For many people, hypnosis is a fascinating topic and a phenomenon that promotes lively discussion. It is frequently seen as being powerful, magical and mysterious. Despite this, there is a degree of confusion as to exactly what it is. Indeed, there is no single agreed upon definition for hypnosis.
It has, however, been described as an altered state of awareness in which the unconscious part of the mind is able to communicate with the conscious part. This altered state is frequently (but not always) enhanced by mental and physical relaxation.
The word hypnosis derives from the Greek word ‘hypnos’, which means ‘sleep’. Although it is sometimes associated with sleep, it is in reality a state of heightened concentration, which allows a subject to focus intently on a specific thought or memory, often to the exclusion of almost everything else.
It is perhaps more helpful to define hypnosis by what it can do than to define it by what it is. In recent years, hypnosis has increasingly become the subject of serious scientific enquiry. Evidence of its merits has been well documented and numerous articles have been published in top scientific journals. This work has established hypnotherapy as a safe evidence-based profession.
Hypnosis, as we have seen, is a natural and effective tool for accessing the unconscious mind - the source of so many of the issues we end up experiencing in life. For better or worse, it is where our beliefs are stored and where habits and other patterns of behaviour are located. Our unconscious can also become our most powerful ally.
Hypnotherapy utilises the hypnotic state in a number of different ways, depending on the client concerned and issue being brought to the hypnotherapist. It is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that can be effective in treating a broad variety of conditions such as physical pain, addictions and stress or anxiety. It can also promote general well-being and be used to improve learning, sports performance and a person’s emotional state to name but a few applications.
Even though hypnotherapy can be hugely effective, making a person feel better both mentally and physically, it should not be seen as a silver bullet. During treatment, the client always remains in control. The hypnotherapist of course facilitates the process, but ultimately it is through a client’s own efforts that real change will occur. There are times that this change might make a minimal difference to the person’s lifestyle, success or feelings of well-being, but just as often the change can turn out to be dramatic.
Altered states of awareness, in one guise or another, can be found historically in virtually every culture. In around 1841, it was however James Braid who first coined the actual words hypnosis and hypnotism. This Scottish surgeon based his ideas on those developed earlier by the likes of Franz Mesmer, who worked with such concepts as "Mesmerism" (or "animal magnetism"). At the time, Braid differed from his predecessors in his theory as to how the procedure worked. However, in the mid-nineteenth century, hypnosis was still largely considered to be a passive or permissive state of mind.
Even today, stage hypnotists like to give the impression that they have some sort of magical power over their subjects. But that’s not really how it works. In reality, there is a more equal relationship between a hypnotist and a client. Indeed, current thinking suggests that hypnosis is something people will do for themselves, rather than something that can be imposed on them. Certainly, if a hypnotist offers unacceptable suggestions to a subject, he or she will almost certainly simply reject them or just ignore what has been said.
Also, it was traditionally understood that a ‘hypnotic trance’ was a bit like an altered state that was similar to that of sleep, concussion or intoxication. This idea too has been progressively diluted. Trance is now more often understood as being an everyday phenomenon - more like daydreaming, meditation or absorption in a book, a television programme or music. Heap and Aravind define it as "… a waking state in which the person’s attention is focused away from his surroundings and absorbed by inner experiences such as feelings, cognitions and imagery."
Ernest Hilgard’s description of hypnosis (in the context of hypnotherapy) goes even further. It suggests that functions are divided between the hypnotherapist and the client. The client retains a considerable portion from his normal state – the ability to answer questions about his past and future plans, as well as to accept or refuse invitations to participate in specific kinds of activities. At the same time the client turns some other functions over to the hypnotherapist, so that the client will do and experience what is suggested - provided that it is acceptable to him.
As may be expected, a number of other models of hypnosis have also been put forward. Still, for purposes of hypnotherapy, it is helpful to view the phenomenon as a natural, safe way to effect real personal change. It can be seen as a means to bypass the conscious mind and directly address the unconscious.
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