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Lloyd Glauberman, Ph.D.

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Trance-formation: The Therapeutic Value of Hypnosis

Posted: 12/03/10 08:40 AM ET

As you begin listening to the sound of my voice...you will find yourself becoming comfortable... more comfortable than you've ever been before... and as this comfort increases... perhaps you will find your mind drifting off to a special place... a safe place... a place where you can begin to...

And so begins a hypnotic induction. Very few psychological terms have quite the emotional impact that "hypnosis" does. All sorts of beliefs surround the concept, most of which have little to do with what hypnosis actually is.

I've encountered individuals who perceived hypnosis to be a coma-like state similar to anesthesia but without drugs. Likewise, stage hypnotism provides images of people doing things they don't normally do with no memory of their occurrence, suggesting that one loses control of one's mind when "under." Shades of "The Manchurian Candidate" still lurk around the edges of hypnosis. In reality, stage hypnotists are very adept at selecting people who will easily comply with instructions that are given. A svengali hypnotist, a compliant individual and a large crowd will make for an entertaining performance, but this has nothing to do with clinical hypnosis.

So what exactly is hypnosis? In order to answer this question, we need to first explore a couple of universal experiences, typical everyday events that we take for granted. Let's begin with what we commonly refer to as a daydream. When daydreaming, we temporarily suspend our focus on external events and drift into an internal sensory reality of our own making. In fact, we can become so absorbed in our fantasy that, at times, we literally don't hear what's happening around us. Who hasn't had the experience of having one's name called a number of times before you suddenly realize that somebody is trying to get your attention?

A second universal experience frequently occurs while listening to music in a car. You're driving along listening to the radio when an oldies station begins playing a tune from your high school years. Suddenly, you become flooded with images and feelings from that time in your life. For a brief moment in time, you are reliving the past. The music triggers an instantaneous response that we can no sooner prevent than we can our ability to breathe.

Each of these experiences, as common as they are, when occurring in the context of hypnosis is considered a hypnotic phenomenon. The first, becoming deeply absorbed in fantasy and losing track of the reality around you is, literally, a trance state. This "zoned-out" state is never fully appreciated as a trance because of context -- that is, it's occurring in the flow of everyday experience. Likewise, remembering intensely something from our past, like the music from our high school years, is called "age regression" in hypnosis. These are just two of a number of everyday mental events that have their hypnotic counterparts.

So does this mean that hypnosis is just a name for common states of consciousness pretending to be something that it's not? No, but what it does mean is that hypnosis is the ability to use the brain's unique information processing capacities that occur routinely, in a systematic and targeted way to help people make important shifts in thinking, feeling, sensing and behaving.

So how are these capacities accessed? The answer is through language. Hypnosis, more than any other therapeutic intervention, is built upon linguistic skills. In order to get people into a more fluid state, you have to use words in ways that differ from everyday conversation. It is about what you say and how you say it. Hypnosis is first about altering pace... slooooowing things down... triggering the body's relaxation response automatically.

Once you have established comfort, the ability to alter people's experience becomes easier. Thus, age regression can be used to revisit personal historical events that needed addressing in a safe way. Phobias built upon traumatic experience can be approached in this manner. Similarly, uncomfortable feelings that occur frequently can be explored safely with the object to locate its origin and create an emotional context for change.

Likewise, imagining the future in a positive way with all the accompanying feelings and sensations is also possible. Sports performance -- or performance of any type, for that matter -- can be approached this way. The goal here is to create a complete internal sensory experience that duplicates reality. That means that all the senses -- hearing, seeing, feeling, touching and smelling -- are involved in this creation. The more real the imaging, the more powerful the experience, because the brain does not distinguish between the two. Thus, hypnosis has the capacity to explore the timeline in either direction for change.

Sometimes, suggestions are best presented without the awareness of the person. This is typically accomplished through some linguistic sleight of hand where words are spoken on multiple levels simultaneously using a bit of pleasant confusion so as to allow for the unconscious mind to perceive a meaning independent of conscious awareness. As a result, the individual can potentially respond to what was "heard" without knowledge of it.

In sum, hypnosis is a subtle yet powerful way to effect changes in thinking, feeling, sensing and behaving through the vehicle of sophisticated linguistic skills. On its most basic level hypnotic trance is a powerful stress-management tool. And given the amount of anxiety-generated stress that people have these days, managing it through hypnosis may be a useful choice for many individuals. Unlike other excellent stress-management technologies like meditation and progressive relaxation, hypnosis has the additional utilization component built into the process. In other words, the state of consciousness available through hypnotic trance affords an opportunity to tap into the brain's capacity for making changes on sensory, emotional and behavioral levels.

Fortunately, the "mind-control" image that has surrounded hypnosis is slowly being replaced by a more scientific understanding of the mind/brain. Ironically, on a certain level hypnosis is mind control but not with the typical connotation. Rather, it is the ability to take control over the multiple levels of one's own mind so as to generate therapeutic changes. And what can be more powerful than that?

So as you finish this article... feel free to feel more comfortable with yourself... and perhaps more confident than you've felt in a long, long time... and use this feeling... in those places... and at those times... and with those people... where you need it.