How does hypnosis work? This section explains hypnosis and the main hypnotherapy techniques from the client's point of view.
Hypnotherapy uses hypnosis in a carefully planned way. During hypnosis the mind is especially receptive to new ideas and is able to replace old ideas quickly and permanently. Hypnotherapists have come to understand how the mind's logic works, and have developed standard techniques that all hypnotherapists use. The techniques to use with any particular client will depend on the nature of the problem and the type of therapy the client feels most comfortable with. (There are more detailed technical explanations of the theory underlying hypnosis, hypnosis techniques , and case studies elsewhere on this site).
Reframing is usually done in trance and delivered as a metaphor. The purpose of reframing is to offer the client the opportunity to view their own behaviour and beliefs from a different point of view.
The meaning you ascribe to a situation depends on the assumptions that you hold about it. Different assumptions give a different meaning. A student came to see me because he had failed all his first semester exams and wanted to withdraw. When I asked him what this told him about himself he said "It means I am not good enough for university". He had done compulsory military service so I asked him if he was expected to know how to march and shoot on the first day. I then asked him to describe what training he had been given at being a student. His whole attitude changed when he realised that the problem was that he needed to learn study skills. Reframing the situation led to him becoming motivated to try again.
This technique engages the imagination to create a process where the client finds themself confidently and successfully progressing through the type of situation that has been causing problems. The mind cannot tell the difference between something vividly imagined and something real, so the client learns to associate themselves with images of successful outcomes. This mental rehearsal will influence behaviour in the real situation.
Metaphor lies at the heart of all human thinking and language. People love hearing stories. In clinical practice the therapist carries on this tradition. The therapist tells a hypnotised client a story incorporating one or more carefully selected metaphors. The client's unconscious mind then examines the metaphor and finds parallels in their own life. Metaphor therapy is therefore a form of indirect suggestion.
Regression is powerful hypnotic technique involving taking the client back in time to rectify the record of the event that is causing their problem. Regression usually is used when there are undefined fears or addictions.
The client is led into trance and deepened several times until they are in a state called somnambulism. In this state the client is able to experience past events as if they are actually there.
The hypnotist will then remind the client that there is a certain feeling or emotional state that they get into from time to time. The client is asked to bring out that state now. The client is then asked to intensify the feeling until is almost overwhelming them. The therapist then gets the client to go back in their mind to the first time they ever experienced this feeling. This procedure is known as the 'affect bridge'.
Usually the client recounts some minor but significant event in childhood. Still in trance the hypnotist guides the client through the event again, but this time the client is encouraged to use the wisdom of their older self to either reframe the event or to change the outcome in some way. Depending on the client and the circumstances of the original event the client may be encouraged to bring out feelings of anger or shame and deal with them, or may engage in a dialogue with other people as if they were present. In the right circumstance regression is very effective.
Many of the problems that people have are due to 'losing touch with themselves'. All us have positive and not-so-positive experiences and memories. A healthy person is able to access all their memories - good and bad - and a really healthy person focuses more often on the good. It is a feature of the human mind that memories need to be refreshed or rehearsed from time to time. If memories are not rehearsed or revisited periodically they will gradually decay. You lose the detail and then the actual memory. It is therefore possible to lose contact with your positive memories, and because you have lost touch with them you are not aware you ever had them. In extreme cases, in depression for example, people cannot remember a single good time in their lives. Their whole experience appears to be made of negative events and failures, they cannot recall one good thing ever happening. In less extreme cases people 'forget' that they have particular abilities. Exactly why this happens in not clear, but hypnosis can re-establish connections with these memories, which is exactly the same as giving people abilities they never knew they had.
It is common for people to believe they cannot do some particular thing, like learning to drive. They feel totally stuck. In hypnosis they can be guided to remember all the things they have learned to do, like reading or baking a cake. The hypnotist piles up true example after true example and then convinces the client that they possess a core ability such as 'learning'. The hypnotist then links the proven ability to the problem activity and shows that they are the same thing. The client's mind will then accept the link and suddenly they are no longer stuck. They have 'remembered' that they can do it. Problem solved.
In hypnotherapy, regression or visualisation is often used to deconstruct old emotions and behaviours. The client is led into the old situation and guided through the experience of having a different outcome, one where the old behaviour is neutralised. Future pacing is used to ensure that the old behaviour is not triggered in future. The client is asked to imagine themselves in some future situation and guided through all the actions they would take. This allows their subconscious mind to be creative in coming up with solutions and when a similar situation arises in future the client will have stored behaviours to draw on.
When we record a memory one or more elements dominate. It may be a sight or a sound or an emotion. However the dominant element is linked to all the other elements and recalling any one element will result in activating all the other elements making up the memory. This is an automatic and unconscious process.
Anchoring can cause severe problems if it develops in an uncontrolled way. Smokers typically have anchoring problems. They often find that they cannot enjoy a meal without a cigarette or have a break without a cigarette. For example after they have stopped smoking they find the urge to smoke strongest when they are just passing time with friends. The reason is because they have formed associations between say, chatting with friends and smoking. Originally they got pleasure from chatting. Then they would be chatting and light up a cigarette. After a while the cigarette is firmly associated with the pleasure of chatting. Then the link becomes so strong that they cannot enjoy chatting without the cigarette. The final link is that they come to believe unconsciously that the cigarette is the cause of the pleasure of chatting. They have created a belief that they must have a cigarette or chatting will never be pleasant again.
Anchoring can also be used in reverse. If someone cannot stop eating ice cream for example, I can make an association between something horrible and the ice cream container. The next time they open the container the taste and smell of something revolting will come to mind and the very idea of eating ice cream will be repulsive.
Clients frequently report that they are 'stuck' or are unable to make any changes to their problem. This is often because they experience their problem as something huge solid overwhelming and immovable. The problem just seems too big to get rid of, it is clearly impossible, and therefore not worth trying. However, the client can usually be persuaded that a little chip could be knocked off a large block, or a weight could be moved an inch, or a fear could be glimpsed for just a second. By getting the mind to accept the possibility of some tiny change, it breaks the feeling that nothing could ever be done. Then suggesting that the tiny change could be repeated opens up the possibility even more. Then the subconscious mind can usually be persuaded to identify resources that could help chip or move or view more substantially, and then the process accelerates and the client finds that the whole problem diminishes rapidly. This technique is very useful with problems such as procrastination, irrational dread and some phobias. It is the cognitive equivalent of the behavioral technique known as graduated exposure.
In parts therapy the client is hypnotised and the hypnotherapist establishes verbal communication with the client's unconscious mind in trance. When the communication is firmly established the hypnotist will ask permission to speak to the part of the client's mind which is causing the problem behaviour. The theory is that every part of the client is valuable and that every behaviour is actually intended to benefit the client, but has somehow stopped being a benefit and has become a problem. The part of the mind which is responsible for the behaviour is then asked respectfully why it does the behaviour. In a smoker for example, the part responsible for smoking might state that it resists all efforts to stop because smoking shows the world that the smoker is tough, grownup and strong, and that as long as the smoker is smoking nobody can take advantage of them. The hypnotist may then ask to speak to the creative part of the client's mind. The creative part might be asked to interact with the smoking part to devise some other way that the smoking part could show the world that the client is tough without involving smoking. The client is then allowed enough time to let the two parts work towards a solution. The hypnotist will then do what is known as an 'ecological check' to make sure that every other part is happy with the solution that has been devised. Then a test using future pacing will be done and all the parts report that they are OK with the solution then the client is returned to the present.