What Is Hypnosis? Describe the psychological and physical aspects of hypnosis and discuss the role of relaxation in Hypnotherapy. Before we can begin to discuss anything about hypnotherapy, it is important to discuss what hypnosis actually is. This essay aims to arrive at a definition of hypnosis by describing the psychological and physical aspects and looking at it use by hypnotherapists and the role of relaxation within this. The history of hypnosis dates back to the times of ancient Egypt and it has been quite a contentious history.
From Mesmer to de Puysegur in the 1700’s; from the first use of the term hypnosis by Braid in 1840 to it’s use as an anaesthetic in surgery by Esdaile and Elliotson; from the work of Erikson (widely regarded to be the grandfather of modern hypnosis) to the present day, the debate continues and theorists are divided as to the true nature of hypnosis. These differences of opinion stem from difficulties in actually measuring hypnosis. Hypnosis is a subjective experience and, as such, no two individuals who undergo the process will have exactly the same experience.
Often requiring the use of psychological measures, it is, therefore, more difficult to measure reliably in comparison to physiological matters such as heart rate and blood pressure; although, technological advances in the use of EEG’s (electroencephalograms) and neuroimaging have been very useful. Hence, the nature of hypnosis has long been the subject of contentious debate between those who seek scientific experimental explanations of its various psychological and physical aspects and those hypnotherapists who seek to use it as a tool with which to help people.
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Even today, theorists are divided into two camps: State theorists who believe that the practice of hypnosis brings about an altered state of consciousness and non-state theorists who believe that the hypnotic state or trance is little different from everyday relaxation and that its effects are merely reactions to suggestions which would have occurred without the use of hypnotic induction, e. g. Spanos (1982). However, for the purpose of this essay, I will assume that the state theorists are correct and assert that hypnosis is an altered state of mind which occurs through the use of a set of techniques by the hypnotist.
It can enhance a person’s concentration and responsiveness to suggestion in order to enable them to make desired and beneficial changes to their behaviours, feelings, thoughts and physiological state, thereby enhancing their lives. There are a number of complex psychological aspects involved in hypnosis. In 1951, Solomon Asch carried out a study of conformity whereby subjects were told that they were taking part in a study of visual perception with 6 other people. In fact, only one person in each group was the true subject of Asch’s experiment as the other 6 were aware of the true nature of the study.
Each participant in turn (the subject being last) was asked to say which line from a set of three was the same length as the line on the target card. The answers were obvious, but on hearing all the other participants give incorrect answers, in one out of three trials they gave the same incorrect answers. In the control group where the subjects were asked to write their answers in private, incorrect responses were rare. This experiment has been difficult to replicate more recently as modern culture has changed the way that people conform.
The work of Milgram in 1963 showed that ordinary people (65% of subjects) were willing to follow the instructions of an authority figure even if this involved apparently causing harm to others i. e, punishing them with a shock of 450 volts for answering a question incorrectly. Such studies show that, as people, we tend to be more comfortable when we fit in, conform, or comply with the instructions of those in authority. As clients would generally be considered to have some level of rapport with their hypnotist it is reasonable to assume that some responses to suggestion could be explained in these terms.
For example, if a hypnotist suggests that a clients arm feels so light that it may float into the air, the client may raise their arm because they feel that this is what is expected and they would feel uncomfortable if they did not conform with the perceived expectation of the hypnotist. It is important to understand this innate need to conform, which we all have, in terms of the people with whom we will work and always endeavour to treat people with respect and professionalism. There is also a possibility that some aspect of role-play may be involved on the part of the client i. , they may behave in a way that they believe a hypnotised person should behave. The concept of attribution may also have a part to play; i. e. does the subject attribute the experience they have had to having being hypnotised or do they attribute their experience to having been deeply relaxed and engrossed in their internal image? Other psychological aspects involved in hypnosis are the use of selective attention whereby the subject concentrates on a limited range of usually internal stimuli such as feelings and imagery and imagination here the subject is often instructed by the hypnotist to imagine a scene. The above section describes the psychological aspects of hypnosis, so what are the physical aspects? As mentioned above, the use of electroencephalogram’s (EEG) and neuroimaging with hypnotised subjects have been able to identify differences in brain functioning in hypnotised people. Askerinsky & Kleitman (1953) were able to show that hypnotised subjects were not in fact asleep as some early theories had suggested. Different levels of consciousness produce different levels of electrical activity within the brain.
Beta Waves occur at a rate of 15 to 40 cycles per second and are present when our minds are engaged and focussed, perhaps in conversation or learning a new task. Alpha waves occur at a rate of 9 to 14 cycles per second and are present when we are engaged in some relaxed, creative or problem solving task and are accompanied by feelings of well-being. Alpha waves are not present when we are experiencing anger fear, high arousal levels or when we are in deep sleep but are present during light trance/hypnotic state.
During this state, relaxation of the body may occur; breathing and pulse rate slow and an individual may appear to be day-dreaming as they direct their attention towards their imagination. Theta Waves occur at a rate of 4 to 8 cycles per second and are associated with our subconscious mind where our past experiences and memories are held. Freud was the first theorist to propose the presence of the unconscious mind. This is the area of our minds which deals with non-voluntary bodily functions, thus freeing up the rest of our minds for things which we actively need to think about.
Theta waves may be present when we are day dreaming, carrying out automatic well learned tasks such as driving and when we dream. They are associated with calmness and feelings of serenity and are present in medium and deep hypnotic states. During moderate and deep hypnotic states a person may lose awareness of their surroundings but gain an increased awareness of their internal functions (breathing/heart rate). Imagery becomes more intense and suggestions may be interpreted literally. Limbs may feel limp or stiff; attention narrows further and there may be loss of environmental awareness.
Delta Waves occur at a rate of 1 to 4 cycles per second. These are the slowest waves which are present when are in our deepest state of rest when no other waves are present. When these waves are present we are in a state of sleep and possibly very deep hypnosis such as the Esdaile State used by the surgeon of the same name in order to anaesthetise patients for surgery. In addition other physical aspects of hypnosis include, feeling warm or cold and tingling of the extremities. Subjects often feel sleepy and close their eyes and there can be a reduction in response to noise.
Some people experience feeling strange or detached and dissociated from their body or surroundings and feelings of floating are common. These feelings vary from person to person and are dependent upon an individuals’ psychological predisposition and responses as described above. No two people will have exactly the same response to hypnosis and each experience is subjective. As we go through the different levels of consciousness our brain wave activity changes in a smoothly organised manner. For example, when relaxing into sleep we go from Beta to Alpha, to Theta and finally Delta waves predominate.
The reverse happens as we awake. The waves which predominate during hypnosis are Alpha and Theta and it is these waves which provide a route to our subconscious. Relaxation has an important role to play in Hypnotherapy. Jacobson (1929) was the first to note the helpfulness of consciously relaxing muscles to enable them to maintain a relaxed state and improve the health and wellbeing of his patients. Most hypnotic screeds include suggestions of relaxation which help the subject to physically relax to the degree that Alpha and Theta brain waves are produced.
Suppressed memories may be brought to the surface when Theta waves are present and although this may be painful, it offers the client the opportunity to discuss and address any such issues with their hypnotherapist if they choose to do so. Such therapy can be helpful and aid healing if carried out with sensitivity. As a cautionary note, Mingay (1988) suggests that dissociated memories accessed under hypnosis may be at risk of contamination by fantasy or leading questions on the part of the hypnotherapist.
Along with this deep, relaxation comes an increase in suggestibility, i. e. we tend to respond to suggestions made by the hypnotherapist more readily than we would generally. Heap (1996) argues that suggestion and trance are crucial to any definition of hypnosis. Whilst in a deeply relaxed hypnotic state, the Hypnotherapist is able to make suggestions which can help the subject to change their behaviours, feelings or thought patterns in a beneficial way. For example, if a client wishes to stop smoking, the hypnotherapist might suggest that they now choose to be a non-smoker.
In fact, there are a number of ways in which a Hypnotherapist can utilise suggestion whilst a client is in a relaxed hypnotic state in order to produce beneficial effects. It can be used to produce anaesthesia in the body – the use of hypnosis for surgery has been mentioned above but there is ample evidence that hypnotic suggestion can influence physiological responses governed by the autonomic nervous system. Grabowska (1971) found that subjects were able to alter the blood flow in their forearms via hypnotic suggestion and Olness et el (1989) found that children were able to alter their concentrations of salivary immunoglobulin A.
The use of Progressive Muscle Relaxation during hypnotic induction not only enables subjects to enter a hypnotic trance state and more readily accept beneficial suggestions but repeated use of PMR during Hypnotherapy can enable clients to be able to relax more readily in general and in situations where they may ordinarily become very stressed. Suggestions can be given which allow people to relax when needed as long as it is safe to do so and such techniques can be used to reduce general anxiety and stress, help improve sleep patterns and reduce phobic fear reactions to such things as public speaking and flying.
In conclusion, hypnosis is not of itself a therapy. It is a state of mind which can be induced and its use in hypnotherapy can be described as a complex psychological interaction between the hypnotherapist and their client(s) during which the hypnotherapist uses the hypnotic screed, which often includes an element of PMR, to enable the client to relax encouraging the presence of Alpha and Theta brain waves and access to the subconscious.
In this state, the clients’ concentration and responsiveness to suggestions made by the hypnotherapist increases, thereby enabling them to make desired, beneficial changes to their behaviours, feelings and thoughts and thus, enhancing their lives. References: Hadley, J. & Staudacher, C. 1996, Hypnosis for Change; 3rd edn; Canada, New Harbinger publications Heap, M. , & Dryden, W. , 1991, Hypnotherapy: A Handbook, OU Press
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