“Your feet are becoming warm and heavy and relaxed as you breathe slowly and effortlessly ……. every time you breathe out your feet become warmer and heavier and more relaxed …….. the relaxed feeling is spreading upwards into your legs dissolving away all the tension that is there ……. there is no need to make an effort … the relaxation is spreading all by itself upwards now to your knees…….”

This is an extract from a typical hypnotic script. It is recited in a calm, clear voice by the therapist. The client is lying relaxed on a couch, looking at a point high on the wall, silently counting backwards in threes. She has been told that when her eyes close she can stop counting.

The script will continue as long as is necessary, relaxing the whole body joint by joint and muscle by muscle, until the therapist notices the client’s eyelids flicker. This is the signal to change the script, which he does without changing the monotonous rhythm of his voice….”next time your eyelids close just leave them closed and allow the feeling of relaxation to flow down into your toes.”

The client is now hypnotised. She is completely relaxed, attentive, calm and cooperative. She accepts the suggestions of the therapist who can now start to work on helping her to resolve the problem she has presented to him.

According to Peter Hawkins, Reader in Health Psychology at the University of Sunderland and a practising hypnotherapist, the treatment delivered during hypnosis will be in line with one of the mainstream psychotherapeutic traditions in which the therapist has been trained. Hypnotism itself is not a therapy, but a technique used by some psychotherapists to improve their ability to deliver their chosen therapy.

For example, therapists who share the Freudian view, that problems are caused by unresolved conflicts buried in the unconscious mind, use hypnosis to uncover and to resolve buried conflicts. They use the technique of regression: they ask the client to take themselves back in time to when the traumatic events took place. Then they ask questions and make suggestions about the client’s childhood experiences and feelings; the client answers using prearranged silent signals for “yes” or “no”. According to Hawkins, by careful choice of questions and suggestions a therapist can uncover and resolve traumatic memories without either the client or the therapist being aware of the details. However, since they contain no details that can be tested, it is impossible to say whether such memories have any more than metaphorical significance.

Hypnosis is just as useful for therapists who work on the way their clients think or act. Instead of imagining the past, the client is asked to imagine a future in which they behave in a certain way, or their problem has been cured. The client may be encouraged to hypnotise themselves in between sessions with the therapist and they may be given a tape of their session to use during self-hypnosis.

The fact that a person can hypnotise themselves explodes the myth that the subject is completely under the control of the hypnotist. Most of the other myths propagated by hypnotic stage shows – that the client loses control of their actions, that hypnosis increases muscular strength or improves memory, that patients forget what happened under hypnosis – are also untrue, Hawkins says.

Throughout its history – it was introduced to medical practice over 200 years ago by Austrian doctor Anton Mesmer and was briefly practised by Freud before he developed the techniques of psychoanalysis – hypnotism has been dogged by misunderstanding, sensationalism and crackpot pseudoscientific theories about how it works.

Hypnotism may actually be nothing more than a sort of pact in which the client relaxes and accepts the suggestions of the therapist to engage in therapeutic thinking and role-playing. The value of hypnotism is that it enables the client to suspend the self-criticism and embarrassment that would normally prevent them from accepting the suggestions of the therapist. On this view, subjects that engage in bizarre activities under the direction of stage hypnotists are looking for an excuse to do those things anyway.

{Not surprisingly, hypnotism has applications far beyond the realm of psychotherapy. Even doctors and dentists use it to help patients manage states ranging from anxiety to excessive flow of saliva and gagging. It is particularly useful in the treatment of psychosomatic illnesses like irritable bowel syndrome – do not be mislead by the label “psychosomatic” these are genuine physical illnesses triggered by mental states, like anxiety. Hypnosis – especially self-hypnosis – often allows patients to manage the anxiety that would otherwise trigger the condition.}

One often hears of hypnosis in the context of giving up smoking. According to Hawkins it is not spectacularly successful in this area – the success rate is probably below 20 per cent. This probably reflects the fact that most people in smoking clinics don’t really want to stop – usually it’s someone in their family who wants them to, he says.

US: https://helping.apa.org/
UK: https://www.psychotherapy.org.uk/