Jim Ronan is a practicing hypnotherapist and he is Secretary of the Council for Hypnotic Psychotherapy and Counselling.
Hypnosis in one form or another has been used for centuries.
The Greeks had sleep temples where people would go if they had problems to solve. They would go into a trance state and in this state they would dream. Priests would then interpret their dream and advise them on possible solutions to presenting problems. Hypnosis is not one person controlling another; a trance state is brought about through co-operation, so all hypnosis is self-hypnosis and a person is free to come out of the trance state anytime he or she wishes. People often ask me, “Will I be asleep?” or ”Will I know what is happening?” Occasionally people do fall asleep but this is not the intention. I have toyed with the idea of putting up a notice in my office to the effect that snoring is not allowed! I presume if a person does drop off it is a combination of the relaxed state they are in and tiredness. I have, on a few occasions, brought people from sleep back to the trance state without having to wake them fully. These were interest ing excercises.
The hypnotic state is a unique experience to a person and to that experience each person will react according to their personality. Some people will go deeply into trance and not hear or remember much, yet go on and start to make the changes they intended to make in their lives. Other people sometimes say I remember everything you said but then in casual conversation they become aware of bits missing. This is because they are referring to conscious memories and in the trance state their conscious mind was temporarily distracted allowing communication directly with their unconscious mind.
The idea that hypnosis is used by one person to control another usually comes from people watching stage shows, TV shows, films etc. This idea is promoted by the stage hypnotist to make him look very powerful as if the people on the stage were under his control. In fact the people who eventually remain on the stage have been chosen care fully via graded suggestions and only those who can follow suggestions or commands fairly quickly will be used as the show relies on a fairly fast moving pace. This also confuses people who have been prepared to take part in such a show and for one reason or another have been rejected by the stage hypnotists. I have worked with quite a few people who have been rejected by stage hypnotists and found them to be excellent subjects contrary to their belief that because they couldn’t take part in a stage show they are unsuited to hypnosis. These people are less likely to consider hypnosis as a form of therapy and this is sad as one of the reasons a person could be rejected by an entertainer is that they went too deeply into the trance state and so would not react quickly enough after a suggestion is given. Timing is very important to the stage show, so only people who can maintain a light trance are used.
The stage show also highlights another thing that is very useful in therapy settings but for entertainment is used to suggest people to do foolish things and I refer to the post hypnotic suggestion. In the therapy setting post hypnotic suggestion can be very helpful to continue the work already started in the sessions or as an extension after ther apy has ceased. An example of such suggestion would be: as the evenings get longer you may find you feel like walking more than in the past and benefitting from the relaxation and excercise.
Looking at the past
There is a popular myth around that in order to effect a cure if a symptom is physical, or to find a solution to a problem, first the cause has to be known and investigated. I have worked with people who were only too aware of the cause of their problems but this did not help them to get any closer to a solution. On the other hand, I have worked with people who are unaware of the cause of their complaint. In either case a very effec tive outcome was achieved by concentrating on how the person was maintaining the unhelpful things in their lives and how best they could change things in the future.
A friend of mine passed on a nice little phrase which I think sums up my view: “We can look at the past, but we shouldn’t stare”. When I mentioned that phrase to Noel Coughlane, the producer of Voiceover, a community access radio programme, he repeated a little gem of his own: “Perfection is the enemy of the good.”
Some people have a fear of hypnosis in general and I think this is due in large part to lack of information. The more a person knows about a process the less they are afraid and while it would be nice to put a person totally at their ease by explaining as much as one can, it is not always possible as the trance state is an experiential one and so unique to each person. However, once a person has experienced the trance state they really know they have nothing to fear and can proceed with the work they intended to do. A person can also be taught self-hypnosis which can be very useful to continue the work already started or to simply remind themselves how relaxed both physically and mentally they can become. This can help the way they handle stress in their lives. The overall effect is that people find they do not get as wound up and as near to boiling point as in the past.
The trance state is an extremely pleasant state in which a person is usually deeply relaxed although this is not essential. We end up with the curious situation where a person is physically relaxed and mentally almost super alert. It is in this state that a person can start to make changes normally outside their conscious control – both physical and mental.
Hypnotherapy is effective in the treatment of phobias, stammering, sleep problems, preparing a person for major or minor surgery, in fact anything that is stress related. The ideal outcome is to get a person to deal differently with stressful situations, or if things are presently outside a person’s control, then to view them differently for the time being until one is in perhaps a better position to alter things at a later stage.
I work a lot with people suffering from panic attacks and in a lot of cases the panics have ceased after two sessions. People who ask me about the length of time roughly it will take to get them over the worst of these attacks, do not believe the change could be that quick. I think this is partly due to the length of time some people have been affected - twenty years in the case of two people I have recently worked with. Who could blame them for being sceptical after trying ‘everything’ including a wide variety of medication leading them to believe they would have to live with it for the rest of their lives. For people who suffer panic attacks the fact that they can start to control those attacks is a great turning point as it leaves them less fearful of having another attack. They begin to realise that as they get more and more control the attacks get less in intensity and frequency. This diffuses the whole situation overall as in a lot of cases the fear of an attack can actually bring one on. Eventually the attacks disappear altogether leaving a person with an enormous amount of freedom compared to the ever diminishing circles sufferers found themselves in in the past.
Although the cause of the panic attacks can be very different from person to person, the end result is usually the same resulting in a severe loss of self-confidence and a greatly diminished quality of life.
Often linked with these attacks is another stress related condition, namely Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This can cause severe pain and in some cases can also severely limit a person’s lifestyle, partly due to fear of being taken short somewhere with no toilet and not being able to control themselves. Or it could be that they get a message that they want to visit a WC and on arriving find it was a false alarm. These messages are always taken seriously ‘just in case’. One person explained to me, “I never know when I really want to go to the loo or not, but I get all the sensations of feeling the necessity to empty my bowel or my bladder urgently, out of the blue”.
At a talk I gave recently to a branch of the ICA, a woman questioned how using hypnotherapy could possibly help Irritable Bowel when her GP informed her that there is no cure and that she would just have to live with it. This is a story I hear frequently from people who have sometimes suffered for many years without much help from drugs. One lady I worked with recently gave me a nice compliment when she told me that she got more benefit in an hour and a half working with me than three years attending doctors, and that included a consultant.
I think some drugs are very valuable when they work to a person’s benefit but when they do not work then something else should be tried. In my experience hypnotherapy is very effective in alleviating both these conditions, and a valuable part of the therapy is the persons use of self-hypnosis as this acts as a kind of insurance that they will not slip backwards to old recurring problems.
Hypnosis & Surgery
Another area I work in is preparing people for minor or major surgery. In each case the person has reported back that they got benefit, and by comparing themselves to other patients undergoing similar procedures, in almost all cases the people I have worked with heal up quicker and cease pain killers sooner. My theory is that in the trance state people can start to let go of unhelpful stress and stop any further stress developing, thus freeing their mind and body to focus on the things they need thereby reducing the effects of shock in relation to the anaesthetic and surgery. It has been proven that through the trance state we can bring about changes in the body at a cellular level and also that the shock to the body can in the long term be more damaging than an original accident in terms of the major slowing down of the healing process due to stress. Once the stress has been dealt with a person’s ability to heal can be greatly enhanced.
Another area that hypnotherapy is beneficial in is the enhancement of concentration for exams or tests in general. One form of excercise a person can do in the trance state is to visualise him or herself rehearsing difficult tasks more comfortably in the future. Then when they tackle the thing in the real life situation it is as if they have actually done the task before and the effect is that it is much easier than they originally thought.
Sport is another area where hypnotherapy can be of great value aiding a person to couple up concentration and co-ordination thus increasing physical and mental skills. Some people have difficulty accepting the fact that mental processes can directly affect physical processes, preferring to stick to the theory that a physical problem must have a physical solution.
I find hypnosis a very valuable and flexible tool to help find solutions pertaining to a person’s past, present or future problems enhancing the person’s ability to become more the person they want to become in their own way and at their own pace. As this process starts to gain momentum their self-confidence also starts to improve. In many cases people forget they ever had a particular problem as they get on with their lives.
I would recommend anyone having an interest in this subject to read a book by Bill O’Hanlon entitled “Taproots”. It is a map of Milton Erickson’s work. Bill is a teacher and author of many books on hypnotherapy and a man that I am most grateful to for his encouragement, honesty and effective methods of passing on relevant information. ”Taproots” can be obtained from Ed McHale at the Clanwilliam Institute. I am greatly indebted to Ed also for supplying me with books and information that helped me greatly along the fascinating path that I am now on. I believe the whole secret of a successful outcome when working with people desiring change is to motivate them in such a way that they can use their own resources.