What is Hypnotherapy?
Hypnotherapy is the therapeutic use of hypnosis. The technique of hypnotising someone is actually quite simple to learn. The important part of a hypnotherapist's training is actually understanding what is going on for you the client, and knowing what treatments to use to help you to make those changes or reach those goals.
My training qualified me as a hypno-psychotherapist. That is a psychotherapist who specialises in using hypnosis. This training involves an understanding of different therapy models such as PsychoDynamic, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy and Person Centred Therapy, weaving hypnosis into the models presented by these therapies. For me, psychotherapy training is essential for a clear understanding of all the different ways that hypnotherapy can help all kinds of issues.
Hypnotherapy generally involves a short number of sessions, typically between 1 and 12 depending on the issue and you, the client. You meet with your therapist for 1-hour sessions on a regular basis. The first meeting sets our understanding of what has been bothering you and what you would like to achieve. I suggest a plan to you which, if you are agreeable to the plan, is then worked through in our subsequent sessions. I aim to create a good working relationship with you so that you feel comfortable for us to work together on your issues, in a good environment.
What is Hypnosis?
You will come across many websites that explain hypnosis in simple terms as something like 'a state of relaxation which you allow yourself to enter'. This definition gives you some indication of hypnosis but is far from adequate. The truth is, that even after hypnosis in its various forms has been around for 1000's of years, and even after 100 years of experimental research across the world, experts still do not fully agree on a definition of hypnosis.
Hypnosis has been defined by some as an 'altered state of consciousness' and it certainly can be experienced in a way that feels very different. Many clients report a lovely deeply relaxed feeling, but heightened awareness and insight, where things we imagine are brighter and clearer and things seem more possible.
On the other hand, the socio-cognitive theorists from the 1950's onwards propose that hypnosis is nothing other than a combination of ordinary psychological processes and therefore not a special state of consciousness. They demonstrated through many experiments that everything you can achieve in hypnosis you can achieve out of it. However, those same researchers have found that hypnosis generally enhances the effect of any psychotherapy, including CBT, and that hypnosis does increase our level of suggestibility.
Academic studies of the 'domain of hypnosis', have observed the following experiences that are typical of hypnosis:
An ability to absorb ourselves into an idea, and reduce the focus towards other distractions. Just like watching a good movie and becoming engrossed in the story.
An ability to enhance our imagination, where images, sounds, sensations and feelings seem more acute and more real.
A feeling that we have responded to suggestions or have changed without effort or control - in other words, we feel as if we are 'just doing things'.
A sensation of deep physical and mental relaxation - although note that hypnosis is not the same as either relaxation or meditation, and studies using active-alert hypnosis have shown that you do not have to be relaxed to be hypnotised.
For me, I summarise the above by noting that there are over 11,000 academic research papers going back 100 years and many valuable discoveries involving hypnosis have been made. What is interesting to me is not so much the mismatch between views of hypnosis, but how this research has often not filtered down to the hypnotherapy community. It is still sadly common that many hypnotherapists have neither trained nor work within an evidence based approach.
Does it work?
Of course, this is what you want to know.
There is good evidence to show that hypnosis for anxiety-related conditions, habits and pain control is effective. Most hypnotherapists have experience of hypnosis being effective for sports performance, public speaking or performance anxiety, low self-esteem or low confidence and for many other conditions. When I refer to evidence, I am referring to academically produced randomised controlled trials that show statistical or clinical significance, and that have been published in reputable scientific peer-reviewed journals. The evidence is there that it works.
But the interesting part of this question for me is what is the 'it'?
You mean hypnosis, but I propose that the 'it' is you, your mind. As a person, you have a great capacity to change and to learn and you can quickly take on board new ideas and behaviours if it suits you to. Your personality is not as fixed as you might think. So, your openness to change, your motivation to change is really what is driving all your amazing and complex psychological processes to make shifts so that you can think, feel and behave more as you would like to.
For me, hypnosis creates the environment within which you can make this change. Within hypnosis, you relax and activate and regulate your normal way of doing things to become more receptive to how you want things to be. Absorption allows you to really focus on your change, imagination allows you to really experience the new positive feelings and behaviours, and changes in cognitive processes allow you to accept these new positive ideas and become the change. In a sense, this is very similar to an ideal learning frame of mind, where we can absorb new information in an experiential way.
There are other key factors that make a difference to change. One is response-expectancy, which is related to our beliefs about hypnosis and ourselves. There are different levels of hypnotisability that are inherent but can also improve through training and practice. Most people are moderately suggestible, a few are very suggestible and a few are barely suggestible. This has been extensively measured by researchers. Suggestibility is the ability to accept and act on a suggestion, the main tool of hypnotherapy.
Suggestibility will be enhanced in therapy by your level of motivation to change. If you have been struggling with or avoiding an issue for some time, and you have researched hypnotherapy and booked an initial session, it is highly likely that you have good motivation to change. This factor alone will enhance the strength of hypnosis considerably. This means that even if you think you cannot be hypnotised, only a very small minority of people cannot, and your motivation to change will usually override this anyway.