What is Hypnosis?
In spite of the current increase of interest in hypnosis as a complementary modality for many types of issues many people still aren’t quite sure what hypnosis is (or isn’t).
Hypnosis is rapidly gaining favor as a complementary treatment for anxiety, chronic pain, and IBS, are just a few examples, in addition to the issues that people commonly think of as treatable by hypnosis, such as weight loss and smoking cessation, nail biting, etc. Studies on the effectiveness of hypnosis are increasing and hypnosis is being offered in many places that previously wouldn’t have thought about providing it as a service, such as Stanford and the prestigious Cleveland Clinic. But that doesn’t mean that most people know what, exactly, hypnosis is.
And if you haven’t had a professionally conducted hypnosis session, it’s really hard to explain because hypnosis really is very experiential and the exact “feelings” of hypnosis differ from person to person. So, let’s go back to the basics.
Hypnosis: What Is It?
Imagine yourself driving along a country highway or a route that you’ve traveled many, many times. There’s nothing special going on that requires you to make snap decisions – no construction; traffic is what you normally experience. You begin to daydream. Your eyes are open, and you can respond to a honking horn or someone trying to pass you, so you are awake and able to respond, yet when you reach your destination, you are likely to have no memory for much of the drive.
This form of daydreaming is known as “highway hypnosis.” It is a perfectly safe and natural state of mind, and it is a natural state of hypnosis.
What are Natural States of Hypnosis?
All forms of daydreaming are natural levels of hypnosis. These states are characterized by focused concentration, relaxation, lack of movement, and an increase in sensory reception (heightened hearing, for example). Other examples are watching a movie or TV, reading a good book, or engaging in a favorite hobby — anything that you do for a long stretch and time seems to pass very quickly.
Your mind will also quickly move into a hypnotic state when you are surprised or confused. An example I give to my clients is the time when I called to make a doctor’s appointment and was told that my doctor of 15 years had left for the Mayo system, so I needed to find a new doctor to see. The person who answered the phone said, “I’ll transfer you to the nurse who used to work with your old doctor, and she can help you find the best new one for you.” Well, that level of customer-oriented service surprised me so much, I must have dropped into a suggestible state right then! The nurse quickly came on the line and chatted with her and she finally said, “Dr. Balgobin would be a great doctor for you. But just call him Dr. B, his name is hard to remember.” In my state of heightened suggestibility, that suggestion (in italics) dropped right into my mind! When I met the doctor, he told me he wanted to work with me and refer patients, etc., and so his name at that moment became important to me, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember his name! All I could remember was “Dr. B”–because “his name is hard to remember.” I realized what had happened and decided to see how long that suggestion would take to override by correcting myself consciously — getting out his business card and repeating his name when I drew that blank. It took about three weeks! (21 days to make or break a habit!)
The point is, in both of these types of situations you are in a natural state of hypnosis — and you are wide awake, with your eyes open, functioning in your life. Hypnosis is NOT an unconscious state where you are asleep or under some sort of spell.
Why Do We Call It Hypnosis, Then?
The word hypnosis literally means sleep. Hypnos is the Greek god of sleep. The -is ending means “state of.” So hypnosis literally means “a state of sleep.” But as we’ve shown, it really isn’t sleep at all. So why do we call it hypnosis?
In the 1800’s a Scottish physician, Dr. James Braid, named the state hypnosis, believing it to be a specialized form of sleep, or “nervous sleep,” meaning a sleep of the nervous system (not meaning that your anxious). Later, Braid recognized his error and tried unsuccessfully to change the name of the state. In 1845 he wrote,
“The most startle proof that hypnotism is different from common sleep is the extraordinary effects produced by it…In passing into common sleep, the limbs become flaccid from cessation of muscular tone and action … In hypnotism the limbs are maintained in a state of tonic rigidity for any length of time I have thought to try. In passing into natural sleep anything held in the hand is soon allowed to drop from the grasp, but, in the ‘artificial sleep’ now referred to, it will be held more firmly than before falling asleep.”
What does this mean? In hypnosis, your muscles will remain “set” in a position, effortlessly, for as long as desired. Thomas Edison used to put himself into self hypnosis, holding marbles in his hand with a pie tin on the floor. So long as he remained in hypnosis, despite the relaxation of his body and the focused, trance-state of his mind, his hand would grasp the marbles. If he dropped deeper in the brainwaves and began to enter natural sleep, his muscles would relax completely, the marbles would drop into the tin and wake him up. Then he would re-enter the hypnotic state and continue.
This state of muscle tone in hypnosis is known as catalepsy.
I had the great honor of providing sessions to a 72 year old lady a few years back. After her first session she told me she had felt like she was “holding onto a cloud” during hypnosis, and lifted her arms to demonstrate what she was feeling. As she moved into the hypnotic state in her second session her arms floated up into the position she had shown me before, and they remained there for the full 40 minutes of the session. As I brought her out of hypnosis her arms drifted gently back to the arms of the chair. I asked her if she was aware of the position of her arms during the session and she said no. She also felt no discomfort or fatigue in her shoulders or arms. This is because catalepsy of the muscles in hypnosis is a complete balance between the agonist and antagonist muscles and is therefore, effortless. This state can only be achieved in hypnosis; it cannot be duplicated in a beta brain wave, or fully conscious, state.
To sum up, the characteristics of hypnosis are:
- Usually a relaxed state (but doesn’t have to be);
- Concentration is focused;
- The client or hypnotized person is aware of their environment (not asleep);
- Senses become hyperaware (or hyper acute);
- With progressively deeper states of hypnosis we see phenomena such as catalepsy of the muscles and spontaneously occurring rapid eye movements (REM).