Whenever anyone asks me why I use hypnosis in psychotherapy, I feel like a swimmer being asked why he feels the need to get into water to swim.
Other than the reassuring (for us hypnos) research that found CBT has a 70% better success rate when used with hypnosis,1 there’s a variety of positive reasons to introduce clinical hypnosis into your practice.
In fact, trying to do psychotherapy without working with a person’s unconscious mind reminds me of this old tale…
Once a man came across his neighbour down on his hands and knees in the road under a bright street lamp.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m looking for my key!” his neighbour replied.
“Well, where did you lose it?”
“In my house.”
“Then why in heaven’s name are you searching for it out here?”
“Because there’s much more light out here under this street lamp!”
Trying to work exclusively with the narrow beam of focus that is the conscious mind when solutions, and potentially life-changing resources, lie in the ‘darkness’ of the unconscious mind is akin to what the man attempts in this story.
But how, I hear you gasp (depending on how much you know about the central role of hypnotic trance!), can I say that everyone should work with trance states?
Reason one: Trance is natural and is all around us
In order to be able to use clinical hypnosis to help those suffering emotional or even physical problems, we need to be able to induce trance. This is only possible because hypnotic trance is a natural part of the human experience.
So hypnotic trance happens regardless of whether a person ‘believes in it’ or not.
My belief or otherwise in jet planes has little bearing on my capacity to fly in one. Just as you don’t have to believe in air or understand the properties of oxygen in order to breathe, your clients don’t have to believe in hypnosis in order to benefit from it.
Hypnotic trance is a continuum. We can be lightly entranced, as when we ‘forget’ our surroundings in the shopping mall as we daydream about some past love, or deeply entranced, as when we completely forget our surroundings and fully believe in the contents of our imaginations as we dream at night. Few people consider dreaming to be a kind of hypnotic trance, but in fact it has uncanny correlations with the hypnotic state.
We are hypnotic creatures, and hypnosis is central to human life. This is my number-one reason for using hypnosis in psychotherapy.We all dream at night. We all use or misuse our imaginations. We all zone out, or 'zone in' when we go into a state of flow. We all learn without knowing how we learned. We are hypnotic creatures, and hypnosis is central to human life.Click To Tweet
It may not be natural, at least for most people, to consume medicines for emotional problems, or to become as highly self-analytical as some schools of therapy require their clients to be. But it is natural to enter hypnotic trance.
Hypnosis, because it is natural, happens naturally all the time in life. We could even say that hypnosis is the optimum state for learning. Whenever we focus our attention strongly, we enter a kind of trance in which the mind is primed to make connections and build understanding.
But if hypnosis is the most effective medium for learning, it can also work against us.
Reason two: Emotional problems are hypnotic disorders
You will often hear the term ‘thought disorder’, but many conditions, such as jealousy and depression, are fuelled as much by what we imagine (the grim pictures we paint on the canvas of our minds) as by simple cognitions.
We are hypnotic beings. We don’t sit down and cognitively make efforts to learn, say, a phobia or trauma, or a catastrophic fear of the future. These conditions, and all other emotional problems, are learned through a kind of hypnotic suggestion given not by a hypnotist but by the circumstances of life itself. We could describe some experiences as hypnotists in that they make us suggestible.
For example, during a traumatic experience we enter trance by focusing incredibly narrowly on what terrifies us. This can even feel hypnotic or dream/nightmare-like: people often report that everything seems to shift into slow motion during such times. Later, a trigger in the environment can cause us to automatically revert to the original state of trauma.
Clearly this is much more akin to an instinctively conditioned post-hypnotic suggestion than a ‘thought disorder’. The firework goes off, and the traumatized veteran runs for cover. He spontaneously – and hypnotically – regresses to the battlefield.
Pattern matching, a process that every psychotherapist should fully understand, happens when an environmental trigger (pattern) matches with an internal emotional or physiological pattern to produce an automatic response that occurs without the involvement of conscious thought.
Many pattern matches are useful; for example, it makes sense for us to automatically salivate when we are hungry and the smell of cooking comes our way. The trouble is, we can also learn faulty pattern matches – think fetishes, phobias, and toxic relationship patterns. Hypnosis can help alter these self-harming unconscious pattern matches.
Extreme emotions such as fear and anger can certainly send a person into a hypnotic state by narrowly focusing their attention. Addiction also narrows the focus of attention, to the point where time can seem to expand or contract and wider context is lost. Certainly, addiction shares many features with hypnotic trance. But it’s not just fear, anger, and addiction that have strong hypnotic elements to them.
Depressed people tend to focus their attention inwardly at the expense of outward reality. They also exhibit other hypnotic-like behaviours, such as activation of the imagination to perpetrate and maintain emotional states such as fear or despondency, and even, in extremely depressed people, catalepsy. Some depressed people – when they’re not agitated and restless – show a kind of waxy immobility and glassy-eyedness.
Again, this is something we see in hypnotized subjects.
So these ‘symptomatic trances’ are not purely cognitive processes. No traumatized veteran first thinks “Oh, that firework noise reminds me of my wartime experiences” and then becomes terrified. Terror works quicker than the speed of thought, and it does so through pattern matching – which is essentially a hypnotic phenomenon.
So if a psychotherapist works with someone only at a cognitive level, they are hampered by a narrow therapeutic ideology. They miss out a huge part of the human condition when seeking to help others.
There is, though, an even more fundamental reason to use hypnosis as part of your therapy.
Reason three: We need to look for solutions in the right place
Unless a psychotherapist has a sound psychological knowledge of practical psychological principles, including those relating to the hypnotic brain, their therapeutic progress will suffer. They may still effect powerful change in their clients, but they will be using one paddle to propel their boat rather than two.
People often feel they have to change their negative thoughts in order to stop negative feelings. And there is some truth to this. We do need to become aware of our assumptions. But where emotion is powerful and overwhelming, it is easier to change feelings first so that thoughts naturally shift towards more moderate and healthy patterns.
Thoughts fall in line with feelings, so we don’t always have to try to think differently in order to feel differently. Change the feelings and the thoughts change naturally.
Because hypnosis works directly with the client’s unconscious mind, skilled hypnotherapists find they can work with conditions we don’t normally consider as being amenable to psychotherapeutic input, such as pain, high blood pressure, and immune-mediated disease.
So hypnosis works directly with unconscious processes, including feelings. The scope of what we can do with hypnosis is almost endless. So it’s important to be clear what we are trying to do when we do therapy. Let’s just quickly take a broader overview of what that might mean.
Why are we even doing this?
The purpose of psychotherapy is sometimes assumed to be to ‘find out’ why you have a problem. It’s true a client may feel better when they and their therapist come to feel they have identified causes to problems, or even the holy grail itself, the cause.
But while some insight or theorizing might be useful, it’s not at all the whole story. This kind of 19th-century rationalist take on human emotional experience has severe limitations.
It’s not enough to know, or think we know, why someone became traumatized or depressed. Where it all started can be useful, but more useful is stopping it.
Sounds obvious, right?
Yet so much therapy still seems to be heavily focused on the why, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. I’ve so often heard people say variations of the following, even after long-term therapy:
“I at least know why I have those panic attacks now… but I still have them.”
If a man knows he’s lost his key in his house but still stays out in the street, very little actual progress is made. Just because he knows where the problem of the missing key originated doesn’t automatically mean he’s going to solve that problem.
So just ‘finding out why’ is a bit of a therapeutic dead end. But there is something else really important here.
We never use hypnosis to try to uncover or ‘discover’ memories that weren’t accessible to begin with.
Why? Because of the terrible abuses, usually caused through psychological ignorance, that were wrought during the 1980s and 1990s. During this time recovering memories had become a kind of fad. The extent of illusory memories was terrifying. Innocent people were accused of all kinds of terrible things based merely on memories that had been created in the therapy room. Memory doesn’t work like that, and the risk of ‘uncovering’ fake memories is huge and well documented.2
But we do use clinical hypnosis to help people access resourceful states while overcoming limitations.
What you focus your attention on, and how, determines the quality of your life.
Your beams of light
How we attend to the world is, of course, vital. What we focus on determines who we are, what we learn and become, and the very life we lead.
Some, a tiny part, of the way we attend is conscious. I am aware of the words I’m typing right now (believe it or not!), but even then, it’s not so much the individual words as the flow of meaning I’m attempting to convey.
Some of our awareness is less conscious. I am only consciously aware of the sensation of my fingers touching the keys when I stop paying so much attention to the content of what I’m typing and attend to the actual physical reality of my fingers striking the keys.
But a part of me was aware of the sensation of my fingers touching the keys – I just wasn’t directing my conscious awareness to those sensations before.
You have awareness right now of the sensation of wearing clothes (assuming you’re dressed right now!), but that awareness probably wasn’t conscious until I prompted you to focus your beam of consciousness onto the sensation of your top against your skin. The unconscious pops into the conscious.
But it goes deeper than that, much deeper. Vast areas of our experience remain unconscious, and will never be conscious.
Every second, our five senses take in an estimated 11 million pieces of information. We know this because scientists have painstakingly counted the receptor cells on each sense organ and the nerves that connect them to the brain.3
Yet we can only consciously process about 40 bits of information a second. What this means is that large parts of our experience are unavoidably unconscious.
Hypnosis can facilitate changes on the unconscious level more easily and naturally than other therapeutic methods. If we intend to work with the whole person as much as possible, this must necessarily include the vast areas of the human being that are outside of, and in some ways much more than, mere cognition.
So I use hypnosis because:
- We are as much ‘hypnotic beings’ as cognitive and behavioural ones – perhaps more fundamentally so.
- Emotional conditions always have hypnotic elements to them, and it makes sense to treat a hypnotic condition with hypnosis.
- Much of our experience is and will always be beyond conscious awareness. Hypnosis can help tap into the huge reservoir of unconsciousness resources. The skilled use of clinical hypnosis can help reach parts of the mind that other therapies cannot reach.
But of course, hypnosis itself isn’t a therapy – no more, to refer back to my opening analogy, than water itself is a sport or a mode of transportation. It all depends, of course, on how we relate to water – and how we use hypnosis.
Hypnosis, then, can be used to deliver therapy in a highly effective and natural way.
And apart from overwhelming supporting research for hypnotic efficacy, we intuitively know that the key to accessing powerful parts of the mind doesn’t always lie within the narrow beam of conscious awareness, as you can observe in the many live therapy sessions in Uncommon Practitioners TV.
Hypnosis is a powerful natural medium that can be used to achieve therapeutic work by helping unconscious processes directly.
How to Use Hypnosis in Psychotherapy
- See this marvellous book: Wilson, T. D. (2004). Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconsious. Harvard University Press. See also: https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2013/06/22/your-brain-sees-even-when-you-dont/?sh=29997444116a
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