It is valuable to understand from the outset that people who are hypnotised are awake, conscious and in control. Quite the opposite of the sleep-like or unconscious state that is so often portrayed in films or books. Unfortunately this misrepresentation of hypnosis can cause people to be unnecessarily concerned about its use. However the reality is that most people find hypnosis to be a relaxing and pleasant experience, very similar to the moments before falling asleep, or when deeply absorbed in reading a book, watching a film or listening to music: Hypnosis is completely natural and safe. Division 30 of the American Psychological Association (Society of Psychological Hypnosis) published the following updated definition of hypnosis in 2014:
“A state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterised by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.”
Unfortunately this brief definition really doesn't tell us much, but then the previous definition, two paragraphs long, was no more helpful. In truth, hypnosis is difficult to define; it is often described as an altered state of consciousness, but that term can be applied to many different mental states too. However, a state of hypnosis is most often experienced as being a deeply relaxed state of inward focus, attention and absorption. In a hypnotised state there is a shift towards more activity in the brain's right hemisphere, which is more closely involved in emotion, intuition, imagery, metaphor and 'the big picture' - as opposed to the logical, rational, and detail-focussed left hemisphere. Whilst rational conscious processes are important, they do not easily modify emotions: A classic example being the difficulty in using logical thoughts to alter a habitual behaviour such as smoking.
Another way of considering this, in simple terms, is that when hypnotised the subconscious mind becomes more alert, and material it contains becomes more accessible. This makes hypnosis a powerful tool for therapeutic work, helping to access underlying problems and re-educate or motivate an individual with psychotherapeutic content. Hypnosis can work with suggestions when dealing with problems such as quitting smoking, and can also be used within a psychotherapy framework, for example, with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Of course, the conscious/subconscious mind concept is a simplification, but it is helpful in understanding how the mind works: Only a small part of the brain's activity is available to consciousness, most remains in the subconscious, making it a very powerful part of the mind.
Hypnosis is not a form of treatment in itself, but can be thought of as a tool used within therapy, for example by being combined with suggestion, or it may be employed with techniques to help identify underlying problems. Often this can produce results more quickly than would be possible by employing other methods. When used by a trained professional, hypnotherapy can produce results that are long lasting and often prove to be permanent.
The following description of Hypnotherapy was published by the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) having been written with the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Copy Advice Team, in consultation with CNHC's Profession Specific Boards (PSBs), in an effort to be clear, honest and not misleading:
Hypnotherapy is a skilled communication aimed at directing a person's imagination in a way that helps elicit changes in some perceptions, sensations, feelings, thoughts and behaviours.
In a typical hypnotherapy session the hypnotherapist and client will discuss the intended alterations or therapeutic goals desired. The hypnotherapist will ask questions about previous medical history, general health and lifestyle to decide on the best approach for the individual.
Hypnotherapy may be found to be helpful for those seeking relief from a range of problems and is used alongside a person's own willpower and motivation to seek a desired goal. It is often used to help relieve anxiety, aid sleeping, help to address bedwetting, address attitudes to weight, and help clients achieve behavioural change to stop smoking. It may also help with minor skin conditions that are exacerbated by stress and confidence issues, and may also be used to enhance performance in areas such as sport and public speaking. Hypnotherapy may help people to cope with and manage the relief of perceived pain.
Hypnotherapy has also been used with both adults and children to help manage the pain associated with irritable bowel. There is evidence to support its use in this condition for both adults and children and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Guidance (NICE) recommends the NHS should consider referring patients for hypnotherapy if their irritable bowel is persistent and has failed to respond to simple prescribed medicine.
The internet contains a lot of misinformation on the subject of hypnosis and hypnotherapy, but there's a very well written page on the subject on Cancer Research UK's website, available here, if you'd like to read something independent.
Frequently Asked Questions:
How does it feel to be hypnotised?
Relaxed, calm, comfortable, awake, at times it can be dream-like, or with attention focused 'inside', in a similar way to some meditative states. It is perfectly possible to speak, laugh, cry, or move. There is no loss of control, nor is there any sense that you cannot simply return to a 'normal' state of consciousness at any time you wish. Most people find the experience pleasant and enjoyable.
How many sessions will I need?
This depends on many factors. Some treatments are structured to be carried out in a single session, such as stopping smoking. Otherwise, the likely number of sessions can usually be determined after the first session. As a very approximate guide, clients often clients need between six and ten session.
Can I get 'stuck' in hypnosis?
No. There are no recorded cases of this happening. In fact, it's about as likely as getting stuck reading or daydreaming - absorbing activities you may enjoy, but can easily move your attention away from when you need to.
Can a hypnotist make me do something I don't want to do, or take control of my mind?
No, and there is no scientific evidence to support such a possibility. The idea really belongs to popular culture, books, films and TV entertainment.
Can I hypnotise myself?
Yes, and self-hypnosis may be taught during a session, depending upon the client's needs.
A little history:
The practice of hypnotic techniques stretches back through thousands of years of history, though under different names, perhaps the most familiar being Mesmerism. The name 'Hypnosis' was popularised by James Braid (1795-1860), who considered hypnotised subjects to be in a sleep-like state. However, he later concluded that they were in a focused state of attention, and also realised the importance of suggestion in hypnosis. This led him to use the term 'monoideism', however 'hypnosis' had already entered into popular use, and has prevailed. Towards the end of the 19th century most eminent psychologists worked with hypnosis, however, for various reasons it's use declined in the early 20th century. During this time little attention was paid to hypnosis, although there were exceptions; Clark Hull, an influential behavioural psychologist, published a book on the subject of hypnosis and suggestion in 1933.
Interest in hypnosis began to revive during the middle of the 20th century; in the UK an enquiry set up by the British Medical Association recommended that hypnosis should be taught in medical schools and on courses for psychiatrists, (though this recommendation was never widely implemented). Interest in hypnosis applied not only to it's therapeutic use, but also to it's use in scientific research. As a result we now have a greater understanding of hypnosis, from the perspectives of psychology and neuroscience. There is still a great deal to understand, just as there is about consciousness itself, but the clinical use of hypnosis has become an accepted therapeutic tool.