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Should You Use Regression with Your Clients?

Why taking your client back to the past isn't always the right approach


Simply forcing clients to relive past trauma may not solve the problem, often there is more work to be done

One half-forgotten day a long, long time ago, I hypnotized a woman.

Pamela, schooled perhaps by popular TV and movie assumptions, demanded with the full force of her personality that I use ‘regression’.

She wanted to “discover why” she over-ate to the point of obesity. A friend of hers who knew someone who knew something about therapy had suggested her current weight was “probably” caused by something that had happened to her when she’d been “probably under the age of one”.

Sometimes you can be too client led. Against my youthful, inexperienced better judgement, I agreed.

Pamela was an extremely talented hypnotic subject. So I had her talk to me during her whole hypnotic journey back in time. She talked to me when she was thirty, twenty-five, and in a teenage way at fifteen…

Those were the days when, newly qualified, I still understood little about how the mind actually processes time and experience. But I’ll get back to Pamela and her journey into the far reaches of the past in a moment.

How to use regression the right way

When I wrote recently about the Affect Bridge, someone emailed asking whether I always use regression with my clients.

I replied saying no. In fact, I always try to stop regression happening. In this piece I’ll describe what I mean by that and also what we know about memory, when not to use regression, and when we might use it.

I won’t be too offended if you haven’t read the Affect Bridge piece. But basically it describes a neat way of linking a current emotional response to a past experience. If a memory floats to mind (a memory the client has always had) we might find it is the initiating cause, or one of the causes, of their current emotional difficulty.

Once we help the client resolve the emotion from that memory, it is deconditioned and no longer has to pattern match to current experience. The person is freed to live without the difficulty of that association.

Doing this, and also unhooking trauma from people possessed by the demons of PTSD, may be a part of therapy. But it’s vital to understand something.

1. Regression happens all the time

In order to read these words you have to instantaneously and unconsciously connect to the past: that’s when you learned what these words mean. If you were living entirely in the moment, totally disconnected from your past, you wouldn’t be able to read or use language. Every word you read right now is triggering past associations with that word.

You hear a piece of music and you float down an alleyway of time back to the sensations or flavour of your whole life at the time of first hearing it. Regression is always happening to some extent.

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Threads from the past continually reach into the present. This happens in all kinds of situations, but certainly we see a kind of spontaneous regression occurring in all emotional disturbances.

When I worked in a psychiatric hospital some of the long-term depressed clients looked so absent, so disconnected from their present experience and connected to past reality, that it was almost as if they were permanently unhappily entranced.

Depressed people often regress through pattern matching to feeling helpless or hopeless in response to certain events, thoughts, or types of people. These situational triggers may have them either mulling on miserable aspects of their past, feeling as they did in past depressing times, or both.

When someone lives in the present as though it were as bad as the past when it actually isn’t, we call it ‘learned helplessness’.

When people’s phobias are triggered, they effectively regress back to other times when they were faced with the horror of the object of their phobia.

Once we decondition those memories, the phobia usually drops away, like a wart deprived of its life blood. The ‘life blood’ is conditioning from past experience.

Addictions, too, are held in place by naturally occurring regression. Dopamine-laced memories of previous highs, coupled with amnesia for the comedown after the gambling or drug spree, compel people to chase what they feel they had before. They are chasing very selective memories of what the addictive focus seems to promise.

Perhaps the strongest and most obvious case of uncontrolled hypnotic regression are the flashbacks of those suffering PTSD.

One veteran I worked with told me that when a flashback was triggered he could smell the battlefield and saw death all around him. In these times, a decades-old experience of the Falklands war would become more real to him than the shopping mall or living room. “It’s like being dragged back in time”, he told me.

So with that in mind…

2. Most of our work is about stopping regression

As practitioners, we need to help manage or stop spontaneous regression in our clients. And there are few things worse than the old ‘therapeutic’ technique of dragging a client back through the pain of their past in order for them to ‘relive’ it as it happened.

When we use the Rewind Technique as a comfortable and empowering way of helping our clients quickly overcome PTSD, we are reviewing a past time. So it is a form of regression.

But the way of revisiting the past is so different, so relaxed, disassociated and unusual, that the client is quickly able to reprocess it and therefore stop regressing there. Metaphorical regression, such as nightmares and daytime flashbacks, stop, and the person can reintegrate into their current reality.

When we help a client break free of addiction, we help them change their association to the past so that the compulsion disappears. The problematic regression is gone.

Likewise, when we help depressed clients ruminate less on the unchangeable past we are stopping regression – or at least helping them see the past in less despondent ways so that they can move on.

So much therapy needs to be about stopping regression. And if we do use regression we need to use it in a progressive way. We need to help the client review the past calmly, in a wider context, and in a way that allows the past to be reframed cognitively and emotionally.

But we can certainly help our clients use their pasts more constructively, as I describe at the end of this piece.

The next point is vital for any practitioner to understand.

3. False memories can be easily created

Regression carries risks. Especially if we are wedded to the ideology that hypnosis can be used to discover what happened if we don’t already know what happened. Actually, we don’t even need formal hypnosis to create false but seemingly very real memories. Here’s a case in point.

Ada Joann Taylor can recall smothering the 68-year-old woman she pleaded guilty to murdering. During flashbacks she can even feel the pillow in her hands. She served more than 19 years in prison for her crime. But she didn’t do it! Someone else who served time for the same murder could recall committing it too, and they hadn’t done it either. Both suffered terrible guilt and flashbacks over a crime neither had committed.

This is not a freak case. Emotionally vulnerable people are highly suggestible, whether recognizable hypnosis is used with them or not.1

It’s now well established that false memories, memories that did not exist before therapy or other intervention, can be created in people wittingly or unwittingly. Therapists don’t do this purposefully, but hypnotic imagery is powerful.

False memories that did not exist before therapy or other intervention, can easily be created

The purpose of psychotherapy isn’t to ‘discover what happened’. Gone are the days when the idea of therapy was to concoct some plausible reason or cause for current difficulty: “Because your granny didn’t buy you sweets you are now pathologically jealous!”

But it might sometimes be that we discover a link to a pre-existing memory and a current difficulty, as I describe in my case study of Emily, who lacked assertiveness.

The real purpose of therapy is to help clients meet their emotional needs in the here and now, and enable them to better and more comfortably meet those needs in future.

Some of that work may include helping them overcome past conditioning, but there’s no evidence that endless psychological archaeology helps people adopt healthier mindsets and behaviours in and of itself.

When we help clients access their past it should never be about ‘uncovering repressed memories‘ because there is little evidence that really important memories are repressed (people tend to recall the bad stuff only too well).

So we need to be very mindful of the possibility – and the danger – of creating false memories with any regression technique. We must ensure the memories we work with are memories the client has always had, not ones ‘discovered’ (which might mean created) during therapy.

So how can we use the client’s memories to help them?

4. Help your client collect resources from the past

Times when determination won through. Triumph, love, recognition. A sense of wonder or awesome connection to nature.

Or maybe just a time when things felt alright, or pretty good. If we can help connect our clients to a real sense of when things were better so they can call forth those feelings when they need them now, then we are helping them use the past well.

A common psychological trap is to look back only at the bad stuff. Therapy shouldn’t encourage that.

I worked with a depressed woman who week after week made me feel depressed. She would sit and cry because it had all been terrible and nothing had ever been any good.

Then she recalled a particular time she had been rock climbing years before in France. I helped her re-access that time and, metaphorically, we used it as a base for helping her climb her way out of that depression. That was a therapeutic use of memory.

The way forward with the past

There may be many things causing a current difficulty in your client’s life, and we need to know what to look for – but it might not always be some past half-forgotten incident.

Often it is a current difficulty or a current problem combined with past emotional conditioning that is causing problems. It’s too simplistic to look for ‘the cause’ in the past. And it’s even more simplistic to assume that once we have found (or think we have found) ‘the cause’, that will be enough to erase the client’s problem.

One man I worked with, a survivor of the Clapham Junction rail disaster, had a therapist suggest to him that his ensuing PTSD was probably the result of repressed childhood trauma.

He was, understandably, confused, because the trauma had arisen only since the rail crash, and he thought he’d had a happy childhood. There was no reason to suspect that his PTSD was the result of anything other than the disaster itself. And sure enough, once his memories of the crash were deconditioned his PTSD disappeared.

So there is no simple answer to “Do you always use regression?”

All those years ago though, when my psychological knowledge was still very limited, I sat with Pamela using regression simply because she had asked me to, based on the misguided recommendation of a friend.

I regressed Pamela back to the age of twenty, fifteen, ten, and eventually less than one year old. I knew she was on some level accessing a sense of these times, because I’d ask her unconscious mind to signal to me in the form of an ideomotor response.2 When she’d reached the age I suggested, she would flicker her finger.

At last she was under one year old. Her finger flickered and her arm partially levitated. I asked her to speak. What would she tell me? What amazing discovery would we make?

Nothing.

Eventually, a faint baby sound. Pamela was trying to say something. What? What?

A gaga sound issued from her lips. More gaga. Nothing but gaga.

The unconscious mind can be very literal. Of course she had not yet learned to speak. I resolved to be less client led in some things, and started to use sensible motivational ways to help Pamela lose weight in future.

Happily she did eventually get slimmer, with no more trips to gaga land.

For clients who do suffer from past negative emotional conditioning, the Rewind Technique is a rapid and gentle way to help them overcome trauma. Read about it here and sign up to be notified when the online course is open for booking.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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