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Hypnosis and Psychotherapy

by Ivan Tyrrell(more info)

listed in hypnosis, originally published in issue 24 - January 1998

When your emotions are aroused – plunging you into anger, fear, depression, passion or wonder – you go into a hypnotic trance. These trances are part of your everyday experience, though few of us think about it like that. Any form of concentration, such as focusing attention whilst learning something new, requires us to enter a trance. We go inward to accommodate the new information and readjust our view of reality.

That we go so easily into trance and are more suggestible in that state is one of the human “givens”, part of our evolutionary heritage that is central to the new holistic paradigm in psychotherapy.

Objective observers of human behaviour (particularly their own) come to understand this and, if they have the capacity, can learn how to help people overcome a wide range of psychological, behavioural and physical problems. Such people may be known as brilliant doctors, nurses, psychotherapists, healers, counsellors or complementary health practitioners but, whatever they are called, they relieve distress in mind and body by helping people change their hypnotic patterns of thought and behaviour.

What hypnotherapy can do

Consider the following list of just some of the conditions successfully relieved every day by hypnosis: addictions; allergies; agoraphobia; anger; anorexia; asthma; bed wetting; blood pressure; bulimia; lack of confidence; chronic pain; depression; eczema; exam nerves; fear of flying; frustration; guilt; grief; hay fever; inhibition; insomnia; irritable bowel (IBS); relationship/marital difficulties; migraine; nail biting; nervousness; nightmares; obsessions (OCD); pain control; panic attacks; phobias (all kinds of fears); public speaking; sexual difficulties such as impotence, premature ejaculation or vaginismus; skin disorders; trauma flashbacks; ulcers; verrucas; warts and worrying. The hypnotic state is so bound up with our psychology and physiology that it can help with all these and more. It can control blood flow, stimulate the immune system, promote healing of damaged skin tissue and bones and make giving birth easier. Thousands of surgical operations have been carried out using hypnosis as the only anaesthetic. Indeed, as stated in the Health Education Authority Guide to Complementary Medicine and Therapies, “Research shows that there is more scientific evidence for hypnotherapy than any other complementary therapy. . . by using hypnosis people can perform prodigious feats of will-power and self-healing”.

The problem for the public is that not everyone calling themselves a hypnotherapist, counsellor or psychotherapist is any good. It is easy to learn to hypnotise but hypnosis is not therapy. (The European Therapy Studies Institute alone has hundreds of examples of harmful interventions, many leading to tragic consequences, all at the hands of well meaning but inept practitioners. It has also been shown that qualifications, registration to professional bodies or organisation are no guarantee of competence.) In addition, many doctors, counsellors and psychotherapists don’t realise that hypnotic states are involved in what they are doing. The only way someone seeking help can resolve this dilemma is by becoming better informed and then to “shop around”.

Effective psychotherapy is usually brief and purposeful but not rushed. It does not get too involved with why your problem developed – research shows this rarely solves the complaint. Above all, it builds on your own inner resources, even if you’ve forgotten what they are.

It reduces anxiety and develops confidence so, if your life has become dominated by anger, anxiety, panic attacks, fears, traumatic flashbacks, phobias or depression the therapist should be able to help you quickly because all these conditions respond well to appropriate therapy. A careful, skilled practitioner can help most people in a few sessions, sometimes, as in the case of even severe phobias, in only one or two. Even long-term depression, which is becoming increasingly widespread (despite the massive use of anti-depressants), is shown to be more effectively treated by simple hypnotic and cognitive techniques, which break the depressive trance, rather than by drugs.

But why do we go into trance so easily?

The answer seems to be connected with why we evolved to adjust our emotional arousal levels up and down which, in turn, requires a focusing of attention. This ability gave mammals a greater range of possible responses to an ever changing environment. We also evolved the process of dreaming to discharge unresolved emotional arousal so as to leave the higher cortex free to begin each new day afresh. Our dreams keep us emotionally healthy most of the time and that is why most people don’t remain permanently angry, depressed or fearful. Curiously it is only recently that scientists have realised that dreaming and trance states are related activities (see The Origin of Dreams, by Joseph Griffin).

However, as well as being essential for healthy functioning, trance states can also become traps when life’s difficulties overwhelm us.

Under excessive pressure we all respond in one of three ways; anxiety, anger or depression – or a combination of them. These ancient animal reactions are normal trance responses that evolved to help us survive and they all override our ability to think analytically. This is because in certain circumstances it is better to trust our instincts. It is necessary, for example, to become anxious and hyper-alert and able to act instantly when there is a possible danger present. It is also appropriate to become angry if you or your family are being attacked and you have to retaliate. It is also helpful to depress the system to endure long periods of forced inactivity such as during the ice ages, when extreme weather kept people huddled in caves for weeks on end, or when illness, famine or food shortages required people to conserve energy.

A significant minority of people, particularly those whose circumstances don’t change much or who haven’t developed flexible responses to the trials and tribulations of life, can develop chronic anger problems, long lasting depression or one of a whole range of disabling anxiety disorders. Their emotional minds keep them in powerful negative trance states which, among other things suppress the immune system. Then, because the mind and body are intimately bound together, they can be assailed by a host of physical symptoms ranging from paralysis and pain to skin problems and sexual difficulties.

These harmful states are maintained because our emotional mind is much older in evolutionary terms than our thinking mind and doesn’t recognise the difference between information that is real and information that is imaginary. So it’s no good telling someone who is afraid to go out that there is nothing to be afraid of. Their higher brain already knows that. It’s the emotional mind, reacting to a thought about an imaginary threat – that something might go wrong again, for example – that creates the state of anxiety. This is because it switches on the “fight or flight” response, just as easily to an imaginary threat as a real one.

These symptoms only lift when the negative trance is broken.  This can happen by chance in the normal run of life or when a skilled therapist intervenes effectively.


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About Ivan Tyrrell

Ivan Tyrrell is a director of The European Therapy Studies Institute and MindFields Seminars and coedits  its journal, The Therapist.  He is an author of several books and has a thriving psychotherapy practice and can be contacted on 01323 811690.

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