Quick! What comes to mind, when someone mentions the subject of hypnosis? Unless you've undergone hypnosis to help you with weight control or to quit smoking, you probably think of a magician of sorts, on a stage, swinging a chain with a gold coin, or something like it, in front of someone's eyes, intoning “You are getting sleeeeepy…” Inevitably, the person ends up crowing like a rooster, barking like a dog, or doing something else that's embarrassing and demeaning, but harmless.
Watching someone lose control over his or her actions is disconcerting and so you laugh. It's a nervous reaction. You're just glad it's not you. Is this what hypnosis really is? No, it's not. Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness. In self-hypnosis, you induce this state in yourself. Otherwise, it's induced by another person. While you're hypnotized, you have a heightened receptivity to the power of suggestion. That's the technical definition.
Don't fall for those Internet or magazine ad scams that guarantee results with a hypnotist who has graduated from some bogus school. Always get a reference from a physician or licensed counselor or psychotherapist.
Hypnotic History Lesson
Once again, those Greeks were involved. The term hypnosis comes from Hypnos, the Greek god of dreams, although hypnosis really isn't about sleep, at all. The Greeks and others, in ancient times, used hypnosis as a healing tool. No one really understood how it worked.
Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychiatry, used hypnotherapy in his work but discovered that hypnosis was more powerful than just a tool for working with phobias. Under hypnosis, his patients brought all kinds of troubling emotions to the surface, and Freud backed off. Eventually, he stopped using hypnosis altogether. Since Freud's time, however, hypnosis has enjoyed something of a resurgence and is used to help individuals quit smoking or quit drugs. It's also used to treat simple phobias.
Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century Austrian physician, used what he called “magnetic healing” to treat a variety of disorders, such as hysterical blindness and headaches. He believed this animal magnetism passed from him to the person being hypnotized. His name, Mesmer, gave us the word mesmerized — meaning “caught up in a trancelike state.”
Entering the Subconscious Mind
Psychiatrists don't completely understand how hypnosis works. They do know that it's a trance state in which subjects are relaxed and have heightened susceptibility to suggestion and an increased imagination. This trance state has been compared to that moment between wakefulness and sleep. You're relaxed and open. Hypnosis may be the key that unlocks the door to the subconscious mind. Think of it like this: When you're conscious, you're aware; when you're unconscious, you're on auto-pilot. You're unaware of your subconscious mind, but it's very aware of you.
In hypnosis, your conscious mind takes a breather and lets your subconscious control the show. Since memories are stored in the subconscious, hypnosis can bring them to the surface. If these memories are the source of anxiety or phobias, through hypnosis, you can work through them and alleviate the symptoms you have been experiencing.
How Does It Work?
In order to be hypnotized, you must want to be hypnotized. You must also believe that you can be hypnotized, and you must feel comfortable with the idea. Usually, the hypnotist brings on the trance by speaking to you slowly, in a soothing voice. The goal is to bring about that state of utter and complete relaxation. You can also learn to hypnotize yourself!
Who Does This Kind of Hypnotherapy?
Psychiatrists, regulated by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Medical Association (AMA), and licensed psychologists who have gone through advanced training courses in hypnosis are qualified to perform hypnotherapy. Check with your physician for a referral, as anybody who has watched an instructional video or read a book on the subject may call herself a hypnotist.
You may have heard of regression as a form of hypnosis that seeks to discover past lives. A while back, it was quite a fad for people who wanted to go back in time to see if they might have been Cleopatra or Caesar or some other historical figure, in a previous life. This was the frivolous aspect of regression. It is important to understand that this practice may result in the creation of false memories, resulting from the subject incorporating the hypnotist's suggestions into remembered scenes or events. Be aware of the risks these false memories may create.
The purpose of regression therapy, however, is not frivolous. This is a form of hypnosis that seeks the source of trauma. Since post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) results from trauma, returning to the source of that trauma allows the therapist to help the patient confront and deal with PTSD.
As Mark Wolynn, director of the Medical Hypnotherapy Center, explains, “A belief in past lives as real is completely irrelevant to this therapy. All we really know for sure is that each of us carries within us an image that has the power to help us heal.” It is the function of regression therapy to access that image of healing.