Hypnosis is a naturally occurring state. Many people believe they can’t “get” hypnotized when, actually, they fall into trance all the time. For example, in boring classes or lectures, you may notice your mind “wandering.” Where does it go? Generally, when something rouses you out of your reverie, you might not even know what you were thinking when it “went”. That’s trance, or self-hypnosis. Your mind simply blanked out into a pleasant state of relaxation–until someone drew your attention to the fact that you weren’t paying attention.

Another example occurs all the time during driving. That may be more of an explanation for accidents than cellphones. People’s focus simply drifts off due to the monotony of the road. In fact, on the open road this phenomenon has a name–road hypnosis.

Still another example occurs when you read a great book or see a riveting movie. Not only do you forget or not notice your surroundings, but you may become so involved with the characters that you feel emotions related to their lives. Haven’t we all seen–and succumbed to–some “tear-jerkers”? Why do we cry at fiction? — Because we are “in” it; we become part of the story. That is the objective of the author and screenwriter. And we like it too. It’s a way of leaving our reality for a little while; it’s a break. Same thing with hypnosis.

You have just explained self-hypnosis that just sort of “happens.” What about going to a therapist for hypnosis?

In all the examples above, there are three key elements: The desire or willingness to relax or drift off, the presence of an alternative focus of attention, and the right circumstances in which to do it. You may disagree about the driving. You may, correctly, feel that no one wants to get into an accident by “spacing out.” However, many people who feel themselves beginning to do this will either pull off the road and rest, put on loud music with a beat, or use other methods to keep focused. Those who do not do this do realize they are not alert but convince themselves that they are, kind of like people who drink too much and say, “I’m not drunk.” It’s called denial. Drivers who do drift off must be so tired that they simply allow their bodies to dictate to them their reaction, which, for the sake of their health, they should. The wise ones get off the road first.

A good therapist can help you create these conditions for yourself–provided you do want to experience that state of pleasant relaxation. The willingness is yours, the alternative focus of attention are the ideas the therapists suggests you think about, and the circumstances are the comfort and feeling of safety you have with your therapist.

How does the therapist create a feeling of comfort and safety?

Study after study in the psychotherapy field has shown that the relationship between client and therapist is the moving force behind reaching your therapy goals. Hypnosis is another example of therapy, so the first requirement is for the therapist to be a person that you like, trust, respect, and relate to. Therapists put a lot of personal energy into their own self-development as human beings to become people whom others feel comfortable and safe connecting to.

For hypnotherapy as in other therapy, the clinician should also assure you that the ethics of the profession require all communications be absolutely confidential. When there are problems with this, as in the use of insurance companies, the degree of disclosure to these third-party payors must be revealed. Then the decision to use insurance would be up to you.

Of course, there should be no interruptions during hypnosis. Sometimes, noises can’t be helped and the skillful therapist would know how to incorporate these into the trance experience.

Comfort also means you are neither hot nor cold, are sitting comfortably, do not have restrictive clothing, and so on, so that the state of relaxation can be achieved.

Finally, safety means that you should be able to exit the trance at will if something in the situation warrants it in your opinion. The therapist should assure you of this and describe how you can do it before the session gets underway. An intermediate position to take would be not to exit the trance but have a means of communication set up in advance to let the therapist know that something is making you uncomfortable. Therapists often suggest you can raise your first finger, or any number of other signs as “lifelines.”

Why would a person need hypnosis instead of ordinary talk therapy?

Hypnosis is useful as an adjunct to therapy for several reasons. First, the problem with talk therapy may be that there’s too much talking and not enough time for thinking. Sometimes the “noise” of our talk blocks out our creativity and our memory. By relaxing, clearing our minds, and creating a mental openness to whatever comes up, we can tap into our creative process and/or access old and useful memories. Haven’t you sometimes noticed that you wake up in the morning with a problem that you went to bed with the night before solved? That’s where the expression “sleep on it” came from. Same thing with hypnosis.

In fact, I would submit to you that the reason some people believe they “can’t” go into hypnosis is that they haven’t learned the art of letting go all their self-talk. A skillful therapist can help people learn to relax and let go.

A second reason for hypnosis is that it utilizes our fantastic powers of imagination to literally control our bodily functions. By now, you have probably heard of firewalking, yogis who can change their heartrate and so on. When done skillfully with a trained psychotherapist, you literally can learn to control your body functions. Using hypnosis, people have had childbirth, dental work and surgery without medication–and not felt the pain. People who are in pain may be able to reduce it as well (depending on the degree of intrusion of the pain while attempting to relax). Regarding use of hypnosis for pain-control, it is better to prepare for the painful event ahead of time rather than wait until afterward. It’s the true meaning of “mind over matter.”

Wouldn’t medication be more effective than hypnosis for pain control?

Medicine is a great thing. Surgery and medication gave my mother an extra 10 years of life that enabled her to see all four of her grandchildren arrive in this world. But even the best things have limitations. Right now there are new hospital rules that require patients in pain be medicated enough to really deaden the pain. Unfortunately, sometimes the degree of pain is too great to accomplish this. When my son had surgery, the morphine drip did not work and the percoset he came home with didn’t help much either. He opted to forgo them because of their side-effects while not doing their job. Hypnosis would have avoided both problems.

Furthermore, even if the medication does work, the more it slows the system down, the slower the healing process as well. So there is a balance that doctors struggle with every day between pain-control and over-medication. Hypnosis makes sense here too.

What about depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems? Medicine is pretty powerful.

Some people believe that psychological problems come from the “wrong” brain chemistry, called a “chemical imbalance.” The right chemistry in the form of medication is needed to correct this problem. In truth, no research has established which came first, the bad chemistry or the sad ways of thinking that etched neural pathways into our brains. But research does show that brain chemistry can be changed by thinking differently.

Of course, when you’re down it’s very difficult to think happy thoughts. That is why doctors frequently recommend medication to get the ball rolling. However, without concomitant psychotherapy, two things happen: (1) The body can build a tolerance for the medication. It is as if the brain chemicals for sadness are saying, “This is the real me and I want to come out.” Either a person needs higher and higher doses or the medication just stops working. That’s one reason why the pharmaceutical industry is so busy making newer and newer drugs.

(2) The second thing is that you still have not learned how to think differently. You have not learned coping skills. Thus, you keep taking the medication and feeling badly about yourself. That is, it fosters dependence–the exact opposite of what you need to develop healthy self-confidence and self-esteem. So the act of taking medication in and of itself can be depressing for a depressed or anxious person.

That is why psychotherapy is essential for depressed and anxious people. Psychotherapy literally trains the brain how to think differently under stress and pain. And hypnosis may be a good way to achieve that state of relaxation and creative openness necessary to do it.

What do you mean by creative openness?

Not only will hypnosis relax you so your mind is free, but it is useful to pinpoint beliefs that hinder change. We all form beliefs as we grow up and some of them are childish because, obviously, we were children when we formed them. Of course, we forget how we formed them or what they are even about sometimes. We just go on with our lives but these beliefs can hold us back. By going back to the memories of when these beliefs were formed, we can challenge them–and permanently change them. The little boy whose mother died and who, as an adult, is afraid of relationships, may not see the psychological connection. Even if it is pointed out, he doesn’t “feel” it. But under hypnosis, when he can re-experience the original formation of the belief that “people you love leave you,” he can also challenge it because he knows now, as a rational adult, that that is not necessarily true. Thus, hypnosis has healing power to re-evaluate beliefs and deep feelings. This goes way beyond mere relaxation and is what I mean by creative openness. As you can see, this openness is useful for many personal goals, not just emotional problems. It can be used to uncover blocks to success for example.

It sounds like you’re saying this can help me in business as well?

Absolutely. Sometime as we grew up, we developed ways of thinking about ourselves that can be roadblocks to success. Hypnosis can free us to think and feel differently about ourselves, provided it addresses the precise times in our lives when the unsuccessful thinking patterns started. That is why a skilled hypnotherapist can be so helpful.

You have mentioned a skilled hypnotherapist several times. What exactly are the criteria for being one?

Minimally, a therapist has a Master’s Degree and a License in Marriage and Family Therapy, Mental Health Counseling, Social Work, Psychology, or Psychiatric Nursing. In some other states, Professional Certification follows the Master’s Degree instead of a state license. After that, hypnosis certification for example in Florida requires 50 hours of coursework, including practice, under a State-approved provider of continuing education credits. In New York, the Milton Erickson society, NYSEPH, give post-degree training and certification in hypnotherapy.

Furthermore, the practice of therapy is an art, not a science, and nothing substitutes for years of experience. However, those years should be quality years. That is, the person should be growing and developing as a human being, learning from mistakes, trying new things, and still be excited about the process of therapy.

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