Practical Hypnosis by Dr David Oakley
First, ‘What is hypnosis?’ There are two parts to hypnosis. There is a focused, absorbed state of attention, sometimes referred to as a trance, and similar in many ways to meditation, and to everyday experiences such as daydreaming, being deeply involved (‘absorbed’) in music, films, playing games etc. The first part of a hypnosis procedure is the ‘induction’, intended to achieve that state. Then, during this state, there are ‘suggestions’ – usually in the form of words, typically spoken by another person. These suggestions are designed to alter a persons experience of themselves or of the world around them – ‘As you sit quietly there you feel calm and comfortable – you may be aware of the warmth of the sun on your face’ – for example. Second, what hypnosis is not. Most importantly, and contrary to how it may be presented on stage or depicted in the media, hypnosis is not sleep. In fact, unless suggestions for sleep (or ‘feeling sleepy’) are given people typically report that in hypnosis they felt alert, absorbed in the experience, less distracted by outside thoughts, less analytical and less bothered by intrusive thoughts. The can also move around, with their eyes open, and remain hypnotized. It is also possible to feel the full range of emotions in hypnosis though in practice, as most hypnosis procedures include suggestions for relaxation. ‘feeling very relaxed’ is also commonly reported. Importantly, hypnosis experiences are not ‘imaginary’ – they feel ‘real’. This feeling of reality is supported by neuroimaging studies that show the brain changes during a suggested experience in hypnosis are very similar to those produced by an actual experience. For example in studies using hypnosis in which a feeling of pain is suggested the same brain areas are activated as when an actual painful stimulus is administered. Importantly this is not the case when the hypnotised person is asked to imagine the same pain. Similarly in another neuroimaging study the hypnotised participants had the experience of their arms being lifted up by a pulley when this was suggested to them (their arms really did move up into the air –but no pulley was used). Again the brain activity recorded while this was happening, this time in the motor areas, was the same as when an actual pulley was used to raise their arms but different to what was seen when they were simply asked to raise their arms in the same way voluntarily.
Sticking with the theme of what hypnosis is ‘not’. The ability to respond to hypnotic suggestions is not ‘special’ – it is not restricted to a few individuals. When hypnotic suggestibility is measured experimentally and plotted as a graph the result is a ‘bell-shaped’ distribution. That is, there are relatively few people (about 10%) scoring at the lowest levels and a similar number at the very highest level, with the majority of us forming a bulge in between. Equally it is not true that hypnosis requires the involvement of another person. It is perfectly possible to take ourselves into hypnosis (and to give ourselves positive and helpful suggestions). That is, we can practise self-hypnosis. Indeed many sports people, for example, seem to have spontaneously developed their own self-hypnosis routines and use them during performance or as an aid to mental rehearsal. Finally, we are all able to respond to the same suggestions given in hypnosis without the use of a formal hypnotic induction procedure – though the latter seems to increase the degree of responding in some people, especially when this is measured in terms of appropriate brain activity.
We can use hypnosis for ourselves to create positive and helpful experiences that not only feel ‘real’ but are accompanied by the corresponding changes in brain activity. It can in this way be a very powerful self-help tool. Self-hypnosis methods can be learned from books, or by direct instruction from professionals trained in hypnosis techniques. A very powerful use of self-hypnosis is in creating positive, relaxed feelings, that can be accessed outside hypnosis in everyday situations –or in special circumstances such as mentally preparing for an examination or a driving test – where calm alertness is required. Individuals may also be learn, especially in professional settings, how to use self-hypnosis to create for themselves helpful effects such as calm feelings, numbness in relevant areas of their bodies, reduction in blood loss or distraction from pain, which can be used before and during medical or dental procedures childbirth etc.. A number of studies have shown that the use of hypnosis in preparing for a surgical procedure for example leads to improved outcomes and shorter recovery times.
Hypnosis is also powerfully used by professionals such as clinical psychologists, dentists, doctors and midwives in the services they offer to their clients or patients and as a basis for various forms of entertainment. In these situations, as in self- hypnosis, it is important that suggested effects that are unwanted after the procedure are removed. In dentistry numb feelings in a part of the mouth can be helpful at the time but should be removed at the end of the procedure or, better still, the further suggestion given that they diminish in the postoperative period leaving the area pain-free. There is in fact some evidence that unwanted or no longer appropriate suggestions will diminish spontaneously over time once a hypnosis session is ended, but it is good practice to remove them.
Finally, – is hypnosis ‘safe’? There is no evidence that simply experiencing a hypnotic state has any unwanted consequences – any more so than meditating, day dreaming or becoming absorbed in reading a good book. Equally, there are no known adverse consequences associated with responding to suggestions in hypnosis, though they should always be appropriate to the situation in which they are given and within the professional remit of the person giving them. In a clinical hypnosis setting for example, negative emotions and painful memories might be evoked as part of a treatment strategy when the hypnotized person is engaged in the suggested reliving of early traumatic experiences and it usual to resolve these feelings before hypnosis is terminated as well as discussing them post hypnosis. For practical reasons self-hypnosis practice should ideally be carried out in a safe environment away from distractions and when there are not other things to keep an eye on like running bath water.
There is possibly a deeper reason why hypnosis is inherently safe – the suggested experiences we have in hypnosis are created by unconscious processes within ourselves. Experimental observations support the view that hypnosis involves an unconscious source of control (sometimes called the Hidden Observer) that orchestrates the hypnosis experience outside our awareness as a form of implicit role-play and has our best interests at heart. Some of the very earliest studies indicated that hypnotic suggestions are carried out safely. A hypnotized person with their eyes open and asked to walk across the room can be seen to make a detour and not bump into obstructions (typically chairs) made hypnotically invisible by suggestion. Interestingly someone asked to fake the hypnotic inability to see the obstructions walks dramatically into them.
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