“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
– Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
“Self-hypnosis kept me sane. No, more than that. I actually believe it kept me alive.”
So said Sally, who was telling me, with all the zeal of a convert, how she’d used what she’d learned during her first hypnosis workshop with Uncommon Knowledge some years before.
Now she was back, attending our advanced course, but it seemed all she wanted to do was talk about the benefits of the first!
“I was diagnosed with cancer, I got divorced, and I went through hell financially for a couple of years… but one thing I kept was self-hypnosis. I used it every day to relax, to feel positive, even when things were really bad.”
Now she lowered her voice to a hushed, almost conspiratorial tone. “I even visualized shrinking the cancer – which has now gone!”
Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves! It’s great that self-hypnosis kept Sally sane and positive through especially rough seas. But I would never claim that hypnosis can cure cancer! Nor had I made any such claims during the first hypnosis workshop she’d attended. Sally’s cancer may have gone into remission anyway, or been cured through conventional treatment.
But there’s certainly evidence to suggest that hypnosis can help augment conventional treatments1 and aid post-surgical healing and comfort.2
Sally seemed to be a fine advertisement for the benefits of regular self-hypnosis.
Now Sally had never been a client of mine, but she had attended a workshop in which she learned to use hypnosis for herself.
So when and why should you teach your clients self-hypnosis?
The multiple benefits of regular self-hypnosis
You can do amazing, incredible, wonderful things for your client using hypnotic therapy. You can help them overcome addictions, depression, and severe phobias and traumas. You can help them control physical and emotional pain and overcome panic attacks.
What’s more, much of this can be done during their sessions with you. And our work often entails cognitive and behavioural interventions alongside clinical hypnosis. But sometimes you may want to teach your client self-hypnosis to use on an ongoing basis.
They may simply need to relax more or to control pain when it’s chronic, perhaps due to some disease. They may need to ‘get into the zone’ during future sporting endeavours, and need to find a way to reliably focus their mind and make suggestions to themselves.
As Sally waxed lyrical about the wonders of the self-hypnosis she’d learned in that workshop so many years ago, the clouds outside parted. I remember how the golden light of late winter cast a warm glow across the room. An outer marvel mirroring the inner wonderment of the mind. And at that moment, I wondered whether, for Sally, the greatest gift of self-hypnosis hadn’t been something else altogether. Something that is vital for all of us to live well and happily.
Benefit one: The all-important sense of control
Since I’d last seen Sally, her life had been a rollercoaster of bad fortune. Around every corner had been another sling or arrow set to shoot her down. It tested Sally to what should have been breaking point. And yet… she had not broken.
Life had gotten difficult, painful, and uncertain. But Sally now had something with which she could control, or at least strongly influence, how she herself responded to harsh circumstances.
We all need to feel we have some control in life. In fact, feeling that we are in control of our lives may even help us live longer.3 But there’s another aspect to regular self-hypnotic practice that can help your client feel whole and healthy.
Benefit two: Alignment with the rhythms of nature
I cast my mind back to that workshop two decades ago. As our participants practised their inductions with one another, something caught my eye. Through the window I watched a gull glide over the whipping wind. I was struck by how it barely moved its wings. It just used the air currents to lift it, with elegant economy, up into the morning air.
The rhythms of nature are all around us, but also inside us. Sally had learned about a certain inner rhythm at that first workshop and had thereafter linked her self-hypnosis to those natural inner ebbs and flows, just as the gull had made use of nature to fly more easily.
Most people have heard of the circadian rhythm. Basically it’s the reason we sleep at night and wake during the day. It’s the 24-hour bodily cycle that regulates our wakefulness. But it’s not the only cycle at play within our bodies. We also have many smaller inner cycles that regulate our psychology and health, known as ultradian rhythms.
The 90-minute/20-minute cycle
In normal conditions, you have the capacity for around 90 to 120 minutes of focused attention after getting out of bed in the morning. This is followed by a 20-minute period of lesser focus. You might feel your mind start to wander or have difficulty concentrating. And so the rhythm begins.
During this 20-minute period you are more likely to daydream, feel sleepy, or even ‘trance out’ a little. But just because this is the way our ultradian rhythm is programmed doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the way it always happens.
When we feel a lapse in concentration we often grab a coffee or smoke a cigarette as a way of ‘cheating’ this natural break. And when we’re stressed, certain chemicals are released in the brain that have a stimulant effect and interfere with the gentle lapping of this natural ‘trance tide’. Stress effectively overrides our ultradian rhythm.
This might sound like a good thing – more focus, better productivity, right? However, it has been shown that working with, rather than against, our natural rhythm has profound physical and mental health benefits.4
Sally would use self-hypnosis when she naturally started to notice her attention fading and feel a bit more daydreamy. Midmorning – around 90 minutes after waking – and after lunch were times she found she could catch the wind in the sails of her hypnotic mind and go deeper because of it.
There are many kinds of ultradian rhythms, but one has been shown to moderate ‘hemispheric dominance’ within the brain. This is important.
Escaping the detail to see the wider context
As Dr Iain McGilchrist has described, the left and right hemispheres of the brain don’t do different things, they do the same things but in different ways.5
Very broadly and by necessity, superficially the left hemisphere is more detail focused, linear, and rational if not always reasonable. The right-hemispheric way of approaching reality is more ‘bigger picture’. The left hemisphere can be clever, but the right hemisphere is prone to greater wisdom and pattern recognition.
Of course, this is a generalization – there is a huge amount of overlap and interplay between your brain’s hemispheres – but it broadly correlates with what has been observed. So many insights and discoveries seem to occur during the natural reverie of the trance state that accompanies the ultradian shift.
Benefit three: Creative insight
Sally told me she had gained so many “inspirations and insights” while using self-hypnosis latched onto naturally occurring ultradian rhythms.
And she’s in good company!
Archimedes had been working on the problem of how to accurately measure the density of gold to determine its authenticity. But an answer wasn’t forthcoming, and it seemed as if his conscious mind had done all it could. Legend has it he was relaxing into his bath and letting the balming waters coddle him into a natural trance when suddenly he shrieked, “Eureka!” He had seen – not worked out, but perceived with real ‘in-sight’ – the solution to the problem by linking it to the displacement of water in his own bathtub.
In the 19th century, chemist Friedrich August Kekulé was desperately trying to understand the structure of the chemical compound benzene. He had been working on the problem for many years. One evening as he sat by an open fire, he began to feel sleepy. He drifted off into a daydream – a waking hypnotic dream. As he began to spontaneously visualize, suddenly he saw a coiled-up snake bite its own tail, forming a circle. And so the ring-like structure of benzene was realized. From this trance-like experience, this ‘in-sight’, organic chemists learned how to make thousands of benzene derivatives for industrial, medical, and other uses.
Albert Einstein was inspired to develop his General Theory of Relativity after daydreaming about being a beam of light travelling to Earth from the Sun. Realizing the power of the altered state of mind, he famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
To be in the right state to discover, to learn, to make connections, to see the solutions to problems, to decipher hidden meanings in our everyday lives and even within ourselves, the mind needs to take a ‘bird’s eye view’ sometimes.
But it’s also true to say that our outer selves are reflections of our inner selves. If we prepare ourselves to be a certain way inwardly, we can alter how we act and interact out there in the world. Again, Sally had an amazing story to tell about this.
Benefit four: Choosing how we want to feel ahead of time
As well as the cancer diagnosis and treatment, Sally had gone through a horrible divorce. Her husband of 18 years had begun an affair with the mother of a friend of their daughter and eventually left Sally to live with this other woman.
“But I knew I’d have to see her after the school holidays when I dropped my daughter off,” Sally told me. “I was terrified I might lose control completely, cry, feel crushed, scream and shout, or even attack the woman. I spent weeks dreading the day I’d be near her.” She looked me in the eye.
“But then I thought: Why should I leave it to chance? Why shouldn’t I decide how I was going to feel when I saw her?” And you’ll notice how being able to take charge of how she was going to feel ahead of time feeds into the first benefit, a sense of greater control in life.
Most of us plan a lot of stuff. What we’re going to say, what time we’re going to arrive, how we’re going to dress. We plan all that, but we leave how we’re going to feel to chance. So we go into that difficult meeting with the boss or make that hard phone call or go out on that first date, and we cross our fingers and hope we’ll feel calm or confident. We hope we’ll be okay.
Why are we leaving the most important part of these interactions to chance? As Sally can testify, mental rehearsal is powerful. We can prime our own powerful minds to be the way we want.
And self-hypnosis is the best way to do it.
After that fateful day at the school gates arrived for Sally, she described it so vividly I still recall it.
The ‘fateful’ meeting
“I self-hypnotized really deeply and had the experience of seeing myself from the outside looking calm, dignified, and relaxed when I saw the woman at school. I saw her shrinking down to almost nothing. And I kept on doing this, until finally I could feel totally relaxed – no, more than that, actually indifferent when I saw her in my mind.”
“So how did it go when you did see this woman?” I asked.
Sally told me how amazing it had been to drop her son off and actually get so engrossed in chatting to another parent that she forgot about the woman her husband had run away with!
When she did finally notice her, she felt nothing in particular – the woman was nothing more than a tiny part of the overall situation. But Sally remembered how nervous and embarrassed the other woman had looked.
“Maybe she should have done some self-hypnosis!” Sally said with a glint in her eye.
So whether it’s getting in the zone for some sporting event or dealing with a difficult person, relaxed inner rehearsal can powerfully prime the mind and body to respond in optimal ways to perceived difficult future situations.
All hypnosis is self-hypnosis
So it’s been said – and in a way it’s true. Whenever we help someone into hypnosis, we are simply enabling them to change their state of consciousness. It’s still them changing it.
In summary, the four central benefits of using self-hypnosis are:
- A greater sense of control in life
- Alignment with and use of the rhythms of life, especially our ultradian rhythm, for better physical and mental health (which also encourages…)
- Great creative insight and unconscious problem solving
- The opportunity to choose and then rehearse how we want to feel in upcoming situations.
I have never forgotten Sally or the resourceful way she used what she’d learned to get through such tough times.
In a future blog I’ll describe in detail how to teach self-hypnosis to your clients. But in the meantime I’ll leave you with Sally’s remarks as she left that advanced workshop:
“One way or another, I just know I wouldn’t even be here had it not been for what I learnt on the last course. I learned that my mind is powerful, that it can make or break me, and that I have a choice as to how I respond to life and how I approach my future.”
Would You Like to Know More About Therapeutic Hypnosis?
If you’ve been reading Mark’s articles for any time, you’ll know that hypnosis is the lynch pin of much of his therapeutic work, and for good reason. If you’d like to know why he values it so highly and how you can learn it online, take a look at his online course Uncommon Hypnotherapy.
- See, e.g., https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1982-10465-001
- See, e.g., http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10208075
- Rossi, E. L. (1991). The Twenty Minute Break: Reduce Stress, Maximize Performance, Improve Health and Emotional Well-Being Using the New Science of Ultradian Rhythms. Tarcher.
- McGilchrist, I. (2012). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.
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