What is hypnotherapy really like?


Polly, a 19-year-old university student, became paralysed with fear as she went home for dinner. The anxiety began to build as she approached her parent’s house, and would not abate until the meal was cleared away. She suffered from a phobia of being sick. What if her mother had not been diligent enough cleaning the kitchen? What if she had touched raw chicken, and transferred it to the surfaces?

Over the years, the thoughts had become more intrusive, to the point where even the idea of raw meat in the fridge caused a sleepless night for Polly. She had to do something about it. That’s when she called me.

Like many clients, Polly started by saying this was her last resort.

The reality is that hypnotherapy is not usually the first choice for a lot of people – most have tried a number of interventions already.

Hypnosis as a healing tool has been seen in many cultures for centuries; ancient relics from Egypt depict something similar to hypnosis. Recounting the history of hypnosis in his book, Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis, Robin Waterfield describes practices resembling the trance state used by Aboriginal Australian, Native American, and Hindu cultures. But in reality, these practices bear little resemblance to my work.

The therapeutic use of hypnosis began in the 18th century, when Franz Anton Mesmer popularised a technique involving magnets – it’s actually from him that we get the word ‘mesmerised’. Later, pioneers realised that words were enough to induce a trance.

The beauty of hypnotherapy is the ability to be creative

The term ‘hypnosis’ was coined by English doctor James Braid in 1840, and is derived from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. Milton Erickson, practising at the same time as psychologist Carl Rogers, developed hypnotherapy as we know it today. Like Rogers, Erickson used empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard to engage with his clients. He moved away from the use of direct suggestions to a more permissive style.

If you ask people to describe hypnosis, you would get a wide variety of answers. For many, their only experience is something seen on stage, or in an episode of Scooby Doo, but there are no swinging pocket watches, or swirling circles to stare into. In fact, all I do is talk to my clients. As with all forms of therapy, hypnotherapy is a collaborative process, and the relationship is key. Without the trust of my client, their desire to change and their willingness to work with me, hypnotherapy will not be successful.

Hypnotherapy works best when tailored to clients, so I spent an hour getting to know Polly. It also works well for processes that are seemingly unconscious and irrational. In this instance, Polly knew that the chicken her mother prepared was fresh, and the standard of kitchen hygiene was high, but some part of her just didn’t believe it, and this part was sending her powerful messages of fear.

Sometimes clients are able to identify the origins of their fears, but not always. Polly remembered the whole family developing food poisoning when she was very young. From that point forward, the thought of being sick filled her with feelings of dread. Ironically, these feelings of panic and anxiety would also make her feel sick.

woman sitting with therapist

In order to address this fear, a hypnotherapist can help the client enter a trance state, as people become more suggestable in trance – an altered state of consciousness, and something we naturally experience. If you have ever been in a meeting and drifted off into a daydream, only to be brought back by someone asking you a question, you will know what it feels like. In hypnotherapy we deliberately induce this state to access the subconscious mind.

Once I establish a rapport with my client, I use a script to induce hypnosis. There are many different types of hypnotic induction, often involving relaxation – some are lengthy and others rapid. The majority of people can be hypnotised as long as they are willing to be. And an important thing to note is that, contrary to popular belief, hypnosis is not mind control, and I cannot make someone do anything against their will.

Hypnotherapists work in their own way. Personally, I trained as a relational, integrative psychotherapist, and part of my journey has been to integrate hypnotherapy into counselling.

The beauty of hypnotherapy is the ability to be creative. Rehearsing something in hypnosis is as effective as experiencing it in real life. For example, Polly was able to make her anxiety into a beach ball and burst it. In the trance, she ate whole meals with her family in perfect comfort, and visited any restaurant she chose. After six sessions, she was feeling confident to eat with others. I actually integrate some hypnotherapy techniques into counselling; at the heart of my work is the principle of remaining non-directive, so I offer ideas and suggestions rather than give advice or instructions.

There is a large body of evidence supporting the use of hypnotherapy, with a study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology finding hypnotherapy to be as effective as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), mindfulness, and psychotherapy for treating anxiety. Moreover, hypnotherapy has been found to be especially helpful when combined with other therapies, and for many years has been widely used by dentists and physicians for pain relief, and is recommended in the NICE guidelines as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Evidence from two recent trials suggests counsellors should be more pluralistic. One suggestion from both studies was that clients tend to come back to therapy because they have not been equipped with the tools to help themselves if their issues recur. Combining hypnotherapy with a person-centred approach allows me to help clients manage anxiety symptoms, and explore their origins and triggers.

Hypnosis can also look at deeper-seated issues, using direct regression to an earlier time, but this is only appropriate with the consent of the client, and once a good relationship has been established. There‘s a risk of retraumatisation with this method, so it should be used with caution, and only by an experienced practitioner. But, when used appropriately, regression can help clients to move forward from issues that have affected them for years.

My training and work as a hypnotherapist have equipped me with a variety of tools and skills that I integrate into my work as a relational counsellor. I sometimes feel that the counselling session can be like the experience of being in a trance; if asked afterwards exactly what was said, it would be difficult for the client and therapist to recall fully. However the gist remains, and change takes place on a subconscious level.

Suzanne Shenderey is a hypnotherapist and integrative relational psychotherapist.

To connect with a professional, visit hypnotherapy-directory.org.uk


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