness in this specific example, with being near a dog so that you will no longer experience fear when the situation plays out in real life. The hypnotherapist is conditioning the desired responses (if you are somewhat familiar with psychology, Pavlov’s Dogs might come to mind, in which case we have come full circle!).
Since beliefs are emotional state dependent, if we change how you feel during a trigger, then the unconscious belief that used to cause the reaction will begin to change (in this case, the belief that “dogs are dangerous”).
Now that we have a basic understanding of how hypnosis works within the brain, the next logical step is to address one last misconception about hypnotherapy.
Given the popular misconceptions of hypnotherapy in the first portion of this post, it’s easy to understand why some people may think that one hypnotherapy session is enough to work through a 30- year smoking habit. If a hypnotist can snap their fingers and make me quack like a duck, logic would dictate the same could be done to change my unhealthy habits, right?
It’s not uncommon to see a great deal of change after one session and hypnotherapy is meant to be a short-term intervention, but what we learned from the dog phobia example is that working through issues requires repetition. Your habit or phobia is wired in the form of a neural network, usually over the course of years, and it takes some time and effort to rewire the brain and condition in those desired responses.
One of my hypnosis teachers has a great metaphor for this. She compares your neural wiring to a path in a forest. Your undesired reactions or habits can be represented by the path. Hypnotherapy carves out a new path in the forest that represents the change in the neural network associated with the issue. At first, the new path isn’t quite defined; you have to make your way through some shrubbery. With repetition, however, the path becomes more formed and easier to walk while the path you used to travel down becomes overgrown and irrelevant.
So, what does carving that new path actually look like in practice? Typically, if I am dealing with something specific, such as a phobia or habit cessation, I see clients anywhere from 3-8 sessions. Of course, there are outliers: some people experience great results right away (although, most of the time, this requires reinforcement, even if it’s a year later) and some it takes a lot more than 8 sessions. There are a lot of factors at play. Rapport with your hypnotherapist is one of the most important that usually isn’t discussed when it comes to hypnosis, yet is crucial to the efficacy of the sessions.
My hope here is that I’ve made sense of this wonderful technique and made it more accessible. After all, I am deeply passionate about the subject because hypnotherapy helped quite a bit in my life, before I even started practicing it. The tide is changing, and hypnosis is more and more understood and hopefully more widely accepted.
Matt Walczak practices Integrative Hypnosis - a modern and pioneering approach to hypnotherapy. He is certified by the Center for Integrative Hypnosis as well as the International Association for Counselors and Therapists (IACT). Matt offers short-term and solution-focused therapy, integrating expertise in hypnotherapy, mindfulness and practical neuroscience. Matt's work primarily focuses on changing how people relate to the stressors and habits that arise out of modern living so that they can achieve a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Please contact Matt at [email protected], or visit www.citywellnesshypnosis.com.