Does Hypnosis Work?

by Scott Morrice on 11/28/2011

That is a good question–does hypnosis work?

As I mentioned in my About page, after suffering through a life threatening health event, with the help of professionals I started to explore many different healing remedies with a view to helping me cope with, and even get rid of, the stress in my life.

The first significant stop on this journey for me was hypnosis and self-hypnosis techniques. And let me first preface this post by saying that I have found hypnosis to be an incredibly powerful tool. I’m not sure I understand it completely (I’m working on that), but I definitely understand the good that it has done for me.

Like the other introductory posts I have written, this topic is far too large to cover in one “sitting”. I intend this post to just provide a birds-eye view of hypnosis, slanted somewhat towards my particular circumstances, with a view to returning in subsequent posts to talk about more specific topics.

Hypnosis, as we know it from a “modern” scientific perspective, has been around since at least the 18th century. But we also know that ancient cultures have been engaged in activities involving an altered state of consciousness, such as dancing in trances to drumming, since the beginning of recorded history.

But what is hypnosis? Does hypnosis work? How does hypnosis work? From what I have been able to read so far, there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to this question. I haven’t been able to find a single, universally accepted theory to explain it.

While hypnosis is often described as a sleep-like trance, it seems to be better understood as a state, or a trance, characterized by focused attention, and heightened suggestibility. What it is not is a sleep state. Hypnotic subjects are fully awake and are focusing their attention, while experiencing a decrease in their peripheral awareness. It is widely regarded as a natural state of consciousness. In fact, we slip into many trances all day long. Daydreaming is an example of this. When we daydream we are very focused on what we are involved in, and have a decreased awareness of things around us. There is a kind of dissociation involved.

As suggested, the process of hypnotization involves entering a deeply relaxed, but focused state, or a trance, and making suggestions for your subconscious mind to accept.

One theory with respect to how hypnosis helps us change our behavior and our beliefs focuses on the different brain waves, or electrical signatures, produced by our brain.

The delta wave, a very slow, high amplitude wave, is dominant in adults during sleep, and in infants, whether awake or asleep, from birth to approximately 20 or 24 months of age.

Adults experience the slightly faster theta wave just as we slip into sleep at night, and again just as we awake in the morning. It is characterized by greater access to creativity, and spontaneous insights. The brain waves of children accelerate from the delta state to the theta between the ages of 2 and 6 years, and this also explains their rich imaginations and fantasy life during this period of their lives.

The even faster alpha wave state in adults is characterized by a somewhat relaxed, calm, mentally unfocussed state. It occurs when we are relaxed, meditate or are hypnotized. Children’s brains accelerate to the alpha wave state between ages 6 and 12.

And then the beta wave state is where adults reside in our wide-awake, normal, problem solving life. Children’s brain waves finally accelerate to this wave state when they are around the age of 12 years.

It has been demonstrated that when people are hypnotized their brain waves slow to the high theta/low alpha state. At this state they are less critical in their thinking, highly suggestible, and receptive to influences. Also as an important side note, this is the state that children between the ages of 2 and 12 virtually live in, and thus is when they are at their most programmable. Children’s self-esteem and their “truths” are programmed into them during this period.

This analysis then suggests that hypnosis is effective in modifying your beliefs and behavior because when you are hypnotized you are returned to the same receptive theta and alpha brain wave states you lived in when you were conditioned with your original beliefs, allowing you to then reprogram those beliefs.

Of course, and this is what partly causes this whole subject to be so fascinating, we have seen that the motivation for using hypnosis varies from the absurd to the sublime. On the one hand we have the stage hypnotists putting individuals and even whole auditoriums into trances and making them do ridiculous things for the amusement of others, or claiming to help them do things like quit smoking. And at the other end of the continuum we have health practitioners using hypnosis very effectively to assist burn patients with pain management, other patients with very significant anxiety issues and other very serious health problems.

Whatever the motivation for using hypnosis, and although it does require focus, and even practice to achieve its full potential, the upside is that there doesn’t appear to be any of the negative side effects that you often find with many of the medications prescribed by our traditional health care system.

I found my own way to hypnosis because of its potential in managing stress, and it appears to be used in this sense in two ways.

Firstly, to get you into a deeply relaxed state, which helps you fight tension and triggers your relaxation response. The relaxation response is the counterpart, or the opposite, to the fight or flight response that is triggered by the release of the adrenal and other hormones, and of which I spoke about in my earlier How Stress Affects Our Health post. In the relaxation response the body moves from a state of physiological arousal to a state of physiological relaxation, where heart rate, digestive functions and hormonal levels return to their normal state. This helps to prevent those health issues that flow out of the state of chronic stress, that unnatural state that eventually wears out our bodies and causes us to become ill, either physically or emotionally.

Secondly, hypnosis is used to help you achieve important perception, lifestyle and self-image changes that can also reduce the amount of stress in your life. For example you can use hypnosis to overcome negative habits, to encourage new positive habits, or to change the negative perceptions and other limitations that you have learned to be “true” about yourself.

Different persons experience hypnosis differently. Some experience deep relaxation and a sense of detachment, others experience strong disassociation, feeling that their actions seem to occur outside of their conscious volition, while others remain fully aware and able to carry on conversations.

My personal experience is always one of very deep relaxation and a sense of detachment from what is going on around me. I am aware of what is happening, but I don’t really feel part of it, unless I choose to. I can hear and respond, or decide not to respond, to verbal cues or instructions from others. I have had the amazing experience, while in a hypnotic trance, of the professional that was guiding me through a particular session tell me that my arm would start to rise off the chair. When I heard that instruction, and even though I was in a deep trance, I remember thinking to myself that this was never going to happen, only to feel my arm start to float off the arm of the chair I was sitting in! It felt like my arm was attached with strings to a balloon floating in the air. That was an act that was completely outside of my conscious volition! It was truly an amazing experience.

I use self-hypnosis almost every day in my life, often several times, depending upon what I am dealing with in my life that day. Some of these sessions are as long as a half an hour, but they can be as short as five minutes. I use them to relax, I use them to reprogram some negative aspect of my self-image, and I use them to program new behaviors and beliefs. I find the technique to be very effective, and as a result of this practice I have seen very important and significant changes in how I experience my life!

Hypnosis is an incredibly powerful tool. And the more reading and research that I do, and the more I experience it myself, the more I become aware that I am only barely scratching the surface of its potential.

I’ll keep you posted!

  • Anonymous

    “…a sense of detachment…strong disassociation…outside…conscious volition” in addition to involuntary arm movements…. To me, these sound frightening and dangerous, another deliberate surrendor of free will/free choice.
    Still “again in your own words:” I find the technique to be very effective.” Okay….
    Clearly I have much to learn on this subject.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your comments. And yes, reading your words I can see how you might be somewhat alarmed by what I was writing. But I can tell you, without equivocation, that hypnosis is a wonderful experience. You are definitely not surrendering your free will, you are fully aware of everything that is going on around you, you are just in a very relaxed state of mind. As the post states, it is a natural state—one that you reside in a part of every day, even if you haven’t defined it as such. And, it is a widely accepted, very credible form of modern day medical treatment. I hope that helps—you should try it!!!

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