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What is Clinical Hypnosis?


I am often asked the question, ‘what is clinical hypnosis?’ and I always start my reply by saying it is a therapeutic tool, rather than a therapy on its own. For me, it’s all about what works for the client, and I find hypnosis helps me work successfully with a client by bringing their beliefs, emotions and ways of seeing the world into the process of therapy. I love hypnosis, but convincing people that it is a part of serious therapy can be an uphill battle. There are two big misconceptions about hypnosis. One is the belief is that it is ineffective; a weird, untrustworthy unscientific and new-age bit of nonsense. The other is that a hypnotist can make clients do things they do not want to. 

Neither of these is true. There is robust scientific evidence that clinical hypnosis is effective in treating a range of conditions from depression to IBS. (Out of the many research studies out there, I would refer you to these gathered together in one place https://ijceh.com/special-issues).

And  do not make any of my clients do silly things, I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Clients who are hypnotised by a clinical hypnotist are fully aware of what is going on and they are in control. Indeed, the process doesn’t work unless the client’s awareness and control are present and being used as part of the therapeutic process.  

How does clinical hypnosis work?

The simple answer to this is ‘not in a vacuum’. When I am asked how clinical hypnosis works, my answer is ‘works with what?’. I prefer to start with the problem and look at how myself and the client are going to solve it.  A better question would be, for example, ‘will this sleep hygiene routine, devised for an insomniac patient, work better if clinical hypnosis is used to strengthen the suggestions I am making about behavioural change?’. Or, to take another example, if a patient’s past experience of pain management is blocking their ability to control their pain now, does an intervention using hypnosis to explore and hopefully change these old beliefs make a successful outcome more likely? 

I need two things in place before I start work. The first is an understanding of the client’s mind map. What do they want? What do they believe is stopping them getting it? What would their lives look like if their problem was solved? Once I know that, I can use my therapeutic toolbox to select what might work for them. This could be guided visualisation, it could be habit-breaking, it could be a cognitive behavioural regime, it could be a goal-setting plan based around the principles of Neuro Linguistic Programming. I will select the tools with the client, based on the client’s needs, preferences and expectations. 

Within that intervention comes the hypnotic procedure. This will involve relaxing the client to help their focus, I will direct the client to listen intently and to actively engage in constructing a mental state which will guide them towards a solution of the problem. Often this can involve helping the client look afresh at unhelpful beliefs and imagine how much better life would be if those beliefs were changed. 

One thing I love about the clinical hypnosis part of my work is that it is almost always enjoyable, creative and fun for both myself and a client. There is nothing as good as being part of a process where things which have damaged a client’s life, perhaps for decades, begin to fall away. (We use metaphor a lot in hypnosis and ‘falling away’ cutting cords, leaving heavy weights behind, all describe this process perfectly).

It is all about the brain waves. By helping a client deeply focus we can narrow the thought processes, from the general horizon scanning and mental chatter which makes up most of our mental processes, into a concentration on the one issue we need to address.  The client can then become deeply focussed and concentrated on their own beliefs, memories and emotions, as they impact on the issue we are dealing with. I will help guide the client and also make the suggestions which, I as the therapist, know can help. As I am making therapeutic suggestions, I am exploring with a client what beliefs are useful to them and what can be changed. I am also investigating how the client can come towards healthier behaviour and away from the problem based on their resources and beliefs.

In much of what I do, I am doing nothing different from many therapists who do not use hypnosis. Where the extra comes, and it is my belief that it is very useful, is that hypnosis turbo-charges the whole process of therapy, and it becomes much easier for the client to imagine living and doing things in a different way which is healthier for them. This makes it easier to make real changes. 

What is clinical hypnosis used for?

There is more robust evidence for the efficacy of clinical hypnosis in some areas than in others. I haven’t time to go into the reasons for that here, but I am ambitious in my own practice. Any condition where the thought process can affect behaviour, habits, and general wellbeing, is a candidate for clinical hypnosis, in my opinion. 

Another related question is does it work for everyone? In a sense yes, it does. We are all capable of being in hypnosis, indeed we all slip into and out of hypnosis all the time (the state of clinical hypnosis is similar to that state of deep concentration when we are completely absorbed in a book for example to the exclusion of everything else.). Whether that means every clinical intervention will be successful is another matter. This will depend on the skill of the therapist, the willingness and ability of the client to change and the rapport between the two people. 

What I can say is that it often works, and it shows my clients they have an agency which they did not recognise before. They can make a difference to themselves and I help them do this every day. 

How effective is clinical hypnosis?

Most of our mental process takes place at an unconscious level. We would not be able to function if we were aware of everything that is coming at our senses every minute of the day. We constantly select and evaluate everything out there, and a lot of this is to do with our deeply-held beliefs, built up since early childhood and sometimes refined in the light or later experience and sometimes not. 

In hypnosis, the shyest, least-confident client can become a superhuman. The unconscious mind knows no bounds. It becomes possible to say to a person in pain, ‘imagine the pain detaches and floats away.’ And they can do that, we can follow up by exploring how this can work in everyday life and big changes will follow. 

At the moment, how this change in sensory awareness takes place is not fully understood. The development of brain scanning is revolutionising our knowledge however. We can now prove that imagining an experience and actually having that same experience appear very similar at the level of brain activity. This goes some way to explaining how, using our example, getting someone to believe they can lessen their pain can result in an actual measurable reduction of pain. 

I hope this gives you an overview of how clinical hypnosis works and why it can be useful. If you would like to know more, as either a potential client or a potential practitioner then contact me. I would love to speak to in more detail. 

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