Hypnotherapy warning labels and informed consent

In this post, I’m going to talk about the warnings or bad stuff that can happen during or as a result hypnosis. Frankly, there aren’t a lot. But, when I’m going to do hypnosis with someone, I always talk about these because it’s my duty as a clinician to give this information so my clients can give informed consent to treatment.

Do you know about informed consent?

I don’t mean to be pushy, but I’m often struck how few of my clients know about it until I bring it up. The gist is this: Whether you’re getting psychotherapy or a medical procedure or taking a medication, your provider is supposed to give you enough information about what could happen so you can reasonably consent to it, understanding the risks, side effects and pros and cons of proceeding. This is informed consent. If you aren’t given enough information by your provider to make informed consent, then they aren’t doing their jobs.

This blog entry is basically a blog version of my informed consent talk about hypnosis.

Ready?

Falling asleep: the drifting off warning label

Sometimes hypnosis doesn’t work because the person I’m working with falls asleep. This isn’t always a bad thing: Sometimes people are sleep deprived or their unconscious mind is serving some purpose by knocking them out.

Generally, I just wake the person up again. Do I get upset when people fall asleep? I promise I don’t. As a side effect goes, this is pretty mild for both me and my client. The worst thing that happens is that we have to do the hypnosis session again, or we pick up again at the point where the person drifted off.

While there is some thought that the unconscious is listening and taking in information while asleep, it doesn’t work well for the evocative kinds of hypnosis work I do. So we just go back and maybe I ask the person to sit up instead of lying down on the couch, or I find ways to keep them more engaged.

Okay. You got it? Hypnosis is relaxing… Sometimes so relaxing that…

Emotional release: a psychological warning label

Strong feelings can come up in hypnosis. Sometimes these can be quite surprising to people. Typically, what happens is that something is right below the surface and so, when a person goes into trance state, a strong emotion of some kind erupts because the person’s “guard is down” when their conscious mind becomes relaxed. I have seen this happen, for instance, with grief, with anger, and with trauma material.

Clinically, this is called an abreaction, and is a kind of like a catharsis, if you know your Greek tragedy or psychoanalytic vocabulary. While it’s not always a bad thing, it can sometimes be quite intense and unpleasant for people when it occurs. I talked already about abreactive therapies in my traumawork post.

If you’ve been in psychotherapy before, you’re probably aware, however, that this kind of thing can also happen in regular talk therapy: Imagine, for instance, you’re talking pleasantly about your dear friend or pet who died last year, and you find yourself suddenly start crying, experiencing grief from losing your companion. This is the same phenomenon I’m talking about. In keeping with the seemingly faster/deeper nature of hypnotherapy, the difference is that, in hypnosis, you might start crying and not know why, or the material that comes up might be quite strongly.

To help prevent this upwelling from happening uncontrollably, I talk people through what we’re going to do beforehand so the unconscious is primed for what we intend to do (and is less likely to stumble into something unexpected) and I watch out for the unconscious material that could be close at hand.

Then, if something still does come up, I try to make sure that someone is ready for it. And then I encourage the use of it for therapeutic purposes.

For now, you should know that this can happen. It’s a reasonably rare side effect—I would say strong emotions unexpectedly come up in 1 out of 30-40 hypnosis sessions I do, and they’re most likely in unstructured sessions.

“False memories”: a legal warning label

If you’re over 30 or so, you might remember when America was going through an obsession with Satanic ritual abuse in the 80s. Or maybe you remember the false memory court cases themselves.

The story is like this: a psychiatrist, therapist or coach would be working with a client. Maybe they’d be doing hypnosis or deep breathing, gestalt therapy or some other technique. And the client would suddenly remember something he didn’t remember before. Maybe he’d remember his dog Jojo getting hit by a car when he was 4. When someone remembers something they were not at all aware of previously, it’s referred to as a repressed memory (or previously repressed memory, since now it’s no longer repressed). Repressed memories are relatively rare but they do exist—I see them in maybe 1 out of 100 age regressions.

But let’s suppose in our example, the client remembers Jojo being hit by a car, but the client previously never remembered having a dog, and his parents confirm that there was never a dog that fits that description. In other words, there was no way (if the parents are to be believed) that Jojo (who was imaginary) was hit by a car. Then this is what we might call fabricated memory material or a “false memory”—a memory of something that never actually occurred. This is pretty rare. If repressed memories are 1 out of a 100, false memories are 1 out of a 1,000 or 10,000.

How do these happen? Nobody exactly knows, but we know recalling memories is similar in the brain to imagining. Our explicit memory—the memory of normal events—is stored in shorthand, you might say. So each time we recall something, we’re kind of making up the details. This is a major problem with eye-witness testimony: usually we don’t know the difference between what we actually saw and the details we filled in. The result is that three different witnesses of one event can come up with wildly different versions of what happened depending on what else has happened in their day, their own preoccupations and preferences.

And it’s possible—especially with repetition or trance—to get people to remember things that they could not have an actual memory of. Maybe it starts with a seed of some kind, but then a whole memory forms around it. For instance, when I was a kid, my parents talked about their old house a lot. They talked about it so much that I was convinced I’d been there as a child. I even remembered a picture of me as a baby there. But I wasn’t born until after my family had moved out of that house and my parents were clear I’d never been there.

You may be thinking at this point that this is the warning label: that hypnosis can create false memories. And there’s a wee bit of truth to it: hypnosis can do this — however — so can storytelling, late night TV, news/propaganda, psychedelic substances, other trauma modalities, and dreaming — the problem isn’t hypnosis, the problem is the way memory works. That said, say I’m working with someone and they recall a potential repressed memory, i do treat it with caution. If you were a fly on the wall, you’d hear me liken what comes up in hypnosis as like what comes up in dreams: sometimes it’s literal, sometimes it’s symbolic.

Frankly, I think hypnotherapy with hypnotherapists is the least likely place to develop a problematic false memory: clinicians who are well trained in hypnosis avoid doing the kinds of things that create false memories: we know how to ask questions in a non-leading away and we know how to avoid accidental suggestions of remembering a certain thing. We also know how to regard new memory material when it does arise… But, this is all kind of an aside…

The warning label here is actually legal.

Here is the meat of it: Because of the history of false memories in court, the false memory debates, and the effects of various advocacy organizations, if you’ve had hypnosis, it’s possible that your testimony in court could be thrown out or discredited because of the chance that your testimony could be tainted with unconsciously fabricated memory material. In Massachusetts, for instance, if you recall something in hypnosis and there’s no corroboration by other witnesses, the precedent is that if you tried to press a case, it probably won’t go very far. Likewise, if you’ve got a legal case pending or intend to press one, or any situation where you’re a witness, you should give statements or written testimony before doing any kind of hypnosis with me or anybody else.

This is the warning label.

I’d like to stop here. So if you're satisfied at this point, you can stop reading.

There are three warnings: sleep, emotional material, and legal issues having to do with false memories.

But you may also be aware of more context to #3 here, and I want to acknowledge that too.

Because usually repressed memory stories don’t typically involve cis-male clients remembering little dogs named Jojo… What typically happened was that an adult woman would discover memory material of being sexually abused by a family member, often her father, grandfather or an uncle.

This gets very political very fast, but, basically, the idea of false memories — even the term “false memory” — was developed as a legal defense for those fathers or family members. Hypnosis took a lot of the blame, whatwith its already dicey myths of mind control and sleep-like vulnerability: Power/fame hungry therapists warping the minds of vulnerable women and all that. Is hypnosis blameless in all this? No. Perhaps there were power-hungry therapists, and there were definitely naive and incompetent ones doing age-regression work in ways that could create problems. But the political undertones of this are striking. It’s also not lost on me that all this derailed the most helpful trauma treatment modality to exist until EMDR hit the scene in the 1990s.

Luckily, today there are many traumawork modalities. But remember: before you engage in any of them (or any other therapeutic or medical process), get the information you need to make informed consent.

Next, before circling back to some other clinical issues, I’m going to talk a bit about the global view of my work, including meditation, hypnosis, and other stuff.

Hypnotherapy and Habits

Habit change is one of the places the rubber meets the road. Sometimes people will listen politely to my explanations of hypnosis and then turn to me and say, "That all sounds good, but when am I going to stop drinking?" Or substitute "drinking" for late night snacking, or nail biting, or pulling out hair, looking at porn, or toking every night...

Like with psychosomatic issues, hypnosis has sets of tools that directly apply to habit change.

Because it's such a classic and complicated issue, I'm going to use smoking cigarettes as an example during most of this post, but you could easily substitute something else.

Some points to consider:

  • Motivation is one of the most important factors in changing anything. Nobody goes through the awkward process of uprooting (or creating) a habit for no good reason. If you're reading this and there's something you're hoping to address, I'm hoping you're feeling motivated.

  • Another important thing to recognize with habits is that they (like somatic issues) serve a purpose -- or at least did originally. Let's consider smoking. A lot of people start smoking as a way to fit in and have social connection to others. Sometimes people start smoking as a way to relax or self-sooth. More often than not, it's both of these or sometimes other reasons. The point is, any habit -- from chewing pencils to shooting heroin -- started for a reason.

  • Of course, what happens over time is that stuff snowballs. While smoking may have been good to take a break and chat comfortably with others as a teenager, at some point maybe it became a major way to relax (think: "take a deep breath!... now exhale slowly!...") or have signal a transitional periods in the day ("smoke break"), or self-stimulate so you can concentrate better (nicotine=fast acting stimulant). Sooner or later, the habit has a momentum of its own. Even just the force of habit is a thing: if you smoke every time you drive your car, it's going to feel awkward if you suddenly stop, even if there's no good reason to smoke right then.

  • Smoking is also a good example of the physical dependence of habit: Once you start consuming a fair bit of nicotine, your body gets used to it and gets upset if it doesn't have it.

Addressing all these levels is recommended to really make sustainable change. And all can be addressed with good hypnotherapy.

As with most issues, I usually start with inner resourcing. Resourcing is what therapists call it when you build up the feeling that you can handle things or deal with things effectively. With habits, it's important to have the sense that you can successfully change the habit and that you can handle any of the crap that will arise from changing it.

Motivation and inner resources can strengthen one another. Imagine your romantic partner has been nagging you to stop smoking. There's a little motivation there, but not much. But imagine spending some time thinking about how much you care about your partner, and maybe the nice things your partner does for you or that you do together. Assuming you're okay feeling good about your partner, it likely will feel good to think about all those nice things and make you feel supported. And will make you more motivated to stop smoking so you and your partner can be even happier and more mutually supportive. You could do more or less the same thing with your own health rather than a romantic partner.

Once there's some resourcing and clear motivation, it's worth exploring the layers of purpose in a habit. Sometimes this is really simple and sometimes it's not.

Smoking cessation has actually gotten harder over time with hypnosis because most of the simple purposes smoking has served are culturally eliminated: it's no longer very "cool" to smoke, and it's not very cheap or easy or socially acceptable. Likewise, there are many more tools available to stop smoking with: patches, gum, losanges, medications, internet forums, apps. So what's left more often than not are relatively unconscious purposes that will accept no substitute. I'll return to this in a moment.

Finally, there's the physiology of stopping a habit. Smoking is actually pretty rough to stop doing. I usually recommend people cut back to less than 10 (or less than 5, ideally) cigarettes a day before they try to stop. But happily, there's that whole mind-body thing and hypnosis. Remember me saying how people can do things like change their blood pressure or help with headaches using hypnosis? Hypnosis can also help with withdrawal symptoms.

I usually approach habit change in three parts, each increasingly “deeper” than the last.**

First, after getting your history and such, we try resourcing and motivation. Sometimes this is enough to get someone unstuck enough to change. I've certainly met former smokers who had hypnosis and the hypnosis only consisted of (in trance) being told repeatedly the reasons they want to quit. This increased their motivation. And it worked.

Second, assuming the motivation and resourcing wasn't enough, I use tailored direct suggestions. For example, there's a hypnotic tool called the "control room" that I sometimes use. Basically, in a hypnotic state, I have people imagine a cockpit or control room where there are controls for all the unconscious elements of their habit. For smoking, maybe there are levers or buttons associated with all the times of day they tend to smoke. Maybe there's a dial associated with anxiety, and a dial associated with twitchy "I gotta go smoke" feelings, maybe there's a dial for "boredom" if that's someone trigger. Maybe there's some kind of dial or computer that has to do with cravings and withdrawal. We might do this and go through adjust all the levels and dials to a non-smoking kind of orientation. The unconscious takes the message and makes it happen below deck, so to speak.

Finally, if we do tailored direct suggestions and someone is still not able to stop, we look deeper. I might use the ideomotor finger signaling, or I might get someone into a deep enough trance that I can talk directly to their unconscious using other methods about the purpose of the habit.

If someone's a particularly skilled hypnotic subject, this three step process might take three sessions, but, frankly, it often takes more.

If you're reading this and thinking this doesn't sound like the one-shot stop smoking hypnosis you've heard of, you're right -- it's not. Sometimes I get results in one session, but I'm not the showman that's going to promise something like that. If that's what you want, I recommend you find someone that does that kind of hypnosis, or even just find a Youtube video or a script and give that a shot. If it doesn't work or it works for a bit and then stops, that's what the kind of work I do is for.

There is also a lot I could say about the things you can do to work on habits on your own. For example, setting a date to change, talking to people about the change you want to make, writing down pros and cons of making the change and putting the pros somewhere you see them often, and choosing the time you actually make the change wisely.

As always, if you have questions, feel free to contact me.

Next, I'm going to talk about hypnotherapy and depression.

** A footnote: I want to give some credit to Maureen Turner, after whom I originally based my three part model for habit change work.

Physical (psychosomatic) Problems and Hypnotherapy

Lately I've been getting a lot of calls of people saying things like,

"I can't fall asleep at night and I've seen a bunch of doctors and nothing helps, even medication. Can you see me?" Or

"I get these terrible headaches but the doctors all say nothing is wrong with me. My acupuncturist/doctor/psychotherapist/neurologist told me to call you." or

"My hand isn't working right and nobody knows why and I've got a softball game in 3 weeks. When can you fit me in?"

These are psychosomatic complaints and they're a type of problem that hypnosis excels with. Today I thought I'd write about how I work with them.

Psychosomatic complaints: my definition

  • A problem that can't be medically explained or clearly diagnosed

  • Has a suspected or verified psychological element

  • Results in physical pain or other distressing physical problem or changes (“clinically significant distress”)

These include things like sleep problems, pain with no clear cause, injuries that haven't healed when they should have, unexplained paralysis or numbness, teeth grinding during sleep (nocturnal bruxism), irritable bowel syndrome, non-biological erectile dysfunction, vaginismus, fainting with no cause, and all sorts of other problems that make doctors say, "I don't understand. That shouldn't be happening."

I should say immediately that I only work with people who have gotten checked out by their doctor and no clear medical problem has been found. Often I'll even encourage second or third opinions. Many of the problems I've listed could have potentially significant medical consequences if not evaluated seriously. To give just one common example (I could give many from the above list alone): night time teeth grinding can be a symptom of sleep apnea and warrants a medical check and possibly a sleep study before pursuing hypnosis treatment.

The Purpose of a Symptom

Sometimes doctors will tell you, "The problem is all in your head." As if that's a helpful thing to say. Aside from ignoring much of the contemporary understanding of reality, such a statement ignores the actual purpose of the problem. "Purpose," you may be thinking, "we're talking about a migraine. What purpose could it be serving?"

I'd like to tell a story I heard once to illustrate.

Ignoring a Stone wall

Once upon a time, there was a civil engineer who was annoyed at a particular place in a road he had to take regularly where the road turned sharply to the right and avoided ahat appeared to be an empty field. After going for half a mile, the road turned back and resumed a path almost exactly where it had been going before. In front of the field, in the place where the road turned, was an old stone wall. A few times a year, cars would miss the turn and run into the stone wall. He decided he could fix this problem and prevent accidents.

So, the engineer convinced the town and the road crews to bulldoze the stone wall and build the road through the old field. The owner of the field was more than happy to sell that stretch of land, and by the end of the summer, they'd made a perfect straight road where there'd been a curve before.

In his excitement, however, the engineer failed to notice that the water table was particularly high in that section. When winter came, the road began to crack from all ice underneath it, and by spring, it was buckled and ugly. By the second spring, it was practically gravel and quite dangerous: many more cars skidded off the road than had missed the turn before, and by the third year, the stretch of road had practically disintegrated back into the marshy field around it. The town got so many complaints it opened up the old section again. Eventually motorists started putting rocks and boulders in the straight stretch of road to warn people away from going down that dangerous section, and eventually good Samaritans replaced the haphazard rocks and boulders with a proper country stone wall.

In the story, the civil engineer represents how we usually think. While perhaps an actual civil engineer would have consulted water tables or historical records before trying to build a road, when it comes to problems with our bodies and physical or psychological symptoms, we're rarely so thoughtful. The curve in the road and the stone wall represent symptoms: we don't know why they're there. They just are, and they do create problems: migraines, IBS, teeth grinding, fainting - whatever the problem - isn't without cost. But what the story is trying to illustrate is that they aren't random, just like the original road and stone wall weren't random. If there's no obvious physical reason for a problem, it behooves us to look deeper. And that's one of the things hypnosis treatment can do well.

Typically, purposes served by psychosomatic problems have to do with self-protection, interpersonal dynamics or other unconsciously tended areas.

For instance, suppose a young boy would lie awake every night as a child because his parents would fight after tucking him in. Sometimes they'd be particular violent and he felt he had to stay awake in case something really bad happened and he had to call the police or help. Imagine that the same boy has grown up and as an adult, has terrible trouble falling asleep and is filled with inexplicable dread of going to bed in general. The problems are so bad that regular doses of medication don't really help. The guy calls me one day and says "I'm having sleep problems." You see how the "sleep problems" serve a purpose?

Or suppose a young girl experiences subtle disapproval from her father whenever she does something, "un-lady-like." This extends as far as his disapproval when she signs up for advanced math classes, which her father judges harshly. Years later, her father dies and she finds herself feeling dizzy and anxious whenever she goes to her job, where she works as an engineer. She gets a cardio work up and monitors her blood pressure for a week and everything's normal. Could it be that her unconscious, galvanized by her father's death, is trying to keep some sense of connection to him?

Or, imagine a high school student who is getting bullied. He begins to get stomach aches before lunch, when he usually is harassed. Eventually the stomach aches are bad enough that he can't eat lunch at all. Even as an adult, in times of stress, he finds he can't eat. If he tries, he has almost immediate diarrhea and cramps, sending him to the bathroom. Aside from a diagnosis of IBS-D, he hasn't gotten any clear explanation or any relief from his doctors.

I realize I'm telling these stories a bit backwards — If you're dealing with a problem like this, there likely isn't a clear history to explain it: there's just diarrhea, or there's just sleeplessness, or grinding teeth -- just like in the story, where there's just a bend in the road and the stone wall. This is the nature of the way we relate to our unconscious minds in modern times. But even if there is a story of why the problem is there, it's not like knowing it fixes the problem. So let's move more into what to actually do to help things.

Specific ways I work with psychosomatic issues

Many of the same things that help other problems, such as anxiety, can help with psychosomatic complaints. For instance, anchoring and things that bolster a sense of inner strength and resources help many psychosomatic complaints. Mindfulness meditation and loving kindness practice are good easily accessible home practices. Likewise, specially tailored direct suggestions can be very helpful, as can the Turner Age Regression I talked about in my last entry.

Another approach I take with psychosomatic problems is called ideomotor finger signaling. It's a technique that allows for communication with the deep unconscious. To explain, let's clarify the goal. Suppose in the story I told earlier, the civil engineer could have consulted with the person who built the original stone wall. The two might have a conversation about water table and the hazards of building a road through that section, but also about the problems that are caused by the solution -- the accidents caused by having the sharp turn and the stone wall there. Ideally, they could come up with a better solution together than either could have on their own: maybe turning the road more gradually, or having a bridge there instead of a regular road. This is what we’re after. The best solutions to problems are the result of conversations between both our unconscious mind and conscious mind — or, you might say, all the parts of ourselves. Ideomotor finger signaling is a relatively easy way to facilitate that conversation.

Basically the ideomotor technique involves me training a client to listen in deep trance to the body's response when I ask yes or no questions and to use their fingers to non-verbally signal responses. The signals put language to a kind of deep gut feeling. Suppose you look at a menu at a restaurant -- you might have a gut feeling that you'd like one thing and not another. You look at the fajita description on the menu and some part of you says "yes!" and you look at the burrito description and it says, "no!" The part of you that is responding is usually your unconscious, and in a deep hypnotic state, it's your deep (somatic) unconscious. So if I ask, "Do you sense that the teeth grinding is somehow self-protective?" the client, who is in a deep trance, checks in with a kind of gut feeling and, if the answer is yes, one finger moves, if no, another finger does. (there are also fingers for "maybe," "I don't know," and "I don't want to say at the moment.") Moving a finger is easier than talking out-loud in trance states, and so require less practice. With a little bit of practice, though, the deep unconscious / body responds directly to the questions. This allows for a relatively unmediated conversation about the problem, and potentially a way to find a better solution.

There is much more I could say about this technique. If you're a clinician and want to read more about it, this book is a good place to start. The main author, Dabney Ewin, is a physician that has used ideomotor signaling with astounding results for decades.

Next I'll be talking about habit change and hypnotherapy.

Modern Traumawork in Hypnotherapy

For those of you who like your blog entries brief and to the point, here are the main points:

* The trauma treatment modality I use is an age regression technique where you go back as your present day self to help the young part of you that has been traumatized. This way of age regressing is called hypermnesia and is different than how age regression (and a lot of traumawork in general) usually happens, which is called revivication.

* This technique, which I call the Turner Age Regression (after Maureen Turner, its originator), tends to be less overwhelming than techniques that depend on revivication / abreaction.

* However, like any trauma work, it still requires preparation. In particular, this technique depends on (a) stable, deep trance and (b) self-compassion: the willingness to accept, love and care for yourself, especially the younger self that was traumatized.

* The science behind this technique is pretty clear: in deep hypnosis, we access trauma imprints are stored in the midbrain (I talk more about the amygdala and the periaquaductal gray nucleus below). Sensorimotor Psychology therapist Janina Fischer talks about this in her book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors. While she's talking about somatic therapy, it seems reasonable to me (and Maureen) that deep hypnosis allows even clearer access to this unconscious area.

* Advantages of this method: humane, utilizes a person's own healing capacity, and fast and effective once the preliminary preparation is done.

More detail

Age regression

Like hypnosis as a whole, age regression brings up some weird ideas for people. Let's get those out of the way first.

Am I talking about going back to your past lives, when you were a pirate or the despotic Queen of Prussia?

No.

Am I talking about remembering when you were abducted by aliens?

Very very unlikely.

Does it involve remembering things that never happened?

Argh. No-- more about that later.

But, age regression is when you go back to something in your past. And there are two ways it happens. It can either happen as a revivication or as a hypermnesia.

A revivication, like the word suggests, is when you go back and relive an experience. Sometimes people do this in dreams. Or, they do it unbidden, in traumatic flashbacks. Somethings they relive positive experiences and it’s a good time. Reliving and working through past trauma is the classic "method" of trauma work has worked since time immemorial. Even before we had a name for hypnosis and before we had ideas like psychological trauma, people were reliving experiences to confront and overcome overwhelming past experiences. This happens quite naturally. Unfortunately, however, since time immemorial, people have also been re-traumatized and their symptoms worsened by revivication if not done or prepared for properly.

Because of it's so tricky to do well, for a long time, new trauma modalities involved new ways to "control the abreaction." Abreaction basically refers to the huge upwelling of emotional energy (adrenaline, fear, disgust, shame, terror, among others) that comes up when reliving a trauma. Essentially, all trauma work that primarily utilizes revivication / abreaction involves slowing the process, going through the whole thing slowly, carefully, in chunks, or sections, or in a special way, so this isn't overwhelming.

After Freud poopoo'd hypnosis and as the western world has embraced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the hypnotic methods of trauma work have been mostly ignored. Instead, other, non-hypnotic methods were developed. However, for a long time, they all basically follow the same rules as these original abreactive methods: You re-vivify a past experience, but do it in a controlled manner. However, because they don't involve deep trance, you also have to do it over and over again. EMDR has become the gold standard for this for a couple reasons: first, it's easy to learn for clinicians (especially compared to hypnosis) and second, because it controls that abreaction reasonably well and in a non-trance (or light trance) state. I'm sure EMDR therapists will read this and say I'm unfairly lumping EMDR in with all that came before. So to be clear, let me say it's possibly the best abreactive trauma method: you don't have to talk about everything, and you're mostly just focusing on the worst part of the traumatic memory. But it's still based on revivication and abreaction and has many of the same problems: it takes a lot of inner resources and strength to go confront demons from the past, repeatedly taking bites out of them and slowly digest them in pieces. Typically trauma work is done in a series of phrases. Actually working with the trauma is "phase II." "Phase I" is the preparatory work. (For those who are curious, there's also a Phase III, and it's about moving on and establishing meaningful life now that you've dealt with the trauma.)

More recently, trauma modalities that aren't abreactive in function have come on the scene. These are therapies that don't require the processing or re-living of traumatic events to get over them. The hypnosis modality that I use to treat trauma is one of these new kinds of trauma therapies.

Hypermnesia Age Regression: going back with new information

Hypermnesia means vivid remembering. This is another way to go back to a past experience. In hypermnesia, you go back as your current day self and you're there with your past self, the one going through something traumatic. It's a third person stance, not first person.

To give a flippant example:

Revivication is like Luke Skywalker reliving the seminal reveal of modern cinema where Darth Vader says, "Luke! I am your father!" -- If Luke did an abreaction-based therapy, he'd do a lot of preparation, then he'd have to relive that moment, feeling all the complex feelings (humiliation? anger? sadness? love? shame?) in therapy until it wasn't overwhelming anymore -- until all the emotions were processed through. If he was doing Prolonged Exposure, he'd be telling the story outloud over and over. If he did EMDR, he'd just do in his mind while getting bilaterally stimulated in some way. If he was doing an old-school hypnosis trauma method, he would do it intensely, probably just once or twice and the therapist would advise him to slow it down, rewind, skip ahead, to wear impenetible magic armor, while doing it and the like. But he'd still be re-vivifying it using all these methods.

Hypermnesia, on the other hand, is like Luke going back to the scene and seeing it with older, wiser eyes that are informed by everything that comes after and how everything turns out in the end. So Luke goes back to that scene, but it's like "end-of-Episode-6-Luke" visiting his "Episode 5" self and saying to him, "It's true, Luke, but--don't worry! You and I are gonna get through this together and you get your father back in the end, even if it's bittersweet. Things are going to be okay!"

How it works

As I note above, I call this method the Turner Age Regression Technique, after its creator, Maureen Turner.

As you might imagine, going back to the worst events of your life isn't a good time no matter what. Rather than it being able digesting all those old feelings, though, this method hinges on your current day self's ability to be compassionate and present for the "part of you" that is still stuck in a traumatic experience.

In short, it's based on self-compassion. Luckily, self-compassion is a trainable psychological skill and has lots of benefits, including better self-care and general resiliency.

So rather than Phase I of trauma work being about training for the rigors and overwhelm of reliving some of the worst moments of life, the preparatory work in my modality involves learning how to go into hypnosis deeply, and learning how to love yourself. I regular help people develop self-compassion if they need more skill at it. I also usually suggest doing some anchoring of inner resources if that's needed. So, for instance, if a person had a terrible experience that felt out of control, we'll anchor the opposite -- an experience they felt very in control and safe, as preparation for the trauma work.

You may be thinking at this point: "this sounds interesting, but does it actually work?"

And the answer is yes.

In deep hypnosis, you can access parts of the mind that are deeply unconscious. In neuroanatomy, we know that the brain areas that are responsible for traumatic memories and imprints are in the limbic system, in and around a small walnut-sized region called the amygdala. The amygdala's job scans the environment for signs of something bad that happened in the past. Sometimes the signs aren't obvious to us consciously, and sometimes they're obvious. But when the amygdala registers those signs, it triggers alarms. People usually just call this "trauma triggering" and if you've experienced it, you probably know what I'm talking about, even if you don't know exactly what all your triggers are.

A stone age example

Imagine a prehistoric human wandering around the savanna. Imagine she sees a pretty rock formation in the distance and while she's looking at it, a lion jumps out at her and starts chasing her. Later (after she gets away from the lion), imagine she's walking around on the savanna again and she sees that same rock formation. Her amygdala is going to register that formation and scream, "lion!" -- (and not the Alan Ginsberg type). If we had a time machine and we went back and asked her if she knew why the rock formation made her feel ready to attack something (fight), want to run (flight), or made her feel like she was out of her body (freeze / dissociation), she may or may not connect those rocks to her previous incident with a lion. She may not even know she feels that way because of the rock formation. She might even be running or fainting before she's even aware of seeing the rock formation. The amygdala's concern isn't understanding -- it's self-preservation.

The amygdala still does this for us even though very few of us have to run from actual lions. Instead, we experience fight, flight and freeze responses to overwhelming social situations, to abuse, bullying, non-consentual sexual situations, assaults, drug experiences, vicarious trauma and to combat. The trigger (like the rock formation) can be anything 15 minutes before or after a traumatic event.

In the Turner Age Regression, we go deep enough that we can talk to the correlating part of the mind -- the part of the mind that's stuck watching for signs of a terrible experience from the past. We connect to that part through the original, earliest traumatic situation, and we give that part new information: for instance, that the event has passed and that it won't happen again -- that the time to be watching for another middle school bullying situation (for example) is over because middle school is over. This allows that system to relax, the triggers go away, and (in my experience) a lot of beneficial life energy is freed up.

This is hard to talk about because it seems a bit far fetched that you can get into a state of mind where you can communicate with your midbrain. It's worth noting that even non-hypnotic methods are doing this, but, because they're not in deep trance, they usually require a lot of repetition, like I mentioned earlier. With EMDR, for instance, you might go over a single incident 20 times. In Prolonged Exposure Therapy, a CBT method, you might go over it a hundred times (and if you think that's grueling, the 50-90% of military personal who drop out of this trauma treatment agree). In contrast, in deep trance, we can just communicate more directly. Done right, once is enough.

Another way of making my point is that weirder things are well-documented with hypnosis. Take, for example, cases of people communicating with their hindbrain to do things like lower their blood pressure or pulse rate, or to stop a migraine. Or even people who can block out pain (another hindbrain function) and go into surgery without anesthesia. In reality, such things are possible. Easy? Well, no. But communication reasonably directly with the limbic brain? Definitely doable with a little preparation.

In fact, I like this method so much because, after the preparation, it takes a lot less time and suffering than others I've seen. I would like to say it's easy, but no trauma work is easy. It's definitely fair to say that it's easier, though. In addition, remember how I was talking about utilization and the uniqueness of each person in a previous blog entry? This method, though somewhat directive, is unique to each person and relies on their innate wisdom and healing abilities. I've yet to see two people do this process exactly the same way. As Maureen Turner has noted, in this method, the therapist is a coach: it's the client who goes back and rescues themselves.

The only case I might recommend a different method is when the trauma is an isolated one-time event. For instance, if someone was in a car accident and it was the only traumatic thing in their life, it might be faster to do EMDR or ART, which require less preparation for simple cases: you don't have to learn how to go into deep trance -- you just maybe do a little inner resourcing and then work directly with the isolated incident. In my experience, though, most people struggling with trauma are not struggling with single events. In those with situations that are more complicated than one trauma, Turner Age Regressions are the fastest, least difficult method I've seen.

You may be thinking, "what about ___?!" where ___ is some element I haven't really addressed in working with trauma. I apologize -- I've been trying to keep this entry brief and trauma treatment is a big, complicated thing to talk about. Feel free to comment below or to raise a point with me via email.

Next I'll be talking about physical (psychosomatic) problems and hypnotherapy.

Anxiety and Hypnotherapy

Anxiety comes in many different shapes and sizes, from fears of specific things or situations (like the fear of elevators, or anxiety about social situations) to anticipatory anxiety to generalized anxiety and panic attacks. Physical problems, such as a depleted immune system, stomach complaints, high blood pressure or body tension -- often come along for the ride.

In my experience, hypnosis is good answer to anxiety problems of all kinds. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the “gold standard” for a lot of mental health treatment, including anxiety. As a result, if you search for treatment for anxiety, you’ll often stuff saying that CBT is the answer. Although there aren't as many studies about hypnosis and anxiety as there are about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and anxiety, at least one study suggests that hypnosis based therapy is as effective as CBT, but that the effects are longer lasting.

Here are some talking points about hypnotherapy and anxiety treatment:

  • One reason for hypnotherapy’s effectiveness with anxiety this may be that therapeutic hypnosis states are themselves very relaxing. While there are exceptions to this rule, generally a hypnotherapist will help someone enter a relaxed, internally focused trance state in order to do hypnosis. In this kind of state, there isn’t much anxiety. In other words, just going into a hypnotic trance state -- regardless of what you do in that state -- can help with anxiety in the moment, and may help an individual’s system “reset” to a more relaxed state in general. A similar effect can be seen with yoga nidra meditations and even sometimes with samatha meditation.

  • Then, in hypnosis, many different interventions are possible. My favorites include:

    • anchoring - giving your unconscious cues that you can relax and/or reminders of competence and strength so that the anxiety feels less threatening

    • personally tailored direct suggestions to address any cause of the anxiety, like I talk about in this entry where I discuss an imaginery case of public speaking anxiety.

    • going back to the original cause of the anxiety and fixing the issue there -- I'll be talking more about this soon when I talk about hypnosis and trauma treatment

  • Other possibilities include: hypnotic exposure therapy and rehearsal (ie, using hypnosis to imagine a scary situation and it working out okay), dialogue with the "protector parts" that are triggering the anxiety in the style of Internal Family Systems or Self-Relations Therapy, or creative metaphorical interventions to reduce or remove anxiety, such as the hypnosis “control room” exercise.

The major thing that I want to convey about anxiety is that it's very treatable. Sometimes I hear people talking about living with anxiety for years and years. While it's possible that working with the anxiety may take some time, and may require additional interventions, such as temporary anti-anxiety medication, herbal supplements, or Traditional Chinese Medicine, a life where anxiety isn't a daily obstacle is very possible. There’s obviously a lot more I could say about this, but maybe I’ll stop here. If you’d like to learn more or have questions, contact me or write a comment.

Next I’ll be talking about treating trauma and PTSD with hypnotherapy.

Anchors and the Elman-Turner Induction

In this entry, I'm going to address one of the most common tools I use, anchors, and a particular protocol I use, the Elman-Turner Induction.

Here's the short of it

Anchoring is a term from Neurolinguistic Programming. Basically, what it means is something like bookmarking a psychological state or feeling. Why would you bookmark it? So you can get back to it easily, like you might bookmark a page of a book or a website that you want to return to.

In hypnosis, you can bookmark/anchor a state pretty easily, and that anchor can be a tool for having more control over how you feel or what your mind does. For instance, suppose we anchor feeling focused and oriented toward learning. You could use it when you want to study. Or say we anchored a charismatic or empowered feeling. Maybe you could use it when you’re about to do some public speaking. Or say we anchored a relaxed, chilled out kind of feeling. You can use the cue for the anchor to let your unconscious know that now is a time you can feel relaxed and at ease.

This last thing is very helpful, especially if someone’s suffering from anxiety. An anchor won’t address the underlying cause of the anxiety, but it will help put the brakes on it. Frankly, it’s useful for nearly any kind of clinically significant distress. And…

Anchors can also be useful for getting into a hypnotic state. Which is how we get to the Elman-Turner induction.

Elman and Turner
There was this hypnotherapist (and all around interesting character) named Dave Elman. He developed an induction -- a protocol for helping someone get into a hypnotic state -- that works pretty consistently and makes it pretty easy to go to different "levels" of trance state.

Then another hypnotherapist and student of his came along, Maureen Turner, and she added anchors to the induction, making it considerably easier to return different levels of trance state.

Voila. The Elman-Turner Induction was born!

I learned this process from Maureen Turner and find it immensely helpful for a variety of situations.

Why this is helpful
When I recommend we do the Elman Turner Induction to someone, it's for at least one of two reasons--usually both.

First reason: they could benefit from having more relaxation skills or inner resourcing.
Because of the anchor. Imagine you suddenly have the ability to tell your unconscious that it’s time to relax. And not just that, but you get to choose from one of four different levels/intensities of relaxation. I often like to use it with people who could benefit from having more control over their emotional state.

Second reason: they are coming to me because there's some deep hypnotic work they want to do: maybe deal with a phobia or work on some trauma, or something else that requires going deeper than might be easy to do in the average guided meditation or visualization.
The Elman-Turner Induction offers a relatively clear way to "go deep" and know where you are. It also makes it faster to get back to deep hypnotic states using the same anchors that allow it to be useful for self-hypnosis.


In practice, the Elman-Turner Induction involves me helping someone get into progressively deeper levels of therapeutic trance. I say me helping because I can't "make" anyone go into trance (hopefully that's clear by now?) But if someone wants to go there, I can help. So, I help someone go into progressively deeper levels of trance and then we do the anchoring.

Usually (as I mentioned above) we anchor/bookmark four states of progressively deeper relaxation, though depending on circumstances, we might do more or fewer. The basic four are relaxation states--the first one is a calm state, like sitting on your back porch or in your living room, or hanging out with a friend. The second one is a more deeply relaxed state, like being on a nice vacation or being out of school for the summer--not having anything you need to worry about. The third and fourth are even deeper levels of somatic relaxation.

Because therapeutic hypnosis involves deep relaxed states, the anchors can be used to aid with going into deep hypnotic states just as easily as they can be used for run-of-the-mill relaxation during the day or for falling as asleep at night. The four anchors correspond to Dave Elman's "map" of the levels of hypnotic trance state. While it can be very difficult to describe and pin down "levels of trance," Elman's map is a convenient and practical guide.

When I do the Elman-Turner induction with someone, I typically give them a "cheatsheet" afterward that explains what to do to "pull the anchors"--to use the bookmarks on their own. The anchors won't cure a problem, but they are a tool that’s very useful. Literally, it gives someone a tool to say, “relax 1 - calm” and feel that sense of calm. If you or someone you know has struggled with severe anxiety or another run-away unconscious process, you could probably see how this tool could be pretty life-changing. For serious issues (like the abovementioned phobias and trauma) this is a powerful first step.

After I do the Elman-Turner induction and the client comes back for a later session, we use the anchors as an induction— as a way to go into deep enough hypnotic trance to do whatever hypnotic work that the client and I have planned. While the Elman-Turner Induction we do the first time takes 30-40 minutes, using the anchors it only takes 5-10 minutes to return to the deep hypnotic state we got to the first time, letting us focus on hypnotherapy for the rest of the time.

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More about anchoring

Sometimes people ask more about this anchoring stuff and how it works. The short of it is that anchoring is very common— common enough we don't pay attention to it most of the time. Say, for instance, you have a job (like I once did) where you have to answer an office phone. Over time, your mind learns that when the phone rings, you divert your attention from other things, maybe you modulate your voice so you sound professional, or even unconsciously reach for a message pad and a pen as you pick up the phone receiver. This is an anchor. Like a behavioral conditioning situation but with clear complex unconscious involvement, your unconscious knows that phone ringing means going into “answer the phone mode.”
Most anchors are set by repetition, including most of the stuff in NLP literature about setting anchors for good or bad. The only special thing about what we're doing here is that in deep hypnosis, anchors don't need repetition: we can set an anchor once and it's there whenever you want to use it.

Sometimes people are concerned that the anchors could be abused or create problems, as if they could give someone else control of your mind. This isn't the way they actually work because hypnosis isn't mind control. Also, I always do this in such a way that only you can pull your anchors, not anybody else. Even when we do it in session, it's you that's saying the cue to yourself.

Actually, the only danger is that the relaxation anchors can work too well, causing people to be too relaxed in situations that it's not a good idea, like driving a car or operating heavy machinery or a chainsaw. For this reason, I always tell people to avoid using the last two anchors unless they can rest with their eyes closed, and to avoid even using the first two if they're in a dangerous situation or one that requires strong alertness. Typically I’ll even include in the anchor-setting process suggestions that the anchors can only be called "when it's safe to do so."

In the next entries, I'll talk more about specific problems that someone might come and see me for and how hypnotherapy could help. First up: anxiety.

The types of hypnotherapy and my approach

Curious to learn more about hypnosis? Or about my approach to it? You’re in the right place. Read on…

Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought about how to do hypnotherapy. The approaches are sometimes called by different names, and really, it’s more of a spectrum between two extremes.

Directive approach

On one end of the spectrum is directive hypnotherapy, or sometimes called classic hypnotherapy or authoritarian hypnosis. In this school, a hypnotherapist gets a person into a trance state and gives the person's unconscious directions to make things better. Typically, this comes in the form of direct suggestions, a hypnosis term that refers to specific instructions that the unconscious will either accept or reject. Examples of direct suggestions are things like:

  • And now your legs will feel very heavy and you'll hardly be able to move them.

  • Now your body is more and more relaxed, as relaxed as you've ever been in your life.

  • When I count to three, you'll imagine yourself in the middle of Central Park.

Direct suggestions can also be post-hypnotic, meaning they can affect things after the hypnosis session is over. For example:

  • Whenever you see a pack of cigarettes, you'll become nauseous and filled with disgust.

  • When you notice yourself clenching your teeth, you will stop and it will feel like your mouth is full of soothing jello.

Most of the recordings and scripts you can find on the internet are primarily directive in nature, as are most of the books of scripts or manualized protocols you can find. What this approach tends to rely on is the authority of the person conducting the hypnosis to ensure that the person receiving the suggestions follows them. That is to say, when someone we respect or attribute authority toward (like, say, a doctor) tells us do something, we usually try to do it. And this is (mostly) even more true on an unconscious level.

In this directive approach, the suggestions themselves tend to be pretty straightforward and standardized: it's assumed that one method of weight loss or smoking cessation will work for everybody. While there are many other things that one can do in hypnosis besides make suggestions, it's much harder to standardize the other stuff.

Typically, if the hypnotherapist has significant enough authority or charisma and the problem isn't too complicated, this approach works really well.

I do this kind of hypnosis sometimes, but not very often. Why? Because while this works, people are individuals and giving the same suggestions to everybody isn’t as effective as tailoring something to each person individually.

Which brings us to the other approach:

The utilization approach

On the other end of the spectrum is the utilization approach. This approach originates from the work of Milton Erickson, one of the most important characters in they history of modern hypnosis, as well as of psychotherapy as a whole. Erickson felt that the utilization principle was his most important contribution to hypnosis, and it has deeply affected most of the field of clinical hypnosis, especially in the mental health world.

The utilization principle is the idea that the hypnotherapist uses the skills, material, and issues that the client comes with. In contrast to the directive approach, it's much more about crafting the right intervention for the particular person based on the person's strengths.

While the directive approach might be epitomized by the direct suggestion, the utilization approach is better epitomized by imagery or evocative techniques. What are those? Let’s imagine for a moment…

Imagine you have a good friend who is always watching out for you. In fact, your good friend is always with you and watches out for you all the time, often catching things that you miss, and thinking of the solutions you haven’t had the time or energy to think of.

Sounds great, right? Well, the good news is that this friend is your unconscious mind. Your unconscious mind is taking in all the sensory information that you aren’t consciously taking in, and is responsible for all the thoughts you’re not consciously aware of. For example:

The reason you woke up thinking about your 3rd grade teacher? Your unconscious was revisiting your those memories.

How you came up with a solution to a problem plaguing you at work while you were in the shower yesterday? Your unconscious was working on the problem while you were doing other stuff.

The reason you can’t help thinking of a elephant when I say don’t think about an elephant!? — your unconscious is helpfully responding to a suggestion (and the unconscious mind doesn’t typically recognize negator words, like don’t).

Typically, people don’t have strong relationship with their unconscious minds, or even have negative relationships with them. Nevertheless, the unconscious mind is there observing and thinking about things, gathering ideas and points of view. Evocative techniques or imagery techniques are ways to connect to the unconscious' vast pool of creative ideas andknowledge. Erickson is famous for saying things like, "Trust your unconscious: it knows more than you" and "You know more than you think you know." He’s speaking about that storehouse of knowledge we all have.

But, because this seems like it's getting abstract, I'm going to make up an example. Let's say someone contacts me—let’s call her Lynn, and she's dealing with anxiety regarding public speaking.

If I were to use a directive approach, maybe I'd see her for 1-2 sessions and give her a series of direct suggestions telling you that she will relax before she goes on stage or presents.

Again, this could work in many cases, especially if I present it authoritively and give Lynn the expectation that it'll work. The major pros of this approach is that it's fast and easy for me as a clinician. Two sessions is also not too expensive for Lynn and I would just do the same thing I do with everybody with a public speaking phobia. On the other hand, it might not work, or it could work for a bit and then wear off.

On the other hand, let's say I use this utilization approach. I meet with Lynn for a first session and I talk to her about her problem in depth. I know she has a problem with public speaking but I ask lots of questions about it and about her life in general. Here's a blurb of what I find:

Lynn, 39, works as a job rep at a temp agency. She enjoys her job interviewing people and trying to match them to prospective jobs. For reasons she doesn't understand, her boss has picked her to start doing group trainings and presentations to large companies who want to contract with her agency--which is great--except that whenever she gets in front of more than 3-4 people, she sweats heavily and has trouble modulating the loudness of her voice, sometimes speaking super loud, and sometimes very quietly, and it feels like everyone's giving her weird looks. She's motivated to get over this problem, though, because she likes her job and needs the money to support herself and her 1-year-old daughter. (She smiles a lot and looks blissful as she talks about her daughter, Becca)

In her off time, she reads a lot, mostly fiction, and makes references to books by Diane Wynne Jones. She also talks about cooking and baking, the fun of seeing how experimental recipes turn out.

When asked when the problem started, at first she says she's always had fear around group presentations, but notes that when she was in middle school, she did a presentation about nuclear power plants and, though she was nervous, it wasn't nearly as bad and she found she could speak fluidly and at length about the subject. She feels it was easy because she was knowledgeable about the topic at the time.

When asked about trauma and any difficult experiences, she indicates no abuse history or problems of that nature, but when talking about books she likes, she mentions her ex-boyfriend was just like Howl (from Howl's Moving Castle, a book by Diane Wynne Jones) and she once had a loud verbal fight with him in the middle of a pizza place when she was 16 because he felt he couldn't be seen in public eating bread sticks and was mortified that she was eating them without fear. While it's clear now that he needed a good bit of therapy himself, at the time, he demanded they leave and blamed her when the manager came to the table because they were "making a scene."

Now, I just made this case up. But you can see a lot in here that I can work with. In the utilization approach, it's my job to take this and craft a set of things to do to help from it. This process is collaborative and I’ll bring up any ideas before we do them. Some ideas that come to mind at the moment are: Maybe help Lynn connect to her love to her daughter before she presents--those chubby cheeks could go a long way to relaxing anyone. Or maybe could tell her a Diane Wynne Jones-esque story to indirectly suggest change, or evoke another character from her stories, like Sophie (a strong female character from Howl’s Moving Castle) who can help her get through those presentations. Likewise, she shows a sense of adventure and curiosity around cooking and such that could be helpful: What if we helped her unconscious draw a metaphorical connection between presenting and making an experimental recipe?: could that excitement and curiosity she feels while cooking replace anxiety. Or, Lynn and I could go back to when she was 12 and she was having a pretty normal reaction to public speaking and help her bring that feeling to the present. This is called an age regression and is a particular and special kind of evocative technique… or we could work with inner resourcing and self-appreciation in general, helping Lynn's unconscious learn the reasons her boss might think she's the right person for the job, and help her feel more like that right person. Or we could do another kind of age regression: go back to her 16 year old pizza restaurant incident and help her get free of any lasting effect that might have had on her unconscious--which, though not clinically traumatic, could be getting triggered, causing embarrassment to erupt from any situation people seem to be watching.

It's also possible to simply ask or evoke ways her unconscious might know to solve the problem, and work with those. Whatever we do, however I might prompt things, the solution actually comes from Lynn and what she brings.

In the end, this may take longer than a directive approach because I need to spend at least some time getting to know who the client is and what she brings. At least 3 sessions at minimum, usually 5 for a situation where I'm only seeing someone with a specific issue, like a phobia or a habit change. More sessions are needed, obviously, with issues where there is a need for both talk therapy and clinical hypnosis.

But the result of this kind of approach is much more nuanced than the directive method. Because it's so tailored to an individual client, and more palatable to an individual mind, it’s much more likely to be useful over the long term. Likewise, rather than coming from the authority of the hypnotherapist, the effectiveness of the utilization approach comes from what the client brings and how we (the client and myself) collaboratively and creatively work with it.

Actually, I apply this utilization approach to almost all my clinical work, not just in hypnosis but in therapy in general. Sometimes, I get the uncanny sense that I'm not actually the one doing much at all--that it's the unconscious of the person I'm working with that's responsible for healing and change, not me. When that happens, it's awe inspiring for both me and client. This is why I'm serious when I say that I enjoy helping people discover their strengths.

In the next set of entries, I’ll be talking about specific problems I address using hypnotherapy as well as specific techniques I use. First, I’ll talk about a technique called anchoring, and after that, anxiety.

What hypnotherapy isn't

Now that I've covered what hypnotherapy is, you're probably thinking about all the things I didn't touch on: how hypnosis is portrayed in movies and books and things you've heard or seen about hypnosis in general, or how your aunt Helen stopped smoking forever after 2 hours with some hypnotist in Brooklyn.

I'm going to cover some major myths about hypnosis.

Frankly, hypnosis has always had suffered from a problem of public image. Maybe this goes back to the origins of these sorts of techniques. I could guess why, but I'm not totally sure. Anyhow, without further ado:

Myth 1: the dominance/mind control myth

Many people think that hypnosis is somehow about a person (a hypnotist), gaining control over someone else's mind. For example, Incredibles 2 basically uses the term hypnosis as a synonym for mind control. And the recent movie, Get Out! (2017) is another good example of a portrayal of this myth in a more nuanced way. I've saved the spoilers/more full discussion for further below, but, long and short of it, in the movie, hypnosis is used basically as a restraint technique, keeping the main character from acting to save his own life. I've also seen portrayals of hypnosis being used to commit crimes: as if I could hypnotize a bank teller into willingly hand over the contents of their cash drawer without tripping the secret alarm.

In actuality, hypnosis is more complicated. Though based on some truth, and though hypnosis techniques are useful for many things, mental restraint and robbing banks are not among its uses, and it's definitely not mind control.

The truth here is that nobody can make you do what you truly don't want to do, even in a hypnotic trance state. The grain of truth to the myth, though, is that many of us are estranged from the wants of our unconscious minds. Sometimes, our unconscious wants to do things that surprise us.

This is how stage hypnosis functions: a stage hypnotist will attempt to hypnotize a whole audience of people. And it doesn't work on most of them. But, out of a group of 100, say 5 end of going into a trance and become the subject for a humorous set of suggestions and ridiculous antics. Why? Because on some level they wanted to. Maybe their unconscious minds wanted to know what it would be like? Or were bored with just sitting in the audience? or maybe they wanted attention or felt exhibitionist? Or because of their history with authority figures? Or doing so made them feel more in control than being a bystander? It depends on the person, who probably weren't aware what they unconsciously wanted themselves. But the result is that they might think that this hypnosis stuff is mind control.

Personally, I also think much of mind control reputation comes from authoritarian medical professionals and their use of hypnosis, especially in the last century. Back before ideas like collaborative treatment and before the internet, which encourages people think for themselves about their symptoms, the family doctor was seen as a major authority figure and source of wisdom. If he said you had chicken pox, you took that as a fact. If he said you needed to take this medicine every day for 3 weeks, you did it. If he said you needed an operation, you'd get it. The doctor's orders were—well—orders. And hypnotherapists (who were mostly doctors at the time) used this social power, usually rightly, but sometimes wrongly. So if the doctor said, "you're now going to go into a trance" your unconscious would have very little precedent to disagree. If the doctor told you then that your left hand would go completely numb, your unconscious would produce the numbness, or if he said you could enter a state of sleep so deep that a surgery could be done on you and you wouldn't wake, your unconscious would find a way to do it. (I use these examples because they're real: glove anesthesia and hypnosis-assisted surgery do actually happen).

So it’s not that hypnosis is mind control, it’s that for a long time, the doctors who practiced hypnosis were exploiting their authority to get people to do stuff—usually good stuff, though with a few noteable exceptions. Even today, most of us want to make authority figures happy, and our unconscious minds, wanting the same, comply with what authority wants.

On the other hand, it's unlikely that I (or any hypnotherapist I know) could get someone to do something that would cause obvious harm to themselves. Why? Because the unconscious (just like the conscious mind) wants safety, comfort and happiness, among other things. Even when it does stupid things, it wants these. Milton Erickson did a series of experiments with his students and patients about this. The results are amusing and quite telling. You can read about what he discovered here.

So could I create a posthypnotic suggestion that every time someone hears me stir a spoon in a teacup, they could consciousness, allowing me to lock them up and cut out their brain? Well, I haven't tried... but I’m confident that no, I couldn’t.

You’ll be happy to know, though, that authority has lost its prominence in clinical hypnosis. More about this in my next post.

Myth 2: the hypnosis = sleep myth

This is a complicated myth. I think sometimes this is evoked also to suggest mind control in the sense that when someone's asleep, they're vulnerable and it's as if someone else (again, the powerful/wicked hypnotist) can do all sorts of things to them they wouldn't normally allow.

On the other hand, hypnotherapists themselves perpetuate this myth in various ways. James Baird, an early pioneer in hypnosis sometimes called it “nervous sleep.” The term hypnosis itself is derived from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep (Latin, Morpheus). Some inductions (techniques to put people into hypnotic trance) also involve the injuction to sleep.

If you're thinking about someone swinging a pocket watch saying, "you're getting very very sleepy..." then you've got the right idea: though I'd never use a pocket watch, the suggestion to sleep to someone who is definitely awake can produce a trance state. That said, I think this myth is more a culture/language issue than anything else:

We don't have a lot of good words for mind states in everyday English. We all know what it means to be awake, right? And we all know what it means to be asleep. But what about other states? Our language gets pretty vague…

"Lost in a day dream," "zoned out," "dissociated," "in a fugue state," "lost in thought"... All these are attempts to describe trance states--states that are out of the realm of "normal waking state." So are expressions like, "totally absorbed," "in the zone," “on a roll,” and “entranced”—the second set are descriptions of trance states that are useful or helpful in some way.

All the same, while you could easily tell me the difference between being awake and asleep, could you tell me the difference between being “zoned out” and “entranced”? Or how about “absorbed” and “lost in thought”? There’s no science to this at all.

The variety of trance states is immense--from ecstatic spiritual rapture to repetitious self-berating fantasy--and trance states are neither "normal waking state" nor sleep, but it's easy to see how, when we’re at a loss for words, people can make the logical jump from “well, I wasn’t awake” to “I was asleep” because we don’t have clear words for anything in between.

Myth 3: hypnosis is magical, effortless, and/or guaranteed to work

Sometimes people come to see me and they lie back and say declare something like, "okay! I'm ready! fix me!" as if I'm going to wave my magic wand, yell "Hazzah!" and their problems will fade away.

The other myths about hypnosis encourages this fantasy: the idea of a hypnotist controlling your mind can be relieving if you've been struggling to control your own mind. Likewise, the idea of going to sleep and waking up with your problem gone can feel very enticing if all you're exhausted from fighting things.

The marketing of hypnotists sometimes plays into this, as if the writer of the blog you're reading has all the keys to unlock your life. (Sorry to disappoint you: you have the keys—don’t let anyone tell you different. I promise to help you find them, though.)

There is truth the idea that a lot of amazing stuff can be done with hypnosis--stuff that can't be done using other methods. But that doesn't mean hypnosis is magical--it just means it's another approach that can do some stuff that other approaches can't do. Like all good techniques and tools, it can do some pretty amazing things, especially in the hands of the right person and in the right situation. But this isn't what makes it special--it's what makes it ordinary.

I've seen some astounding results from both pharmaceuticals and therapeutic massage, for instance. But they aren't magic and nobody would claim they were. They’re just each different approaches that can do things other appoaches can’t. Hypnotherapy is the same. These different approaches can also sometimes not work, or can even do harm. Like any ethical professional, I do my best to avoid doing harm, but there are no guarantees in any of these fields.

Despite hypnosis seeming otherworldly or "magical," I encourage people to be skeptical, thoughtful consumers of any kind of therapy, including hypnotherapy. If somebody is making incredible claims or seems untrustworthy, then don't take them at their word: do your research and ask more questions, or go find someone else. Avoid undergoing any treatment, including hypnosis, with someone you feel uncomfortable about. At best, it won't work. At worst, it could do more harm than good.

If you’re still reading this, you probably would like to know more about how I do clinical hypnosis. I will cover that in my next entry, “Types of hypnotherapy and my approach.

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More about Get Out!

Above, I note that it's unlikely that hypnosis could actually do in real life what it does in the movie. I think hypnosis is a symbol in the movie to evoke authority and white people’s oppression/dominance over black people more broadly. What's represented should really give us more pause than hypnosis, which is just a symbol.

However, as I note above, there is an authoritarian bent to hypnosis that comes from the old school approach, which is what gives the symbolic representation force, and this is the grain of correctness in the incorrect portrayal in the firm. Race adds an interesting complication to hypnosis and the authoritarian model.

If we just look at the portrayal of hypnosis in the movie, essentially the question becomes: could the power of racial authority be strong enough to induce black people to let themselves be destroyed by an authoritative white person? I say it’s really really unlikely. If it were the case, though, hypnosis then would simply be a tool/weapon used in a bigger cultural problem of internalized racism or internalized racial authority. Though I'm an expert in hypnosis, that greater cultural problem is not something I can speak to with expertise. Likewise, my expertise in hypnosis itself is to help people do the opposite with the tool than what was done in the movie.

That said, what I know about real life mind control research is this: the hardest part of controlling anybody is the problem of getting them to do something they really on the whole don't want to do. The attempts I've read about to do this have required torture, obscuring reality with drugs, subverting people's beliefs with propaganda, and other work-arounds simply to get enough of a person in line with the desired action. Much of this is quite ugly (think Reek in Game of Thrones) or (in the “best” cases) very time consuming.

If anybody developed a clean, easy mind control strategy to do what Missy Armitage does in the movie, it would be a momentous (and catastrophic) development, which would be infinitely more profitable in the military world than any surgical technique to replace people's brains. In other words, a more realistic portrayal of this in the movie would have the whole family supporting Dr Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener’s character) as she sells her services to clandestine military operations everywhere to create secret agents that can be activated at the stir of a spoon.

What is hypnotherapy?

Have you wondered about hypnosis but didn't know how to ask about it?

Been afraid or curious about hypnosis but don't really understand it?

Aren't sure if hypnotherapy is for you?

Well, I've decided to do a blog series about my hypnotherapy work. This is the first blog entry, a basic answer to the question:

What is hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy is the therapeutic use of hypnosis. Basically, I use hypnosis to help people with psychological problems. Hypnosis itself has been around for hundreds of years, and much longer if you could all the stuff that existed before the name hypnosis came onto the scene.

Basically, as a therapist, I help people enter, exit, and utilize trance states for psychotherapeutic purposes.

A trance state is an altered state of consciousness where you're focused in a particular way, often at the exclusion of other things. This may sound unusual, but it’s something we all do every day:

Maybe you've been watching a show, playing a game, or reading a book at some point, and been so absorbed that you've lost track of time, or things were happening around you and you didn't notice.

Or maybe you've had the experience of driving or walking somewhere and realize you've arrived and have no recollection of the journey because you've been so involved in your thoughts.

Or maybe you've meditated and it felt like you entered a different world in some way--that things were suddenly different... In all these situations (and in hypnosis), your mind is engaged in a way that it isn't in normal life--this is what an altered state means--and it's focused in a particular way.

Though these experiences are all quite different in nature and in purpose, they're all trance states.

In clinical hypnosis, the purpose, just like in psychotherapy in general, is psychological benefit.

What we are able to do with trance states is pretty impressive: people go into "the zone" and they write books, play music, create beautiful works of art, and come up with life changing solutions to problems.

What can happen in hypnosis can be impressive too. I regularly help people learn how to give their unconscious the message that it's time to relax or go into a different mode. And I regularly work with people to let go of past traumatic experiences or fears. I also help people learn how to connect to their unconscious abilities or knowledge in fascinating ways. Sometimes, the results of these ways utilizing trance states come quite quickly--much more quickly than in talk therapy.

You may have the idea that in hypnosis, someone puts ideas in your head, like, “from now on, when you see a cigarette, you’ll feel nauseous.” This is what’s called a direct suggestion. I’ll talk more about this later in my blog series. For now, you should know, this is only a small part of what hypnosis actually is.

On the other hand, if you've seen hypnosis in movies--for instance, the recent movie Get Out!--you may have an impression that hypnosis is something like mind control. This is a misconception.

Likewise, if you've seen stage hypnosis performances--it's also not like that at all. (stage hypnosis is definitely not therapeutic).

I'll cover more about hypnosis myths in this blog series’ next installment: "What hypnotherapy Isn't."