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How Hypnosis Helps With Stress in our Personal and Business Lives

by John Butler(more info)

listed in hypnosis, originally published in issue 203 - February 2013

Let’s look at how we usually experience stress. We have information, in various forms. These include our memories of what has happened to us in the past, our knowledge of what has happened to other people, our knowledge of present conditions which may affect us or people who matter to us, and our knowledge of expected future conditions which likewise may impact on us or people who matter to us. In order to live, we must look ahead, and in order to look ahead, most of us use our imagination.

How hypnosis helps

Looking ahead with our imagination is a constant and often automatic process, continually updated with new information either coming in from the external world or retrieved from our memories. We run scenarios in our minds, combining and recombining pieces of information to imagine different possibilities so that we can allocate resources and prepare strategies for what may befall us. This is an essential function, without which we could not accomplish any goal other than immediate sensory gratification.  

Most stress occurs from imagining negative scenarios, or revivifying past memories which have negative implications for our future, for instance occasions when we experienced failure or disappointment. This is particularly the case when these experiences have impacted on our long-term evaluation of ourselves so that our anticipations of outcomes in some particular aspect of our lives are limited or pessimistic, as in, “I could never do xxx, I’d trip over my own feet”, “If I tried and failed, everyone would laugh at me”… This is essentially a defensive and protective mechanism whereby past negative experiences are used as a marker to prevent us from encountering the same problems again. In order to forestall rejection from external evaluators, we form an inner evaluator to apply criteria based on our past experiences

So far, so good, in that if we did not do this, we would not learn and develop from living our lives. The key lies, of course, in balance. Where the inputs into the evaluation process are more pessimistic than optimistic, our imagination runs more on negative scenarios than positive, and our resources become strained from imaginatively allocating them to meet a potential array of demanding and even catastrophic scenarios. For our imagination is inevitably connected with our emotions - if we imagine anything, the feelings that we associate with that scenario are aroused. The more vividly we imagine, the more powerfully we feel. So if we frequently imagine future possibilities that will cause us loss, we experience the accompanying emotions of fear, grief, anger etc which use up our emotional resources and over time can deplete us physically, leading to stress-related physical conditions.

Human beings have many remedies for this situation. These cover a wide range and popular methods including:

  • Distraction - using the power of selective attention to occupy your imagination with something other than your fears for the future, for a while - this can be social interaction, recreational activities, other occupations for the imagination such as films, TV, computer games, books etc;
  • Logic and Inner Dialogue - most commonly this would consist of confronting the various possibilities being contemplated by the imagination, and attempting to impose some order and perspective by calculating probabilities and allocating resources in proportion to the likelihood of any event, as in you are more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than in a plane crash, so why fear going on a plane etc;
  • Chemical intervention in the neurochemistry involved in stress, whether this be medically prescribed as in the case of tranquillisers and antidepressants or self-prescribed as in the case of alcohol, tobacco and other substances.

These and other methods are successfully used by vast numbers of people all the time, however obviously each has its limitations and often even its hazards. Distraction can become escapism, powerful emotions can leave mental processes inaccessible to logic and the dangers of chemical interventions, particularly self-prescribed, becoming out of control are well-documented.

Hypnosis has unique advantages in dealing with stress. Hypnosis is essentially a collection of knowledge and methods based on observations of the workings of the human imagination, gathered and operated over more than 200 years. Pioneered in the late 18th century by a Viennese physician, Franz Mesmer, and originally drawing on traditional folk and spiritual practices, it has benefited from the input of many outstanding and eminent figures in medicine and psychology, continuing to this day in neurological and clinical research which validates many of the methods which have become part of its operating repertoire.

Hypnosis has mechanisms for direct and indirect partnership in the process, which are invaluable for people who have become so stressed that they have lost a sense of control. Severe stress occurs when a person’s imagination has become dominated by negative scenarios and they are becoming exhausted by the emotional reactions they are generating from anticipating demanding outcomes. Often in such cases, a person is unable to gain sufficient control to exert selective attention and change the focus of their imagination to give themselves relief.

The ‘signature’ method of working with people in hypnosis is through trance. Trance is a state of mind which is characterized by enhanced receptivity and openness to suggestion. Suggestion is a specialized method of communication designed to impact directly on the imagination. It is entirely possible to induce a trance in oneself, as in self-hypnosis, and to administer suggestions to oneself, as in auto-suggestion; however it is a great deal easier to do this first in a partnership with a hypnotherapist. Once learned in a partnership process, the skills can then usually be practised by oneself if required.

Both trance and suggestion are natural phenomena, which have been observed, expanded upon and developed into therapeutic techniques by generations of workers and researchers in hypnosis. There is a wide variation possible in styles of delivery, which makes hypnosis an extremely flexible therapeutic method, being adaptable to different individuals and cultures. Common to most of these is the importance of ‘rapport’, an enhanced level of interpersonal communication which is the core of the therapeutic partnership, and again is a natural phenomenon which has been developed into a method for delivery of therapeutic intervention. The effective development of rapport depends upon sensitive response by the hypnotherapist to the presenting style of the client, and building on the successive steps of interpersonal response to develop the degree of trust in which therapeutically effective receptivity will occur. If this sounds rather technical, the translation would be that when you trust someone, your imagination and your emotions will accept what they tell you if they tell you in an acceptable and effective way.

Once rapport, trance and receptivity to suggestion have been achieved, then the door is open as to what you wish to have suggested to you. Many people who are stressed want first and foremost to have an emotional “rest”, and this is a very valuable therapeutic function. So in the first instance, often they learn to go into trance, and then to accept suggested guidance into selectively focussing attention on relaxing scenarios, sometimes concentrating on relaxing their own bodies, sometimes visualizing scenes such as walking along a beach which are relaxing through their association with holidays and contact with nature. This is essentially the distraction method of stress relief operated via hypnosis, where it is likely to be more effective than a stressed person trying to do this for themselves.

When relaxation has been achieved, the door is even further open. While some people are content to rest and relax themselves and their imaginations for a given period of time at a regular interval (often recordings of the trance induction and suggestions are given to hypnotherapy clients so they can continue to use them at home), many people are enthused by the experience of gaining control over their imaginations and seek to expand it further. This essentially involves purposefully making input into the content of imaginative anticipations of the future. This sounds simple and obvious, but for a stressed person who has involuntarily become dominated by negative scenarios, it can be a revelation.

Sometimes this domination by negative anticipations has crept up on them. They may have started off as optimistic people, but become progressively battered by events so that an overly-strong protective inner ‘evaluator’ has taken to focussing mostly on negative scenarios. This is generally not a logical process, in that the ratio of attention being given to negative possibilities is not logically or strictly calculated, but is disproportionately influenced by the emotional impact of previous shocks and disappointments. The emotional freedom regained by the hypnotic process, and the skills developed in the selective focus of attention, can result in logic getting access to the attentional process again, and in the clarity of trance, productive inner dialogues can take place. So people can vividly imagine different scenarios, nurture desires which might have been suppressed, and foster their imagination in operating creatively. These have naturally positive effects on the accompanying emotions, as hope can reawaken.

Access to logic in trance as well as access to imagination is invaluable here in order to learn the advanced skills of keeping open possibilities in all circumstances. Relevant skills which can be learned, practised and used most effectively with hypnosis include nurturing desires, maintaining hope, scanning incoming information without bias, adapting and learning from feedback and observation even if this means letting go of ideas about the world and ourselves in which we have invested and become attached, refining our desires so our core self-expressions are always supported whether we can immediately see a way of realizing them or not, scanning for opportunities and learning to set ourselves a question and wait for responses, which may not be what we expected.

Once learned and demonstrated to yourself, the knowledge that you have such a skill set is immensely reassuring in itself, and an effective stress reducer.

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About John Butler

Dr John Butler PhD(Lond) MBSH CHT MA BA(Hons) BSc(Hons) DHP Dip AT FNRHP has been a hypnotherapist for over 25 years and an educator to many healthcare professionals including writing and tutoring the first official training in hypnotherapy in the NHS in 1992. He has been a lecturer in medical and dental psychology at King’s College London and a medical educator for over 15 years lecturing in medical psychology, medical neuroscience and other subjects. He has made many media presentations on clinical hypnosis including hypnotizing a patient undergoing surgery for hernia repair on a live broadcast for Channel 4 television in 2006. He trains students in hypnotherapy at the Hypnotherapy Training Institute of Britain which he founded to teach the methods he has found most effective in his clinical practice. Details at hypnotherapytraininginternational.com/  

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