Hypnosis & Stress Reduction

By Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

For many people, the idea of hypnosis conjures up the image of the old style of psychoanalyst, waving a watch in front of someone and saying, "You are getting sleepy, sleepy . . ." or an image of a stage magician , with people getting up on stage and acting like chickens. Modern hypnosis is not at all like that, and there is nothing terribly mysterious about it. There is a range of "hypnotic" procedures which range from simple relaxation exercises to full hypnotic trance, and they are similar to each other and work on similar principles.

What Is Hypnosis?

Hypnosis is simply a state of deep relaxation in which one's attention has been distracted away from the usual things one pays attention to. This allows the unconscious mind to flow more freely without the annoying and interfering conscious mind telling you that you cannot do something. Suggestions are more likely to be entertained and acted on when the conscious mind is not continuously generating doubts and anticipating problems.

Throughout history, many great discoveries have been made in the "hypnogogic" state of consciousness, the gray area between waking and sleeping. Hypnosis simply allows you to experience that same fluidity of thought ,and the possibility of realigning certain ideas, without having to teach them to the (resistant) conscious mind.

Most modern hypnosis uses the techniques developed by Milton Erickson, a famous psychiatrist who developed a non-directive, non-authoritarian or "naturalistic" way to use hypnosis. This “Ericksonian” method relies on indirect suggestion and the evocation of the patient's own innate ability to solve problems, rather than on the hypnotist's ordering the patient under trance to "do this" or to "not do that."

Can I Be Made To Do Something Under Hypnosis That I Would Not Normally Do?

No. Especially using the naturalistic or non-directive approach, it is not possible to make people do things that are against their moral or ethical character. We prefer to help the patient generate solutions from the range of behaviors they already have, but have been unable to utilize in certain situations where they need them. Often, metaphor (using one idea to stand for another) is used, since this allows the patient to "fit" the hypnotist's words into their specific problem and needs without the hypnotist needing to provide all the details.

Will I Really Fall Asleep?

Probably not. In fact, most people report that they can remember much of what was said and done in the hypnotic session. Many people report that they cannot remember ever feeling so relaxed, however, and they close their eyes and allow their muscles to become very relaxed. One of the values of hypnosis is that it does teach us how to get the body to really let go of tension.

Can Hypnosis Help Me Remember Things I Don't Remember Now?

Because a person's experience while under hypnosis is so easily influenced by the hypnotist, even without intending to, there is a lot of controversy about whether so-called "recovered memories" are legitimate or are the product of an unconscious mind let loose without adequate supervision and reality checks. Most states do not allow court testimony as to things which were "remembered" while under hypnosis because of this inherent unreliability. Because of that, we at AAPA shy away from "age regression" (in which a person under trance is made to experience, as firsthand, events which supposedly took place when they were a child).

Also, we believe that the therapy process is one of a shared discovery of underlying events and issues. As Freud believed, if the therapist knows more about the patient's memories than the patient does, the therapeutic alliance between them will be compromised. If there are things which a person does not remember, the unconscious has good reasons not to remember those things, and should not be made to face them until the patient is strong and has a solid emotional foundation.

Having a solid and trusting relationship with a therapist, and exploring the emotional reality of the present is more important than "finding out" what happened as a child. As the patient grows and develops, gains strength and the ability to handle difficult things, memories will return and can then be dealt with.

Relaxation Training, which relies on deep breathing and relaxing mental images, and hypnosis are used quite frequently for anxiety and panic disorders, as well as for chronic pain syndrome. Hypnosis is also used for smoking cessation and other kinds of habit control. If you think that hypnosis or relaxation training might benefit you, ask your therapist.