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The word hypnosis often evokes strong, comical images stemming from B-movies and antiquated sitcoms. A shady hypnotist with a skinny mustache and evil smile dangles a pocket watch in front of his hapless subject. “You’re getting sleepy…” he slowly repeats as his victim’s eyes grow heavier. Within moments the subject is fully hypnotized, and in his entranced, zombie-like state, he is bound to do the evil, or silly, bidding of the villainous hypnotist.
This cartoon version of hypnosis couldn’t be further from the truth, yet many of us are skeptical of hypnotism, finding it hard to believe that hypnosis is real, let alone beneficial.
Whether our disbelief is owed to cinematic misrepresentations, our own ignorance, or a combination of the two, it’s worth exploring the truth about hypnosis and its value as a legitimate form of therapy.
The word hypnosis has its root in the Greek word “hypno” which means sleep, though this is terribly misleading. While a person under hypnosis may have their eyes closed and appear to be asleep, they are very much awake. In fact, they might be more awake than usual!
Hypnosis is the process by which a person is guided into a relaxed state where focused attention and intense concentration allow them to enter into a trance where their subconscious can be accessed. The person is so focused in this naturally occurring state, that they are undisturbed by things going on around them and can completely focus on the work at hand.
People in a hypnotic state are not unconscious. On the contrary, they are completely alert but are able to tune out all of the external stimuli around them and intensely focus on the subconscious parts of the brain where things like repressed memories, addictions, and phobias reside.
As much as the human brain has been studied for centuries by the most brilliant doctors and scientists, there is still so much we do not understand. Hypnosis is no exception, and while we may not fully understand how it all works, science is expanding our understanding of it and confirming its validity as an often successful part of psychotherapy, helping millions of people with a host of physical, emotional, and psychological problems.
This concentrated state of focused relaxation that taps into the unconscious mind is actually very natural. In fact, scientists argue that we enter into a hypnotic trance daily without even realizing it.
Think about it. You’re driving home from a busy day of work taking the route you’ve driven hundreds of times. Your mind wanders, and suddenly you’re home. How did you get there? Do you remember turning left at the light? Applying the breaks? Putting on your turn signal? Do you remember the houses you drove by or the lady walking her dog or the posted speed limit sign?
You definitely did and saw all of those things, but your relaxed state brought on by familiarity and tiredness allowed your subconscious mind to take over, kicking you into auto-pilot and getting you home, seemingly without even thinking about it.
Compare that to driving in an unfamiliar city to a new destination. You’re conscious mind is in a state of high alert, actively thinking and making decisions as you navigate unfamiliar territory. You are profoundly aware of every bump and turn, remembering it all!
Tapping into the subconscious mind and tuning out the conscious is exactly what happens during hypnosis. The conscious takes a rare back-seat to the subconscious, allowing you to access the deepest reaches of the brain. In this state with the help of a professional hypnotist, work can be done to solve problems deep within.
Hypnosis should not be confused with meditation. While meditation can be therapeutic and beneficial, it does not employ the power of suggestion and accessing of the subconscious as does hypnosis. Meditation can be effectively done while alone in the quiet of your own home, while hypnosis should be aided by a professional therapist or doctor with professional training and experience.
There are several prerequisites in order for a person to undergo hypnosis successfully. They must want to be hypnotized and believe that it will happen. They must be able to get into an incredibly relaxed physical, mental, and emotional state. And most importantly, they must be under the care of a professionally trained hypnotherapist.
Anyone can take an online course, get a certificate, and call themselves a certified hypnotherapist. Since there is no official regulating body for hypnotherapists, steer clear of such claims and look for a doctor who is a member of the American Psychiatric Association or American Medical Association.
There are several methods for hypnosis that a qualified hypnotherapist will utilize. Here are a few examples.
The conscious part of the mind is our great inhibitor, putting on the brakes when our impulses might put us in danger, or make us look ridiculous. The subconscious on the other hand controls imagination, emotion, and creativity. When the subconscious is at the wheel without the conscious filtering those things, we are truly uninhibited.
That is why people under a hypnotic trance are so prone to suggestion. In fact, hypnosis “shows” make great entertainment with subjects under a trance dancing ridiculously or having an imaginary experience. This power of suggestion when used as a part of psychotherapy by a qualified psychotherapist can help with a whole host of problems.
Breaking bad habits such as smoking, drinking, and overeating can often be helped by hypnotherapy utilizing this power of suggestion. For example, while the patient is in a hypnotic trance the hypnotherapist might suggest that smoking will induce nausea. The patient when out of the trance may experience nausea when they think about smoking, causing them to refrain and break the habit.
Hypnosis might also be used to treat phobias, as the hypnotist goes right to the patients subconscious to override the irrational fear. Repressed memories and unresolved trauma can be brought out during hypnotherapy, allowing a patient to deal with a deep wound that they have been unable to cope with using their conscious mind. Hypnosis can be used to manage pain, as well as a host of physical symptoms like hot flashes.
One of the myths of hypnosis is that it is mind control, with a helpless patient in a trance and under the power of a hypnotherapist who can control their every move and get them to do anything. This is completely false. Since the therapist is only helping the person access their own subconscious mind, they cannot get them do do anything that is against their will, since that very will exists within the subconscious mind.
But is it safe? Does it harm the brain or cause any lasting damage?
People with extreme forms of mental illness should not undergo hypnosis. Additionally, people seeking help for pain management through hypnotherapy should seek counsel from a medical doctor first to ensure there are no underlying issues that should be addressed medically.
For most people however, hypnosis is a safe and effective method for addressing certain issues. Side effects are minimal and rare, but may include headaches, drowsiness or dizziness, anxiety, or false memories, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Studies have repeatedly shown that hypnosis has no negative effects on the brain.
Hypnosis may not be for everyone, but it is a safe, proven, and effective method for helping people with everything from breaking a habit, to controlling pain, to confronting past emotional wounds. The cartoonish, villainous hypnotist with his dangling watch is far from reality, but hypnotism itself is a legitimate form of therapy that when professionally applied can be beneficial for many people.