Hypnosis and Ericksonian Hypnotherapy
Hypnosis is a relaxation technique humans have employed since our earliest times to calm ourselves when under stress or to probe our deeper levels of awareness. There is nothing magical or mysterious about hypnosis. However, longstanding myths and misconceptions about the practice still exist. Hypnosis is nothing more than a very relaxed state during which a person is more open to suggestions for change. Normally when a person is hypnotized the individual is guided into a relaxed state by a trained hypnotherapist. However, individuals can learn to relax on their own (sometimes called self-hypnosis), by slowing their breathing into a rhythmic pattern and quieting their internal thoughts, focusing on the breathing and nothing more. Of course, anyone can relax with techniques like meditation, yoga or progressive relaxation, but the dynamic ability to bring about change is more powerful when one is guided by a hypnotist. To help individuals learn self-hypnosis or progressive relaxation, Dr. Mike developed the Phoenix Relaxation and Meditation Series. The Self Hypnosis or Progressive Relaxation recordings can be purchased in CD or mp3 formats (purchase now).
Hypnotherapy is a 20th century term that came into use when the practice of hypnosis became more established in the field of medicine. There is still resistance to its use in the medical profession, although that began to change following the groundbreaking work of Milton H. Erickson, a gifted psychiatrist and medical hypnotherapist. He has been called the “Father of Modern Hypnotherapy,” and his work served as one of the models for the development of Neuro Linguistic Programming, a body of techniques designed to enhance human learning. Hundreds of books have been written about his course-shifting work in the mental health field.
State of Hypnosis
The “state” of hypnosis is actually an ordinary human experience. Every person goes into this state on his or her own a number of times each day without realizing it. Have you ever been so engrossed in a book or TV program that you didn't hear a question from a family member? Have you ever missed your exit on the freeway because your mind was somewhere else? And what about that twilight zone where you linger just before you fall asleep at night -- when you're in bed, on the verge of sleep, but still vaguely aware of your surroundings? These are all examples of hypnotic states.
The human body undergoes certain physiological changes when a person is in this relaxed state. Much has been written about these changes, and scientific inquiry is steadily revealing what transpires physically and biochemically when we relax. Research does indicate that the human pulse rate decreases and blood pressure lowers – a lot like when a person falls asleep. Check out Herbert Benson’s groundbreaking 1975 book The Relaxation Response for more information, and/or see what he recommends to “bring forth the relaxation response” at http://www.relaxationresponse.org/howto.htm.
It is generally accepted that the speed of our brain waves increase or decrease in tandem with shifts in levels of consciousness. Brain waves cycle the fastest when a person is fully conscious. This level is sometimes called Beta, a state of awakened alertness. In the Alpha state brain waves are thought to cycle slower, and it is generally thought that this is when a person is somewhere between consciousness and the edge of sleep. Alpha is the state in which most hypnotic work is conducted. When in Alpha individuals report experiencing heightened creativity and a sense of calm. Even deeper levels occur when a person is “on the brink of sleep” (Theta) or in the deep sleep stage (Delta). When a person is hypnotized -- and at the Alpha level -- certain external changes can be observed. Breathing is deeper and more patterned, muscles in the face, neck and shoulders relax, the chin drops, facial skin tone and color change, and the head may tilt forward or to the side.
For some reason, when in the Alpha state, a person also becomes open and receptive to suggestions for change, particularly if he or she believes the change is desirable. The reasons for this are not known, but this hyper-suggestibility has been the reason hypnosis has been used for centuries to install positive and healing suggestions to improve the lives of individuals. The hypnotic state is an excellent way for a person to cease harmful behaviors or initiate helpful new ones to enhance their well-being. While under hypnosis a person can also learn to replace negative or self-limiting thoughts with more positive internal narratives. These new thoughts and attitudes, with repetition and reinforcement, can then replace old ones that were preventing a desirable change from being adopted.
Visitors to this site are encouraged to visit as many websites about hypnosis as possible to get a broader understanding of the practice. After reading several sources of information, one will discover that several common myths about hypnosis have no basis in fact. For example, one does not go into a deep sleep that causes loss of control, and one does not come “under the spell" of the hypnotherapist. Many people fear the thought of "going under" because it might mean giving up their will to someone else. On the contrary, most subjects who have been hypnotized report that they remembered everything that happened during the session, although they did feel relaxed and quiet. Noises around them may have faded into the background, or they may have felt less connected to their environment.
Most practitioners use the terms trance and hypnosis interchangeably, although some make the distinction that hypnosis only occurs with the guidance of a hypnotist, while trance is self-induced. The terms are being used interchangeably here. While in trance, people may experience heightened bodily sensations. Some feel light, like they're floating. Others feel heavy or numb but very relaxed. Others might feel a tingling in their extremities, across their scalp, or chills down their spine. Some have dryness in the mouth and some increased salivation. Whatever a person’s experience, it is accepted as “right” for that individual. There does not seem to be one sensation that is better or more meaningful than any other. Often people become less aware of time. They may come out of trance feeling they were "gone" much longer than the few minutes it took, or what they felt took just a few minutes may actually have taken twenty. Again, there is no right or wrong in these differences. It is a matter of personal experience.
No one in recorded history has ever been hypnotized and not come out of a trance. If a person is put into trance and the hypnotherapist leaves the room, the individual will always alert to any emergency and come immediately out of the trance state.
The language and process that hypnotherapists use to put clients into trance are designed to help them retreat from the conscious mind into the unconscious. This is done by a combination of coached breathing, muscle relaxation, visualizations, strategic use of language and the soothing cadence and tenor of the hypnotherapist's voice. Very few people cannot be hypnotized, although some may take longer than others to reach a trance state. The deep feeling of relaxation induced by hypnosis is an immediate benefit for those who find it difficult to calm themselves. But the ability to use hypnosis to install positive and lasting suggestions via the unconscious and to change very bothersome habits or behaviors is the icing on the cake.
Conscious vs. Unconscious Mind
A description of the hypothetical differences between the conscious and unconscious minds may help clarify how hypnosis is believed to work. The conscious mind is thought to control the rational, logical, decision-making processes that are centered in the left side of the brain. The unconscious mind (also sometimes referred to as the subconscious) is thought to operate in the right brain and controls intuition and creative processes as well as autonomic functions like breathing, heartbeat and swallowing. Of course what actually happens is much more complicated than that! The conscious and unconscious also have different capacities and limitations.
The conscious mind, in control during the alert state, can only hold and process a few stimuli at the same time. The unconscious, on the other hand, is able to process a multitude of images and impressions in a single moment, as it does throughout a person's life. The unconscious has also been described as the protector. It records and monitors the patterns that we have learned (good or bad), keeps the body systems running, and even urges us to act according to patterns that we have established as a result of our experiences. For example, after dinner a man who had quit smoking a year before still reaches for his breast pocket for the pack of cigarettes he once carried there, an automatic reminder of the extinguished behavior. It is theorized that the unconscious manages a network of internal wiring that keeps track of our behaviors and the habits we have learned. Some of these behaviors are good for us and some are not, but the unconscious does not seem to discriminate between good or bad; right or wrong.
We all know of smokers who have tried everything to stop -- going "cold turkey," using "the patch," chewing “the gum,” or by attending smoking cessation classes. They will tell you that nothing has worked, and they end up feeling powerless over the habit that their conscious, logical mind knows it’s time to stop. Even with a conscious awareness of the need to stop, the unconscious may have some powerful reason intertwined in its wiring that continues to override the conscious preference. The strength of the habit may be maintained until an unconscious intention behind the habit is satisfied and a desirable substitution is found for the habit. Even a habit or behavior that has been a part of a person's life for years can be changed. The hypnotic state is a powerful means to bring about these changes. But the power of hypnosis is not limited to habit stopping. Well trained clinicians are able to use effective hypnotic techniques to alleviate the symptoms of phobias, anxiety, PTSD, depression and a variety of negative or self-limiting behaviors or thoughts that cause disharmony.
One word of caution: If you are a consumer seeking a hypnotherapist, be sure to investigate the individual’s training, certification and experience. In many states the practice of hypnosis is not regulated by law or state policy. This means an individual who has taken only a two day training course could open a business the following week and begin “practicing” as a “hypnotherapist,” without any mental health training, certification, or a state license. Reputable national programs do exist for the training and certification of licensed mental health professionals in the clinical use of hypnotherapy. One such program is offered by the American Hypnosis Training Academy in Silver Spring, MD whose website is http://www.ahtainc.com. Courses offered by AHTA provide rigorous instruction in hypnotherapy as it is used in mental health settings and can also satisfy requirements for board certification as a clinical hypnotherapist by the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists (NBCCH). The National Board provides a free state-by-state listing of its certified members for consumers on its website http://www.natboard.com.
Milton H. Erickson, MD, psychiatrist and clinical hypnotherapist, was the founding president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis. His contributions to the field of medical hypnosis were not simply significant -- they were monumental. Erickson barely survived polio as a young man. During his convalescence, and while he was unable to speak, he learned the importance of non-verbal cues in communicating effectively, simply by observing those who were caring for him. He came to understand how body language and facial expressions can help to clarify or even distort a message. Also, when faced with paralysis as a result of his illness, he actively called up the memory of how his muscles used to work as a tool to help him learn to walk and talk again. These were but two early experiences that he used to help shape a view of hypnosis and psychotherapy that was revolutionary.
Erickson believed that each person is unique in the way he or she acquires, processes, retrieves and expresses his or her experiences. He further believed that every individual possesses the internal experiences necessary to overcome any difficulty, much like he himself had by calling up the memory of how his muscles once worked in order to learn to move again. Erickson’s approach was unconventional, to say the least, and was fiercely criticized by established theorists of that time. He altered the “look” of psychotherapy from a formal, regimented use of established protocols to a more relaxed, conversational foray into a patient’s experiences (i.e. strengths) that might be used to help resolve current issues, whether the strengths were linked to the problem or not. Erickson used language in exquisite ways to tease the unconscious awake in a person, sometimes even purposefully causing confusion in a person’s logic, believing that the unconscious would reorganize the thinking in a more positive direction.
The study of Erickson’s approaches continues to this day, more than 30 years after his death. As was indicated at the beginning of this section, a number of Erickson’s techniques were adopted by the developers of Neuro Linguistic Programming. I can’t begin to explain in a few paragraphs the breadth and depth of Erickson’s genius and his works. But readers are encouraged to study his techniques via publications and to attend conferences or training programs that offer insight into how this man “trance-formed” modern psychotherapy with the use of medical hypnosis. The best resource to learn more about the techniques of Milton Erickson, as well as those who have studied his work, is the website of the Milton H. Erickson Foundation http://erickson-foundation.org. Publications and DVD’s are available for purchase, and the website also lists conferences and training opportunities regarding Erickson’s work.
Erickson was more than the father of medical hypnosis. He was, in all respects, its originator and dynamic spokesperson. His collected works may have spawned more innovations in psychotherapy than those of any other mental health professional working in the second half of the 20th century. We owe a lot to Erickson. I owe a lot to Erickson. I have used his techniques successfully in my own work with clients and with the many mental health therapists I have trained.