Hypnotherapy: Your subconscious is waiting

 

Words by Mallory Pace

 

When you think of hypnosis, you might think of someone being completely detached from their mind as they cluck like a chicken or laugh uncontrollably in front of a crowd. You may think of a pocket watch being dangled in front of someone’s face as they fall deeper and deeper into a trance, then suddenly slump over at the snap of a finger, and when they come to, they’re left confused over the last few minutes they were blacked out for. Though you may see that for certain entertainment purposes, there’s much more to the practice of hypnosis. It can be used in many other settings as a real clinical tool to help treat and work through various mental and physical challenges.

 

Hypnosis or hypnotherapy is a type of mind-body medicine where someone is guided into a deep state of relaxation and focused concentration. When put in this state, the individual is more open and susceptible to guided suggestions to make changes in their conscious mind. An example of a suggestion for clinical use, according to The Hypnotherapy Training Company, might be that “a hypnotherapist may give suggestions for a client to ‘notice that it’s as if that old habit of smoking has already moved into the past, and now it’s just something that you used to do.’” According to the Cleveland Clinic, it’s commonly believed that in this state, the individual is able to tap into the part of their brain where thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, sensations, emotions, memory and behaviors originate. Additionally, they’re also more open to gentle guidance from the hypnotherapist to help modify or replace the unconscious thoughts driving a current behavior. Lindsey Bennett, a licensed clinical social worker and master certified addictions professional, explained clinical hypnosis as a treatment modality facilitated by a licensed professional where the person being treated goes into a trance state or an altered state of consciousness. She compared a trance state to if you’ve ever been driving and go into a tunnel of deep thought and suddenly you’ve arrived at your destination but can hardly recall the entire drive there. That, she said, is your subconscious mind taking over to drive while you enter a state of trance, like with hypnosis.

 

“In that state, the conscious mind is more relaxed, and the subconscious mind is more active and more open to suggestion,” she added. “The way I like to describe using clinical hypnosis in [my clients’] treatment is [it’s] like swimming with the current instead of against it.”

 

Bennett runs her own private practice in Downtown called mind., where she sees clients for a variety of treatments, including clinical hypnosis. As she explained, the first step of being guided into this state is called an induction or elicitation, followed by a form of guided muscle relaxation to help the patient get more comfortable in the space, more absorbed within their mind and less aware of what’s going on in the outside environment. Because focused attention is how someone gets into the trance, the next step involves some form of guided deepening — and that’s where the work usually begins. It all depends on the goals of the client and what they’re trying to accomplish or overcome through clinical hypnosis, she said.

 

“What’s happening is we’re just able to tap into the subconscious and understand more of what’s not conscious and then move through it with suggestion,” Bennett said. 

 

For example, if the problem someone is trying to overcome is substance abuse, Bennett would rely heavily on imagery with the goal of desensitizing certain triggers because in that state, they’re more likely to be able to see themselves working through it while remaining calm and leveled. The subconscious works well with imagery in general, she explained, so in a case like substance abuse, Bennett might start with having the client visualize someone they don’t know who has worked through a particular trigger and have them imagine what that person might do to overcome it. Then, they move to having them imagine someone that’s similar to them and eventually imagining themselves doing it. She might suggest certain techniques while in this state like having them imagine pushing a pause button to get them to see things slowing down and look at what’s actually happening in that triggering situation. Then usually, there’s a pairing of the parasympathetic nervous system, the state of feeling that predominates in quiet rest and digestive conditions — pretty much the opposite of “fight or flight.” So ideally, when the person eventually experiences the trigger, their parasympathetic nervous system will activate, and they can work through the situation in a calm, relaxed state, helping them to refrain from engaging in the harmful behavior they’re trying to overcome. 

 

Common medical uses for hypnotherapy include insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, pain control, skin conditions and more. Clinical hypnosis may help treat several medical conditions where psychological factors influence physical symptoms like stress and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias and behavior control issues like substance abuse. Similar to the process with substance abuse, Bennett helps treat people with severe phobias through desensitization and working to the point where their nervous system isn’t as activated when experiencing whatever they’re afraid of. It’s almost like exposure therapy, but the safe space is in the subconscious mind. 

 

Though weight loss is often listed as something hypnotherapy can help with, there are some clarifications to be made. Bennett explained that sometimes, when using hypnosis as treatment for weight loss, it’s connected to a toxic diet culture of, perhaps, restricting eating or negative and harmful suggested thoughts surrounding food. A hypnotherapist can and should only help with changing certain behaviors or habits someone wants to change, but it should be distinct from encouraging restrictions. For some people, if there are certain barriers connected to the subconscious, hypnosis can be used to help understand and reprocess those thoughts so they don’t turn to food as a way to deal with stress or anxiety and instead take action to work through and solve the underlying problem they’re experiencing. 

 

Like with traditional therapy, clinical hypnosis isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s a tool used frequently to help people work through and overcome challenges. Also like regular talk-therapy, there’s no sure sign someone will be “cured,” but instead, Bennett explained, the patient may eventually realize they don’t actively engage in certain behaviors the way they might used to because those thoughts and behaviors aren’t programming in the subconscious anymore. That isn’t to say they never will again, but Bennett has certainly seen hypnosis help in terms of stabilizing relief. How hypnotherapy and traditional therapy differ, however, is where the work is being done in someone’s mind. With hypnosis, someone is able to work through challenges in a different frame of mind where they can potentially see more to a problem. Compared to traditional therapy in the conscious mind, people tend to jump to thinking about all the ways treatments haven’t worked before, how hard it’s been and going to be and other negative thoughts about overcoming a problem. Therapy in general is a vital tool that could be used in addition to hypnosis, and it mostly depends on individuals and their goals.

 

Hypnotherapy can also be used beyond clinical uses. It can be a form of deep relaxation and focused attention on more specific issues, like public speaking, gaining motivation or developing healthy routines. Through self-hypnosis, people can take themselves into a trance to help regulate their nervous system or think through certain scenarios. For example, Bennett said, if you have a big day coming up or you’re really nervous about something, you can use self-hypnosis to tap into your subconscious and imagine that day or event going exactly as you want. This can help your conscious mind be less anxious or free space in your head to be prepared and ready for what’s to come. Or if you’ve had a particularly off day where you can’t quite put a finger on what’s upsetting you, using self-hypnosis can help you tap into a deeper state where you can try to understand the root cause of your feelings. People can practice self-hypnosis to build on those skills of putting themselves in a trance and use it to customize their experiences from the comfort of home. 

 

There are numerous factors that differentiate self-hypnosis from practicing meditation, including how each is activated in the brain. “Mindfulness Meditation and Hypnosis in Clinical Practice,” written by Akira Otani, explains that hypnosis is used solely as a clinical tool, whereas mindfulness can also be used as a religious or spiritual ritual. In hypnosis, he writes, “Dissociation is a primary explanatory construct, but decentering is in mindfulness.” Also, suggestion is the central operative mechanism in hypnosis, whereas self-observation is key in mindfulness. 

 

“The goal of meditation is to mostly decenter yourself and be present, whereas with hypnosis, you’re getting very absorbed in your own experience,” Bennett said. 

 

As for how each shows up in the brain, Otani writes that the prefrontal cortex is involved in hypnosis and meditation, but the activation level is increased in hypnosis but decreased in mindfulness. Further, both practices involve the default mode network (a system of connected brain areas that show increased activity when a person is not focused on what is happening around them) and the anterior cingulate cortex or ACC (the part of the brain tied to complex cognitive functions like empathy, impulse control, emotion and decision making.) However, while the ACC is disengaged from the prefrontal cortex in hypnosis, their association is strengthened in mindfulness. 

 

Myths, debunked

 

There are many misconceptions surrounding clinical hypnosis, mostly due to how people see it on TV or in crowd work at a comedy show. But when it’s used for medical and psychological treatments, it’s not exactly what you might expect. Bennett said it may feel unremarkable in the moment and during the process, but the emotional relief and sense of relaxation is typically felt once the session is over. In more complex sessions, such as dealing with trauma or PTSD, she said people often come out of the trance feeling “regulated emotionally but tired.” After the fact, it can feel empowering to understand why you’re experiencing a certain problem and the ways you respond, and then see your behavior start to change in your own life. In lighter sessions of hypnotherapy, people often experience feeling as if they just took an eight-hour nap, she said. Physically, the body responds to hypnosis by releasing unwanted tension in certain areas and feeling refreshed. 

 

One of the most common myths is that you go unconscious or fall asleep during hypnosis. However, Bennett clarified, most people remember everything from their trance. Sometimes, people say they didn’t feel like they were in a trance, but once it’s over, they find they can’t remember everything that was said or happened. After she reminds them of her suggestions, they usually remember. 

 

“All I’m doing is teaching them how to feel safe within their body,” she said. “So throughout the whole process of hypnosis, they’re always connected to that safety. You can imagine even if you’re experiencing intense emotions [during a trance], but you’re connected to safety, that actually can be very reparative.”

 

She also explained that people often worry that they will uncover unwanted repressed memories while in a trance, but that’s not typically the case. That also supports the importance of knowing and trusting who is facilitating your hypnotherapy and that they are a licensed, trained professional who will respect your boundaries. On the same note, people often worry they will say or do something they don’t mean or want to, like sharing repressed secrets or moving around the room. But again, that’s not really how clinical hypnosis works when conducted by a trained and experienced professional. 

 

“I’ve had a lot of clients who said, ‘I was aware of this event, but I had no idea that it was contributing to why I couldn’t follow through with this particular task,’” she said, “so there might be a surprise about how something is connected. But in terms of not remembering what you say, that doesn’t happen.”

 

Another misconception is that anyone can be hypnotized at any time without actually wanting to or knowing it’s happening. Bennett explained that in clinical use, it’s up to the client to be willing to be put in a trance. That also doesn’t mean it works 100% of the time. Whether or not an individual has the ability to be hypnotized is often debated in the professional hypnosis community, she explained. Some say it’s just something you have and you either can or can’t, while others, including Bennett, believe it’s a skill that you can increase and build. According to an article by the Hypnotherapy Training Company, a stage hypnotist uses suggestibility testing to choose their volunteers, meaning picking the most receptive people from the audience. A hypnotherapist “may use the same tests as a ‘warm up’ for the client or to figure out which kind of suggestions/approaches to use or avoid during the therapy session.”

 

“Going into a trance requires focus, attention, concentration, and all those things take willingness,” Bennett said. “A person isn’t going to go into a trance if they don’t want to.”

 

The key difference between stage hypnosis and clinical uses is the intention and audience. In hypnosis for entertainment purposes, the intention is to put on a show and entertain the crowd. When someone is hypnotized on stage, they likely go into it willingly and wanting to participate in the show; therefore, they’re going to be more susceptible to suggestions and do what they’re being told. Whether they’re only pretending and going along with the show is of course difficult to determine, but it might be that they’re simply more relaxed and open to acting in ways they wouldn’t normally because they know it’s also for show and they want to entertain the audience. In clinical hypnosis, however, the “audience” is the client and the intention is to work through a challenge through deep, focused attention. They both use the same hypnotic inductions to put the client(s) under a trance, according to The Hypnotherapy Training Company, and whether it’s clinical use or for entertainment, the state of hypnosis is the same. What differentiates the two is what the intended goal is to be accomplished. 

 

My experience

 

After our interview, Bennett kindly allowed me to experience a brief state of hypnosis through her guidance. I was a little nervous at first, but for reasons I could hardly even articulate — I didn’t know what I was nervous about. I suppose I hadn’t gotten over those myths in my head, but I went in ready and willing. First, she had me answer some questions about my favorite place that brings me comfort and peace. Instinctively, I chose the beach and per her suggestion, I specified what exactly I liked: seabreeze, cool sand, not too many people and no being immersed in water. I told her I had been struggling with creativity and mental blocks with completing personal tasks and goals, like writing for my own enjoyment. I also requested guidance to help me feel motivated and excited in the mornings, so I can be productive and happy at the same time. 

 

She started by having me look up toward my forehead as my head stayed straight and still. Then, with my eyes still looking up, I closed my eyelids through an exhale, then relaxed my closed eyes through another exhale. She said my fluttering eyelids were a good indication this beginning step, the induction, was working. I kept my fluttering eyes shut, and she began suggesting to imagine a pebble falling through a deep pool of water. As I imagined the pebble, I tried my best to focus on her voice as my conscious thoughts began intruding. I specifically remember thinking, “What if my interview recording didn’t pick up any audio that whole time?” But, as if she could read my mind, I heard her tell me to brush past those thoughts and think, “That’s only my subconscious; how lucky am I to have it.” Or something along those lines… I was in a trance for pete’s sake. 

 

As we continued, I was guided to my safe, relaxing space where I imagined all the things I love most about the beach. Through her suggestions, I was surprised at how much I could feel myself there and how the emotions were filling my body. With each inhale, I felt liveliness, and with each exhale, relief. I was aware of my body and environment, aware that I had a small itch on my left eye and that my eyes were still fluttering, but I was calm. I really did feel in a relaxed, deep state and like my body was heavy and sinking — not as if I were sleeping or dreaming but somewhere else in my mind that I had somehow traveled to. She continued speaking and guiding as my mind followed, and at some point, I felt somewhat overcome with emotion, like I could cry, but not enough to embarrass myself in front of her. She continued giving me ideas and concepts to imagine in my head, some concerning my creativity, some with motivation. As she said might happen, I can’t exactly remember every single thing that was said, but I remember the feelings. The whole experience lasted maybe less than 20 minutes until she guided me out of the trance, telling me to imagine the initial pebble rising out of the pool and my consciousness with it. 

 

When I opened my eyes, my head and body felt like they were buzzing almost, but I felt incredibly grounded to myself. I felt so heavy while in the state, but once my eyes opened, I was tingling with an airy lightness. Like Bennett had said, I didn’t necessarily feel “hypnotized” during it, but afterward was when I felt the most sensation and awareness. Also like she said, it wasn’t what I was expecting (which to be fair, I didn’t know what I was expecting). But for some reason that I had a hard time explaining, I knew I felt good. 

 

Bennett emphasized that hypnotherapy isn’t something to be afraid of and that it can be an incredibly useful tool for a variety of intentions from substance abuse to simple emotional regulation. It’s not a magic switch or immediate fix, but it can help people get over obstacles quicker. If hypnosis sounds appealing or useful to you, I would recommend giving it a try. You don’t need to be facing a serious challenge to use hypnosis as a tool: At the very least it can help you feel more relaxed, energized and focused. It can seem scary to try and enter your subconscious, but when it’s done right, you never know what you might find. 

 

About Mallory Pace

Friends and family knew Mallory Pace would become a writer when she wrote and illustrated a hand-made children’s book in the third grade for her class to read. It didn’t indicate a prodigy-in-the-making, but all the elements of a good storyline were there, waiting to be improved. Now, Mallory is about to graduate from the University of North Florida with a multimedia journalism degree and minors in political science and marketing, with which she hopes to continue storytelling and exploring avenues of multimedia journalism. In Mallory's free time, you’ll either find her taking her cat, Peter, on a walk via stroller, or galavanting around the beaches.