Hypnosis FAQ

Frequently asked questions about hypnosis.

SUSIE ROTCH  Psychologist

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Hypnosis Psychotherapy

Introduction - A letter from Susie Rotch to you.

I use hypnosis as a tool, both in my work as a therapist and in managing my own life. Let me start by telling you a story about my introduction to hypnosis, to explain why it fascinates and why I love it’s use.

Thirty-three years ago I was a young psychologist just learning my craft and finishing a qualification in criminology. I attended an introductory course on hypnosis just as I finished collecting all my data for my criminology thesis. During the hypnosis lecture we were told about post-hypnotic suggestion. I had a great undigested and unsorted mass of data from my research. I thought I would try post-hypnotic suggestion on myself. So just before sleep, I put myself into a light trance and told myself that in the morning I would understand the meaning of my data.

In the morning I awoke with a diagram in my mind, a pyramid structuring the research findings as neatly as I could have wished, With that structure, writing the thesis proved to be easy, and I got excellent results. I was hooked. Hypnosis has continued to fascinate me across decades.

So many people present so many different versions of what it is, sometimes tainted by sensationalism and mystification for their own ends. So much nonsense is said and written on the topic, this is my attempt to set the record straight.

I am asked many questions about hypnosis. Below is a list of the most common, and my answers. I hope that they will help to satisfy your curiosity. The answers I give you are based on my reading of the research on the topic across three decades, on my use of it in my work as a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist for all that time and on my personal experience of hypnosis.

What is Hypnosis?

Hypnosis, also known as an altered state of consciousness or trance, is not something mysterious or other-worldly. It is simply a change in your usual way of processing information. This means that it is different for each person. This is one of the reasons that the topic has been so elusive for so long.

Most people think by making pictures in their minds, (visualizing) by talking to themselves (self talk or thinking) or by checking out how they feel about a topic, (emotions or sensations) and of course combinations of these. There are actually five dominant styles of individual's reactions to the outside world. If you normally think by making pictures in your mind, then thinking by tuning in to how you feel about something is hypnosis for you.

If you normally think by talking to yourself, then making pictures in your mind would be an hypnotic state for you. Or if you use your feelings as your dominant thinking language , talking to yourself would be hypnosis ... and so on.

Whenever you think in a manner that is unacustomed for you, this is hypnosis

Because it is unacustomed, this different way of thinking can seem mysterious and foreign, in much the same way as the behaviors and attitudes of people from another country can seem strange to you when you first encounter them. The truth is that it is just unusual for you.

As you can see from this explanation, by using our various thinking styles, we probably move in and out of hypnosis quite a lot without even realizing that we are doing it. Any time that you meditate or daydream. this is an hypnotic state for you. Any time that you sit in front of the television set and become so absorbed in watching the screen that you don’t notice that you have been eating the snack in the bowl in your lap, this is hypnosis. Any time that you become absorbed in your thoughts whilst walking along and then realize that you have walked some distance without noticing, this is hypnosis.

Hypnosis is a normal as breathing or sleeping and almost as common. It is just so subtle that usually it remains unnoticed and elusive. The only difference between clinical, stage and self-hypnosis and the everyday unregarded phenomenon is that in the first three, hypnosis is deliberately induced. In the everyday version it just happens.

Stage hypnotists use hypnosis to entertain. I think that they sensationalize it in order to make themselves seem mysterious and powerful. They are also often disrespectful to their subjects by their instructions. I consider this totally unacceptable, but recognize that some people willingly participate in the process for the attention they get from the audience.

A hypnotherapist induces hypnosis to help her client or patient get around everyday mindsets and thinking habits and open him or her up to new possibilities. So can you for yourself when you use self-hypnosis.

How does hypnosis work as a cure?

In our everyday lives we develop thinking habits and patterns of behavior. Mostly these work for us, like the habit of washing our hands before meals or looking both ways before crossing the street. But sometimes our habits, including our thinking habits, become outdated or prove to be counter-productive. Then it is useful to change them.

Hypnosis helps us to do this by taking us into ways of operating which are not cluttered with previously-established behavior patterns. We then have the flexibility to make change without having to fight old patterns of thought or behavior.

For example. if you have the habit of thinking of yourself in critical and disparaging ways, it may be difficult to change, because your beliefs are so rehearsed and repeated over many years. In those circumstances it may be useful to change to a different thinking style and use that to think of yourself in a positive and accepting fashion.

Or you may have the habit of worrying (talking to yourself) at bedtime, which stops you from going to sleep. If you switch to picturing a pleasant scene in your mind instead, this will be a different way of operating for you i.e. self-hypnosis, and it should help you to get around the habit that interferes with restful, easy sleep.

With post-hypnotic suggestions, that is suggestions that you continue the new way of operating beyond the trance state, you can continue the new behavior or thinking style in your normal, everyday life, until it too becomes a habit. The more useful habit will supersede the less useful one. The reason for this is obvious. We all want our ways of behaving and thinking to be easier and more effective in giving us the life that we want. Out of two or more options we will pick the one that gives us the best outcomes.

I could give you many other examples of how you can use hypnosis and self-hypnosis, but the principle on which it works remains the same: change your thinking style and open yourself up to new possibilities for thinking, and feeling and doing things.

Why should I use hypnosis?

If you have thinking or behavior patterns that are preventing or working against your happiness and well being, then you can use the relatively uncluttered realm of hypnosis to develop new ways of thinking and behaving.

You can then use these new patterns to replace the patterns that aren’t working. This is much easier than trying to overcome the old patterns by fighting them head on.

Is hypnosis dangerous?

No, hypnosis is not dangerous. It is a normal part of everyone’s functioning.

However, like all our potentials, the capacity to go into an altered state of consciousness or hypnosis can be used for us or against us. We can dream of success and by dreaming (or entering a trance state, or hypnosis) we can make it so real that we will follow that dream and make it happen. Or we can imagine gloom, doom and disaster.

The same ability to imagine something so vividly that we can make it real will then work against us. In acting as if we expect trouble, we set up a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The secret is to take control of this natural function that we have built into us and to use it, with deliberation and awareness, to benefit us.

Is hypnosis legal?

Yes, doing a formal trance induction for therapeutic purposes is legal in most places in the world. There is very broad recognition of the value of hypnosis for therapeutic purposes.

Hypnotherapy has a history going back to the 1700s in Europe, and longer in the East. Some countries have had legislation against unqualified people doing hypnosis, including the state of Australia where I live. Of course, this proved unenforceable, and is no longer on the books there. It did prevent the demeaning stage performances of hypnosis which are most peoples’ erroneous introduction of the topic.

No-one can legislate against self-hypnosis because it is a natural function. You are using it even if you don’t know that you are (and so is our hypothetical legislator).

Can I be hypnotized against my will?

You hypnotize yourself regularly and often without realizing it. But this is different from someone doing a formal trance induction on you. You may go into a trance which another person can use, but if you are given instructions which are against your values you will not follow them.

Can I be made to do things that I don ‘t want to do whilst I am under hypnosis?

No, you can’t. Let me illustrate with two stories from my own experience.

I once saw a professor of psychiatry prove that point more graphically than intended. He hypnotized a girl and then told her to take off her clothes, just to prove that it wouldn’t work. She promptly came out of her trance and gave him a resounding slap on the face. Served him right for playing with her!

I had a similar experience with the same professor which he also hadn’t intended. He put me under with my consent and gave me an instruction to go numb in one hand. He intended to use me for a demonstration of hypnotic anesthesia (failure to feel pain) later. He brought me out of trance without removing the numbness.

He did not tell me about his intentions, even when I asked him to remove it as I found it uncomfortable. He also refused to remove the numbness. By the time he took me on to the podium to demonstrate hypnotic anesthesia I was really angry with him. He stuck a pin through the numb area.

Instead of failing to flinch or bleed, which is what I would normally do under the circumstances, I yelped and bled profusely. So much for doing something under hypnosis against your will.

A warning about the question of values. Under hypnosis you can be given instructions which are rationalized as being within your value frame. Because you are suggestible under hypnosis, you are more gullible.

It is important to pick a hypnotherapist who is well-qualified professionally and whose honesty and integrity as a person you trust.

Will I make a fool of myself whilst under hypnosis?

You will only make a fool of yourself under hypnosis if this is what you want or are willing to have happen in exchange for public attention, like some of the people who participate in television shows using hypnosis.

No qualified, ethical therapist will ever suggest you do anything that would demean your dignity, even for a moment.

Self-hypnosis programs such as the ones I write are both permissive and respectful. You are never told directly to do something. The choice is always your’s. No suggestion is ever made without the option to refuse, should it be contrary to something that you hold to as a value.

What if I can’t get out once I am under hypnosis?

I’m not sure where this urban myth comes from. In over thirty years of doing hypnotherapy I have never had anyone refuse or fail to come out of hypnotic trance. Some people like it so much they linger a little, but that’s fine. I’m delighted that they find the experience enjoyable.

If someone lingers in trance, as occasionally happens, they tend to move from hypnosis to falling asleep. If this happens the person wakes up in his or her own time, feeling refreshed and invigorated.

Are there different sorts of hypnosis?

Yes, there are, in broad terms, two different sorts of hypnosis. One is called direct or sometimes authoritarian hypnosis, the other Ericksonian hypnosis.

Direct hypnosis, as the name implies, is the style where someone tells you quite bluntly what to do, as in “You are becoming sleepy, sleepy, sleepy..” or “You will no longer wish to eat after 8 pm at night.” Obviously this is rather crude. It depends on the willingness of the subject and the authoritarian manner of the hypnotist.

Using this sort of trance induction, some people can’t be hypnotized, mainly because they don’t really wish to subject themselves to being told what to do. And who can blame them?

The other sort of hypnosis is called Ericksonian hypnosis after it’s developer Milton Erickson, a brilliant psychotherapist and observer of human behavior, including hypnotic phenomena. The principles of Ericksonian hypnosis are outlined in my book: “Hypnosis as a Psychotherapy Tool.” The important aspects that differentiate this from direct hypnosis are:

1. it is permissive, leaving you the choice of whether to do any of the suggested activities or not.
2. it is respectful. You are never coerced into doing anything.
3. it uses a particular style of artfully vague language to encourage and enhance trance.
4. It speaks both to the conscious and the unconscious mind, encouraging both to participate in the changes that you desire.

Who couldn’t use hypnosis?

People with severe memory problems, such as those with brain damage affecting memory, will become hypnotized, but won’t retain the learning.

People with major paranoid difficulties will be so vigilant against hypnosis it probably won’t work.

Who shouldn’t use hypnosis?

People who have severe psychiatric disabilities where their personality structure is fragmented and whose grip on reality is poor may find hypnosis confusing. If not used very carefully and tailored to their individual needs, hypnosis may in fact further weaken their shaky grip on reality.

Some people have values that view hypnosis as bad. If you do, then look for another form of self-help or therapy.

What are the hypnotic phenomena?

There is a broad range of hypnotic phenomena. The most useful ones are:

1. suggestibility, so that you can:

-----increase your motivation for some desired goal such as increasing your confidence (see 'Growing in Self-Esteem') or achieving the body shape that you desire (see 'A Happy Mind in a Happy Body')

-----overcome phobias such as fear of flying (see 'Flight to Delight'), of your sexuality (see 'Riding the Waves'), or of public speaking and performing (see 'Talking up a Storm')

-----reprograming faulty habits such as insomnia (see'Sleeping like a Baby'), difficulties with anger management (see 'Harnessing the Torrent') or nail biting (see 'A World at Your Fingertips')

2. anesthesia, so that you don’t feel pain that you know is present. This is particularly useful in overcoming chronic pain (see 'Rising above Pain') or chronic illness (see 'Journeying to Healing')

3. amnesia so that you forget concerns that are useless or indeed destructive to you, such as bedevil people with anxiety (see 'Overcoming Anxiety') and depression (see 'Diverting From Depression')

4. access to the unconscious. This is perhaps the least mentioned but the most important of the hypnotic phenomena.
You can use this access to change your automatic programing to more useful settings. All of my programs use this. In particular it is useful for increasing creativity, goal setting, motivation, attitude change and overcoming habit problems, phobias, mental blocks and so on.

5. post-hypnotic suggestion occurs when a person under trance is given a task or suggestion to be followed after the trance ends.

For example I might suggest that after listening to one of my programs you will be more discriminating in your expression of anger (see 'Harnessing the Torrent') able to sleep peacefully (see'Sleeping like a Baby') or able to relax and enjoy lovemaking (see 'Riding the Waves'). This is one of the most useful hypnotic phenomena, because it ensures that you go on with the desired behavior or attitude change well after the trance is over. This is what shifts the hypnotic learning into every day functioning.

What is an altered state of consciousness? (or a trance?)

Any way of processing information, whether visual, (pictures, sights and scenes) auditory (words and music or other sounds) or kinesthetic (feelings or emotions) that is different from your usual way of processing information is an altered state of consciousness for you. Because it is unusual this way of processing feels strange or mysterious to you.

People shift their state of consciousness without awareness all the time, such as when they daydream or become absorbed in thinking whilst also doing another task. Think of yourself driving your car and planning what you will say when you arrive at your destination. You stop for a traffic light and realize that you are some distance closer than when you last registered where you were. Yet you have been driving quite safely. You were in a hypnotic trance or altered state of consciousness whilst you drove and thought.

People also actively seek altered states of consciousness because they are pleasant. That’s why people learn and practice meditation. And every culture has it’s mood altering drugs. These include alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, coffee, tea and a range of illegal drugs such as XTC or cocaine.

What makes someone a good hypnotic subject?

The research and my clinical experience suggest the following:

1. the more intelligent you are the better a hypnotic subject you are. If you are intelligent then you have the ability to split attention i.e. concentrate on one thing whilst also doing another, or attend to several things at once. Someone who isn’t bright has to concentrate on one thing at a time. This ability to split attention appears to be an evolutionary leap for humans over animals.

2. the more psychologically flexible and adaptable you are the better a hypnotic subject you are. You have the capacity to include this new method into your repertoire of behaviors easily, as you include others.

3. the more motivated you are the better a hypnotic subject you are. For example I once used hypnotic anesthesia on a friend who broke her ankle during a bush walk. My friend knew that it would be some time before help would arrive. She was delighted to use the method that I offered her to relieve the pain in the meantime.

In conclusion,

I want to emphasize that the exact mechanisms of hypnosis are still subject to investigation. I recently saw MRI images of a person under hypnotic anesthesia which showed that the pain impulses were generated quite normally and transferred to the brain in the usual way. But when they reached the brain they did not continue to the part of the brain that decodes them as pain. Truly an altered state of consciousness! But how this was achieved is still being explored.

Nevertheless we can use something without fully understanding it, just as people used bread poultices for centuries as a specific against infection before penicillin was discovered.

I hope that these answers go some way to satisfying your curiosity. I also hope that you will be intrigued enough to use this tool as I do, for your pleasure and to improve the quality of your life.

Psychologist and Psychotherapist

HypnoBook link
Diverting from Depression
Overcoming Anxiety
Growing in self esteem
Rising above pain
Harnessing the Torrent Journeying to Healing Riding the waves Flight to Delight

Sleeping like a baby
Hypnosis Psychotherapy


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