The Art and Science of Hypnosis

My Passion for Clinical Hypnosis:  How it Began

glass half empty and glass half full

When I was just 19 and a beginning psychology student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I witnessed my first ever demonstration of hypnosis applied in a clinical intervention. It was in a session to promote pain relief in a woman who suffered terrible unremitting pain in her leg following a horrific traffic accident. She’d had surgery, taken many different medications, tried acupuncture and physical therapy, but nothing had much of an impact on her pain. The detrimental effects on her quality of life were enormous.

The therapist conducting the demonstration did a wonderful job of gradually focusing her attention more and more over the span of only 10 or 15 minutes, then introduced some unusual imagery as to how the pain might look and then feel quite different as it left her body in small increments, eventually just becoming a harmless puddle of muck on the floor. You would have had to see what I saw to fully appreciate the power of this demonstration, but the tears of relief she cried at the end of the session were obvious indicators of a major change taking place in a short period of time.  She proclaimed that it was the first time in nearly three years that she was pain-free!

I decided in that life-changing moment to learn all I could about hypnosis and to make it a part of my clinical practice. Applied in the context of psychotherapy or behavioral medicine, the merits of hypnosis have been studied and consistently affirmed in both research and clinical contexts.

If you recognize that people are capable of more than they sometimes realize then you’ll understand what makes hypnosis so valuable.  To this day, I still know of no better way to empower people to take charge of their lives and use their innate resources in new and life enhancing ways.

Overview of the Field of Clinical Hypnosis

glass half empty and glass half full

Modern clinical hypnosis employs attentional focusing strategies to elicit healing resources the patient may not even know he or she has, empowering him or her in the process. Consider this: How would the woman I described above possibly have known she was capable of managing the pain in her leg through hypnosis if she hadn’t volunteered to be a demonstration subject? She had already been suffering a long time and clearly had no idea she was capable of generating the kinds of experiences that were antithetical to the experience of pain through the suggestions and guidance of the therapist. Can you imagine what it did for her self-esteem as well as her quality of life to discover that she had the power to transform her experience of pain?

There are compelling reasons why I think training in clinical hypnosis should be a mandatory part of any advanced academic program that produces health care professionals. After all, every therapeutic intervention one can name, whether medical or psychological in nature, will necessarily involve some degree of skilled, purposeful,  and suggestive communication with an individual within the context of a therapeutic relationship. Hypnosis, the study of how people generate experience, especially in response to suggestions from others, has a great deal to offer in terms of relevant insights into the therapeutic process. Clinical contexts in particular invite a more careful consideration of therapeutic communication; how do a health care professional’s words and demeanor influence the course of treatment? How do therapeutic suggestions offered to a person focused and attentive to those words translate into improvement and even cure? Clinicians and clients alike would do well to consider these questions in depth.

 

The field of clinical hypnosis has undergone a quiet revolution from seemingly being little more than a party gimmick not that long ago to an established and vital component of behavioral and integrative medicine programs in the finest academic and clinical institutions you can name, including Harvard, Yale and Stanford here in the U.S. There are sophisticated scientific journals publishing high-powered research dedicated to advancing clinical practice on the basis of research into hypnotic phenomena. There are national and international meetings devoted entirely to the subject of how hypnosis informs clinical practice and illuminates complex mind-body relationships. There is an International Society of Hypnosis (ISH) comprised of dozens of national member societies that span the globe. Its members are top-notch researchers and clinicians across a wide range of disciplines, each dedicated to developing the insights and methods hypnosis can bring to improving the human condition.

Someone unfamiliar with hypnosis might be more than a little surprised to discover that hypnosis has been subjected to such in-depth consideration by serious-minded professionals. As you’ll discover, they have good reason to study and practice this gentle and effective form of treatment. Hypnosis allows for therapeutic possibilities simply not likely through other means. That alone warrants serious consideration.

What is Hypnosis?
Easier Asked Than Answered

clock image with the words "Time to Focus"

A precise definition of hypnosis has yet to be established, a difficulty arising from the fact that hypnosis is a highly subjective experience that varies in quality from individual to individual. Trying to define such abstract words as “love” and “spirituality” poses the same kinds of challenges.

But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to nail down a definition. The American Psychological Association (APA) has an entire division (Division 30, the Society of Psychological Hypnosis) dedicated to hypnosis that offers this rather simple definition: “A state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.”  In my hypnosis textbook called Trancework, I offered my own equally imperfect and slightly more complex definition: “Hypnosis is a focused experience of attentional absorption that invites people to respond experientially on multiple levels in order to amplify and utilize their personal resources in a goal-directed fashion. When employed in the clinical context, hypnosis involves paying greater attention to the essential skills of using words and gestures in particular ways to achieve specific therapeutic outcomes, acknowledging and utilizing the many complex personal, interpersonal, and contextual factors that combine in varying degrees to influence client responsiveness.”

Despite the lack of a precise definition, we can certainly describe some of the defining characteristics of hypnotic experience:

 

Hypnosis involves an experiential absorption, a powerful focus on some stimulus (such as a thought, a feeling, a memory, an expectation, a sensation, the words of the clinician, or any specific aspect of experience) that would be helpful to attend to. This is a perceptual process called selective attention. Another key aspect of hypnosis is the dissociation that takes place when experiences are separated into their component “parts” making it easier to focus on this rather than that. For example, when you’re driving and you get lost in thought and still manage to drive safely and get where you’re going, often called “highway hypnosis,” that is a type of dissociative experience. Part of you is focused on your thinking while another part of you safely gets you where you’re going.

Dissociation allows for meaningful responses to be generated beyond one’s awareness. The capacity we all have for this kind of multi-level processing provides some of the most puzzling yet inspiring aspects of working with hypnosis. Sophisticated responses such as mood alterations or anxiety reduction in response to suggestion can occur without conscious effort to produce them. It’s this quality called “automaticity” that helps make hypnosis so intriguing: positive responses seem to “just happen.”

Many people think that hypnosis necessarily involves relaxation, but the ability to produce hypnotic phenomena even when active and alert makes it clear that relaxation is not a defining characteristic of hypnosis. Relaxation is often the vehicle for clinical uses of hypnosis, however, due to its anxiety reducing benefits and ability to make acquiring new skills easier.  Dissociation, however, is a defining characteristic, and allows for abilities the person does not know how to create consciously and deliberately, such as an analgesia in an arm, to become possible in hypnosis.

These are typically described as “unconscious processes” and they provide clear evidence of hidden abilities and resources people can develop in meaningful ways that highlight the extraordinary potential benefits of hypnosis.

If you’re a clinician and you’re interested in learning more about the field of hypnosis, then reading my  comprehensive book Trancework, which is the leading text in the field and is currently in its 5th edition, would be a good way to do so. Getting trained in using hypnosis is an even better choice if you want more ways to help your clients.

12-Session On-Demand
Recorded Clinical Hypnosis Training
with Michael D. Yapko, Ph.D.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Does Hypnosis Really Work
Hypnosis isn’t done to you – it’s done with you. The mere fact that someone does hypnosis with you isn’t what’s therapeutic. The experience of hypnosis simply provides a context – an atmosphere – in which you can on focus on and absorb helpful ideas and perspectives. So, yes, hypnosis can and does work really well when you actively use the experience to build the frame of mind you need to accomplish your goals.  
Is hypnosis dangerous or have negative side effects?
No, hypnosis in and of itself isn’t dangerous. On the contrary, it’s a relaxing and empowering experience. However, like any tool, whether a hammer or a medication, it can be misapplied with potentially negative consequences. How? The first lesson you learn in studying hypnosis is that “what you focus on, you amplify.” So, can a well-intentioned but uninformed practitioner focus you on things that are irrelevant or might even be distressing? Yes. That’s why it’s important to choose a therapist carefully and recognize that any suggestion you don’t find helpful you can reject. You’re in charge!
Doesn't hypnosis mean giving up control of yourself?
Most emphatically, the answer is no! This unfortunate but persistent myth comes from the fact that most people’s exposure to hypnosis takes place in an entertainment context, not a clinical one. Stage hypnotists and television and movie script writers portray hypnosis as a form of “mind control,” and so it might seem to the untrained eye. Realistically, though, if there was a breed of humans called ‘hypnotists” that could control people, the world would be quite a different place. No, you don’t lose control of yourself in hypnosis. If that were the case it wouldn’t interest clinicians like me very much because no one ever seeks help by saying, “please help me lose control of myself.”  What has attracted me to hypnosis all these years, as reflected in the example I gave earlier of the woman in pain finding relief through hypnosis, is the way hypnosis consistently empowers people.
Can anyone (like me, perhaps) be hypnotized?
Most emphatically, the answer is no! This unfortunate but persistent myth comes from the fact that most people’s exposure to hypnosis takes place in an entertainment context, not a clinical one. Stage hypnotists and television and movie script writers portray hypnosis as a form of “mind control,” and so it might seem to the untrained eye. Realistically, though, if there was a breed of humans called ‘hypnotists” that could control people, the world would be quite a different place. No, you don’t lose control of yourself in hypnosis. If that were the case it wouldn’t interest clinicians like me very much because no one ever seeks help by saying, “please help me lose control of myself.”  What has attracted me to hypnosis all these years, as reflected in the example I gave earlier of the woman in pain finding relief through hypnosis, is the way hypnosis consistently empowers people.
How long do the benefits of suggestions in hypnosis last?
 I have a really simple reply to this question in the form of a counter-question: How long does a really good idea last?
How do I tell if someone is qualified to practice hypnosis?
 The general principle in the health care profession is, “if you aren’t qualified to treat the problem without hypnosis, then you’re not qualified to treat it with hypnosis.” Unfortunately, there are few meaningful regulations specific to the practice of hypnosis. Thus, people with no academic degrees or appropriate clinical training may take a short course in hypnosis where they tend to learn formulaic approaches and then open up shop as a “hypnotist” or “hypnotherapist.” It’s important to work with someone who is well-trained and credentialed, a health care professional who may be a physician or a psychologist who uses hypnosis rather than someone who is simply a hypnotist.
The term 'hypnotherapy" suggests hypnosis is the therapy. Is it?

No, hypnosis is not generally considered a therapy in its own right. Rather, it is a tool of treatment, a way of delivering helpful ideas and perspectives to someone requesting help. Hypnosis is typically integrated with other psychotherapeutic treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal therapy (IPT). The generic term “hypnotherapy,” therefore, doesn’t really tell you anything about what the therapist is actually doing other than hypnosis is somehow involved. Thus, how clinicians apply hypnosis will be entirely consistent with their individual style and method of treatment. That’s why the way one practitioner uses hypnosis can be so markedly different from the way another one applies hypnosis, yet both can be valid.

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Is hypnosis good for uncovering buried traumatic memories?
No. Hypnosis is not a reliable tool for enhancing or recovering memory, a lesson the entire mental health profession learned the hard way during the years of the so-called “Memory Wars” when therapists viewed nearly all symptoms as evidence of hidden memories of childhood abuse. Memory is a subjective process that can be distorted intentionally or unintentionally through persuasive suggestions. One doesn’t have to be in hypnosis for this to occur since it is simply a vulnerability of human memory in general. Misinformation presented by someone credible who has no apparent motive to deceive can lead people to believe things happened to them that never actually happened to them. This can even take the more extreme form of recovering memories of “past lives” that can seem real but are demonstrably a product of suggestions that are accepted non-critically by people pre-disposed to believe in them.
Are hypnosis apps or other pre-recorded sessions effecive?
While personal approaches to applied hypnosis are generally more effective than the impersonal approaches of recorded sessions, the value of recorded sessions remains high. These sessions, often used as a complement to one’s personal therapy, provide meaningful opportunities to “keep your eye on the ball,” that is, keep your attention focused on your goals and doing the things proactively to help yourself reach them. I am involved with a phone app called Mindset that offers hypnosis sessions addressing many common physical and psychological issues. The positive feedback from users of the app affirms the value of recorded sessions that can provide support, perspective, and relevant skills that improve people’s lives.
If hypnosis is so great, why isn't everyone using it?
To the experts in hypnosis who know the value of the tool, there is no more puzzling question. But some of the obstacles to gaining wider recognition and acceptance are well understood: 1) outdated, myth-based views of hypnosis that dissuade people from learning about it; 2) clinicians’ often arbitrary views that common human problems (such as anxiety and depression) are “diseases” that need to be treated biologically; and, 3) the lack of exposure to hypnosis during one’s clinical training in order to learn of its strong empirical foundation or merits in treatment. From a personal perspective, I can tell you that if I hadn’t attended that clinical demonstration when I was 19 that I described earlier, I would not have learned about hypnosis through my university coursework. I sincerely hope that more academic degree programs and clinical trainings will include training in hypnosis. In the meanwhile, I’m glad to offer such training, the details of which can be found here.