In the hands of a trained therapist, hypnosis is a valuable tool. Contrary to movie and television images, the goal of hypnosis is to give control to the patient. Under hypnosis, a person cannot be manipulated into doing something involuntarily, nor would the hypnotherapist want that to occur. Rarely a stand-alone treatment, hypnosis complements other techniques to treat a variety of conditions. In the context of a strong therapeutic relationship, patients learn that an inner focus, their own imagination, can be a powerful resource that promotes healing or coping with life.
Hypnosis, or trance, was recognized long before it was understood. Two hundred years ago, the Austrian physician Mesmer used it medically to relieve pain. As a scientist he proposed a theory of magnetism to explain the power of the “mesmerizer.” Scientific testing revealed that the hypnotic experience was neither a result of the mesmerizer’s influence nor due to a magnetic force. It stemmed instead from the subject’s imagination. Only in recent years has technology allowed us to observe that under hypnosis, brain activity becomes localized and specific to the task or situation in the patient’s mind. These changes can be seen on an EEG, MRI, and PET scan. During hypnosis, other metabolic changes take place: respiration becomes slower and shallower, blood pressure lowers, facial muscles relax and there is a general release of tension.
Trance-like experiences can occur in everyday life. In therapy, they are merely deepened. During a trance experience the mind wanders, drawing one’s focus or attention away from the current situation. Drivers occasionally experience trances: they find they cannot remember reacting to traffic or stoplights over the past few minutes. They were not asleep or unconscious. Nor did they drive unsafely. Yet during that time, their conscious attention was elsewhere.
The experienced hypnotherapist can teach patients of almost any age to use this trance experience to solve a variety of problems using this same trance experience. It can help them manage psychological conditions and medical or physical illnesses. They can learn to manage different types of pain, from chronic pain to the intense, but temporary, pain of childbirth. Hypnosis may also support patients preparing for medical procedures and surgery, and it may speed healing afterward.
Trance induction takes place in a variety of ways. The therapist may ask the patient to stare at a fixed point until mild fatigue sets in. Then, following the therapist’s verbal cues, the subject’s focus shifts from the “here and now” into the imagination. As the patient’s attention drifts in and out, the therapist gives specific suggestions depending on the problem they are working on.
During the trance, the patient may identify those thoughts and feelings that bring a sensation of comfort. This approach would be useful in the treatment of anxieties, fears and worries. The feeling of comfort can be used in trance while the patient works on a different problem such as a phobia or panic. Here, the patients might imagine themselves getting through a difficult situation while remaining comfortable. A similar approach may be used for anger management. The imagery of a dimmer switch or volume control might be added to fine-tune feelings. In addition, the meaning of intense feelings may be explored while in trance.
Trance is also used to build confidence, find new solutions to problems or understand an emotional dilemma such as feeling stuck. Helping people shift their thinking during trance can provide great relief and opens the way for discovering options for change. Sometimes, patients become aware of a painful dilemma and learn to deal with it more effectively. For example, they might recognize their resistance to facing necessary changes and acknowledge feelings of sadness and anger this brings. While in trance, they might then recall previous times of strength or accomplishment or develop new competencies that allow them to cope better with emotions and/or circumstances.
Hypnosis is effective, too, in supplementing treatment for physical ills, either chronic or temporary. It can be used both to help manage physical symptoms and the distress related to having an illness. With practice, a man with chronic shoulder pain learned in trance to remain calm and alter the sensation by focusing on an image of warmth and directing it at the site of his pain. By learning to remain calm he experienced less intense anxiety at the onset of pain symptoms.
Another hypnotic way to work with pain is to concentrate intensely on it until it shifts, as a patient with irritable bowel syndrome did. By focusing on his pain he formed the image of a sphere, some of which fell away as he focused on it more intensely. As this happened, he noticed that his pain decreased significantly. Another medical application of hypnosis is to manage anxiety and pain during labor and delivery. Women can learn to separate themselves from the pain, numbing the abdomen to ease the discomfort. They might use visual imagery to follow their labor, making the process less frightening.
To benefit from hypnosis treatment, the patient does not need to be in a full trance. The goal, rather, is a heightened level of inward focus or imagination. Most people, about 85%, can reach the moderate level of trance needed to make hypnosis a helpful, therapeutic tool. Very few are completely resistant to it. In some instances practice leads to stronger results. Without hypnosis, the therapist might be able to help the patient manage the same conditions, but the intensity of hypnotic focus may speed learning and shorten treatment time. Hypnosis opens up patients’ internal resources to help them recover or cope more successfully.
Dr. Cohen is a licensed psychologist, with certification in clinical hypnosis. She has offices in Princeton Junction and South Brunswick.