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Harnessing Hypnosis to Be a Well-Being Winner

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Hypnosis. The word conjures images of swinging pocket watches and people eating onions while thinking they are apples. Although stage hypnosis can be entertaining, it overshadows the true potential of this powerful tool: to enhance our wellbeing. What is hypnosis? What is its history? What explains hypnosis? How can it be used? How can you use it to improve your well-being? 

A hurried history of hypnosis

The history of what we now call “hypnosis” stretches back millennia.  Ancient civilisations in Egypt, Greece, and India documented practices resembling hypnosis.  Franz Mesmer, an 18th-century Austrian physician, is often credited with its “rediscovery” in the Western world. Mesmer believed that an ‘invisible’ force called “animal magnetism” explained what we now call hypnotic trances. Though his explanations were off the mark and debunked by a commission set up by Loius XIV of France, the commission confirmed that the phenomenon was real and effective. Mesmer’s work sparked subsequent interest in hypnosis.

“Hypnosis” as a word to describe the phenomenon, was introduced by Scottish surgeon James Braid in 1841. Later in the 19th century, figures such as Jean-Martin Charcot and Hippolyte Bernheim explored hypnosis further.  Bernheim focused his explanations on suggestibility, and that somehow, hypnosis harnessed unknown powers of the mind. That opened the door for the exploration of hypnosis as a tool in psychotherapy, which later became known as “hypnotherapy”. Freud adopted hypnosis as a therapeutic tool after being taught by Charcot, but, turned his back on hypnosis to concentrate on his own therapy method.

Despite the scepticism about hypnosis throughout the 20th century, much research and mastery of its use by Milton Erickson (among prominent others) established its effectiveness as a healing tool for some people, with some conditions, in some circumstances.

Who can benefit from hypnosis?

Hypnosis doesn’t work with everyone. Only around five to 10% of the population are among the lucky ones; those who are somnambulistic, (able to experience full hypnosis). 

Why “lucky”? Because its benefits are so profound.  Here are some examples:

  • People who have life-threatening conditions and could not have been given a general anaesthetic, have been able to undergo life-saving surgery, with hypnosis as the only method of pain control.
  • Others with intractable chronic pain have been treated successfully with hypnosis. 
  • People suffering addictions with a terminal prognosis, where no other method has worked, have benefited from hypnosis, and become addiction free. People who were eating themselves to death have been cured of their morbid obesity.
  • Many athletes and other professionals have used, and continue to use, hypnosis to boost their performance. 
  • People with mental health challenges, who are fully somnambulistic have been relieved of their anxieties, phobias, obsessions, depressions, and many other problems.
  • People have taken IQ tests before hypnosis and then improved their scores to genius levels after hypnosis, in which suggestions of an improved ability to conduct IQ tests were provided. 

In short, when hypnosis works, it really works. 

For another, much larger group of people, hypnosis can have some limited benefit. Although there are no reliable figures, perhaps around 50–80% of the population can moderately benefit from hypnosis, and for around 20–35%, it has no discernible effect. (The figures above do not add up because they are all estimates.)

What do we observe when people are experiencing hypnosis?

Imagination and fantasy are enhanced.  People who do not exist can appear to be real; animals can be made to talk (hallucinations).  It can be so powerful that a person will respond to the suggestion that an onion tastes like an apple or that rotten eggs can smell like perfume. Those are known as distortion hallucinations.

In a hypnotic state, a person can be asked to see other people walking around with no heads, be made invisible, or make no noise even when they are shouting. Such effects are known as negative hallucinations. 

What are the explanations for hypnosis?

Sleep theory, offered by Pavlov of salivating dog fame, suggests that hypnosis is a different form of sleep. That seems supported when post hypnotic amnesia is present, but less so when we learn that suggestions planted during hypnosis can enable people to fully remember what transpired when experiencing hypnosis.

Dissociation theory suggests that hypnosis involves a division of consciousness, where the conscious mind becomes less critical and the subconscious becomes more receptive to suggestions. When people are in a hypnotic state, both their initiative and ability to plan, are reduced or completely absent. 

When people in a hypnotic state are asked to do something that requires thought or planning, they are less able to do it. They may start, under instruction, but gradually stop. Some experiments, (see Hilgard), appear to show that there is a part of the mind that is fully aware of what is going on, and acting as a “hidden observer” during hypnosis. Despite the hidden observer, when people are in a hypnotic state, their initiative is depleted.

Attention theory posits that hypnosis might be a state of heightened focus and absorption, where the mind becomes more responsive to the therapist’s suggestions. Attention is more selective than usual, and mental capability is reduced.  People who are in a hypnotic state tend to pay more attention to the person conducting the hypnosis. It may be that the attention given to the hypnotist is all that can be managed. Physical tasks can be performed, but mental tasks (such as simple arithmetic) are greatly impaired.

Varying degrees of suggestibility theory. Suggestibility varies with focus and context.  If you were doing something you loved and wanted to achieve a result, very little is going to distract you. Imagine you were running a race and were concentrating on your performance. You wouldn’t hear what the audience was shouting at you, or pay any attention to it. But if you were semi-awake in your room and you heard someone you trusted shouting, “Fire, fire, fire. Get out, get out, get out!” You would hear it, process it, understand it, and act on it before you even stopped to judge if it was true. That contrast tells us that our level of suggestibility (hypnosis) depends on our mental state at the time the suggestion is made. Hypnosis may be about inducing varying states of suggestibility.

Expectancy theory suggests that hypnosis, like the placebo effect, works because the individual expects it to be effective.  Belief in the process plays a significant role in the outcome. There is no doubt that people who believe in hypnosis are more likely to benefit from it.

Role play theory advocates that when people are in a hypnotic state, they are doing no more than playing along with some social role. That seems to be true when stage hypnosis is the only evidence. It seems less likely to be true when successfully used for open heart surgery.

There are many other theories of hypnosis. In most fields, multiple theories for the same phenomenon is usually a hallmark of little or no understanding. That is the case with hypnosis: our understanding is primitive, despite hundreds of years of observation and study. 

Hypnosis for well-being, at its simplest level, consists of eight stages

Hypnosis, for the lucky few, can be induced by following a few simple steps. 

  1. Creating the right environment and expectation building. That involves becoming physically comfortable, and feeling safe and secure emotionally and psychologically.
  2. Agreement is the stage where the hypnotist and the person who wishes to enter a hypnotic state, for therapeutic purposes, explore and agree on what suggestions will be beneficial.
  3. Induction is the name given to the process aimed at creating a hypnotic state.  The process of induction can involve, for example, eye or muscle fatigue.
  4. Testing and verification is the process of checking whether the person is in a hypnotic state, by for example, giving a suggestion and observing its effect.
  5. Deepening is the name given to the techniques used to create a more complete hypnotic state.
  6. Suggestion is the stage during which the person leading the hypnosis offers one or more suggestions for whatever purpose has been pre-agreed.
  7. Awakening or emergence is the stage where the person who has experienced hypnosis is brought back to full consciousness.
  8. Realisation is the stage where the suggestions that have been agreed upon are realised during day-to-day life.

How can you harness hypnosis?

There are two key routes: hire a hypnotist, learn how to use self-hypnosis, or both.

As in any field, the competence, and effectiveness of practitioners vary. With hypnotists, too, you would be wise to avoid having anything to do with the bottom 40%; you will pay for the poor service, and lack of results repeatedly.  By contrast, if you can afford it, with someone in the top 1%, you would see them once, and it would pay for itself over and over again (if you are somnambulistic).

Many high achievers use self-hypnosis as a matter of their daily routine. Here is an easy way to get started with self-hypnosis. 

Make yourself comfortable in a quiet, safe place. Close your eyes, and turn your attention to taking slow, deep breaths. Focus on tensing and relaxing each muscle group in turn, starting with your toes and working up your legs to your core, chest, neck, and face. Feel the tension leave your body with each exhale of breath. Once you are deeply relaxed, repeatedly bring your goal to mind; visualise it, feel it, and know with absolute conviction that it is yours. Bring yourself up to full alertness. Do that once or twice a day for the best results. 

Even for people who cannot fully experience hypnosis, visualising and affirming their goals while in a relaxed state is known to help. It is likely that many people who meditate, make positive affirmations, or rehearse mantras about their goals are, unknowingly, entering a state of self-hypnosis, however mild.

Even if you are not one of the lucky ones, using the techniques of self-hypnosis can help you create a positive and empowered mindset.

What action are you going to take, today, to harness hypnosis to improve your well-being?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.

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