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Clinical Hypnosis: Understanding Clinical Hypnotherapy

by Judith E. Pearson, PhD

Clinical Hypnosis

What is Hypnosis or Trance?

Hypnosis is a method of communication that induces a trance or a trance-like state. Hypnosis can be conducted by one individual addressing another, or it may be conducted with the self (self-hypnosis). Trance is a naturally occurring state in which one's attention is narrowly focused and relatively free of distractions. The attention may be focused either internally (on thoughts---internal self-talk or images or both) or externally (on a task, a book, or a movie, for example). The focus of attention is so narrow that other stimuli in the environment are ignored or blocked out of conscious awareness for a time. Examples of trance states are daydreaming and some forms of meditation.

As an adjunct to psychotherapy, hypnosis can help clients enter a relaxed, comfortable, trance state for obtaining specific therapeutic outcomes. With clinical hypnosis, the therapist can make suggestions designed to help the client formulate specific internal processes (feelings, memories, images and internal self-talk) that will lead to mutually-agreed-upon outcomes.

Hypnotic suggestions can influence behavior when the listener is

(a) relaxed, receptive and open to the suggestions
(b) experiences visual, auditory, and/or kinesthetic representations of the suggestions
(c) anticipates and envisions that these suggestions will result in future outcomes.

These three criteria are facilitated through the use of "hypnotic language patterns." Hypnotic language patterns include: guided visualization, stories, guided memories, analogies, ambiguous words or phrases, repetition, and statements about association, meaning, and cause-effect.

Myths and Misconceptions about Hypnosis

Hypnosis is not mind control or brainwashing. People change their minds and actions throughout their lives. When such changes occur as a result of exposure to specific information, it is because this information has been presented through persuasion and influence. A hypnotherapist uses communicative methods of persuasion and influence; so do people who advertise and market goods and services; so do teachers, politicians, lawyers, entertainers, parents, and ministers.

During trance, you are not immobilized. You know exactly where you are the entire time. You can adjust your position, scratch, sneeze, or cough. You can open your eyes and bring yourself out of trance at any time you wish. During trance, you can still hear sounds around you, like a phone ringing. You can alert yourself and respond to any situation that needs your immediate attention. You remain oriented as to person, place, and time. You can even hold a conversation in trance.

Trance is not sleep, although some people get so relaxed in trance that they may fall asleep. This is no problem because some part of the mind continues to listen to the voice of the hypnotherapist. In trance, sleeping subjects can still follow instructions such as moving a finger, taking a deep breath, or awakening themselves when they are told to do so.

There is no "right" way to experience trance. One person may experience it as a deep, heavy restful feeling, while another may experience it as a light, floating sensation. Some people hear every word spoken by the therapist, while others allow their minds to drift to other thoughts. Some experience vivid imagery, while others do not. Some people remember the suggestions they hear, and some do not. Every person's experience of hypnosis is unique.

Hypnosis cannot cause anyone to do something against their will or that contradicts their values. First, a hypnotherapist is ethically required to make only those suggestions that support agreed-upon outcomes. Second, clients are not receptive to suggestions that go against their morals or values---because receptivity is one of the ingredients of success in hypnosis.

Remember: hypnosis cannot solve every problem. Even with hypnosis, it may still be necessary for you to do some conscientious planning and research about the types of changes you want to achieve. You must still take action to get results. Hypnosis is not a cure-all. Hypnosis can be effective in many cases, but there are no guarantees that hypnosis will work for you.

Risks and Precautions

Hypnosis carries very few risks. Hypnosis may be contraindicated for individuals with certain medical problems, or who are actively abusing drugs or alcohol, or who are delusional or hallucinatory. Hypnosis should not be used for physical problems, such as pain, unless the client has first consulted a physician to determine underlying physical causes.

Formal hypnotic methods are not recommended for small children, because children lack the necessary attention span. More interactive treatment methods can be used, however, such as art therapy, play therapy, storytelling, and guided visualization, during which helpful suggestions can be made to the child.

Hypnosis is often requested for the purpose of uncovering childhood memories. Hypnosis may or may not work in this regard. When memories do surface, the client may have a "false memory" and there is no guarantee that such memories are accurate or based on reality. Such memories may be uncomfortable and distressing, but not always.

Sometimes after trancework, the client may feel somewhat disoriented. The therapist and the client can work together to make sure the client is fully alert and energized sufficiently to leave the therapist's office and continue the day's activity. In very rare cases, after a hypnotic session, and client may experience mildly disturbing thoughts or feelings. If this happens, the client should call the therapist immediately for a follow-up session.

Ericksonian Hypnosis

The kind of hypnotherapy most frequently practiced in psychotherapy today is "Ericksonian Hypnosis," named after the late Milton H. Erickson, M.D. From the 1930's to the 1980's Dr. Erickson was very influential in bringing the use of clinical hypnosis into the fields of medicine and psychotherapy. He taught and practiced a kind of hypnosis that was gentle, permissive, and respectful of the client. He established the National Association for Clinical Hypnosis and published the first professional journals and monographs on the therapeutic uses of hypnosis. The Ericksonian Foundation continues his work. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about Dr. Erickson and his methods. Dr. Erickson has been regarded as the leading hypnotherapist in the world.

Applications of Hypnotherapy

Hypnosis has many applications in therapeutic settings. Among them are:

  • Building Confidence
  • Relaxation During Childbirth
  • Treating Phobias, Fears and Anxiety
  • Sleep Disorders and Disturbances
  • Interpersonal Problems
  • Depression
  • Sexual Difficulties
  • Psychosomatic Complaints
  • Post Trauma Relief
  • Pain Management
  • Stress Management
  • Habit Control
  • Academic Performance
  • Athletic Performance
  • Help with Life Transitions
  • Preparation for Medical/Dental Procedures
  • Blocks to Motivation and Creativity
  • Treatment of Grief and Loss

Credentialing of Hypnotherapists

A hypnotherapist is a licensed or certified mental health professional who has obtained specialized, post graduate training and certification in the use of clinical hypnosis within the context of counseling, psychotherapy, or other medical specialty.

About the author:

Judy Pearson, PhD is a licensed professional counselor and has a private practice in Springfield, Virginia. Her phone number is 703-764-0753. She is certified in clinical hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming. She offers individual counseling and therapy for adults in the following areas: stress and depression, fear of public speaking, sexual problems, pain management, health concerns, survivor issues, phobias and anxiety, low self-esteem, habit control, sleep disorders and relationship issues. She works to eliminate blocks to motivation, creativity, and self-confidence.

Page last modified or reviewed by on February 1, 2014