Debunking the Myths Around Hypnosis

hypnosis clientThe technique, when used correctly, can help people overcome a host of life challenges

By Rob O’Flanagan

GUELPH — You are getting very, very … no, not sleepy. In fact, just the opposite: More awake, more aware of the inner impulses that drive you. The stereotype/myth of the hypnotist as a kind of magician that puts a person, or groups of people in a trance and makes them do what they wouldn’t normally do, continues to taint the practice of hypnosis. But that’s not really what hypnosis is all about.

The therapeutic technique, which has been around for several hundred years, has grown in popularity, and respect, in recent times, while its applications have broadened. “An area where hypnosis has had all its myths come about is in stage hypnosis,” said Jacques Gouws, a clinical psychologist based in Hamilton, and past-president of the Canadian Society of Clinical Hypnosis. “This is the stuff where someone gets on a stage and calls people up and makes them look silly.” Playing around with hypnosis is actually dangerous, Gouws said. Someone with a particular mental health problem, an emotional sensitivity, or a specific trauma can have a psychological door opened through hypnosis that can cause a serious mental crisis.

But there are many ways in which hypnosis can be used as a tool to try to change habits, eliminate phobias, foster a sense of inner peace, and overcome a host of life challenges. Habits are deeply rooted in the subconscious mind, and accessing that part of the mind is where hypnosis has its power.

Phil Naylor runs the Glen Tara Centre for Hypnosis and Wellness in Guelph, a growing hypnosis practice that aims to help clients with anxiety, panic, phobias, pain management, and overall wellness, among other things. His business offers counselling, psychotherapy and hypnotherapy. Hypnosis is not mind control, he said, but there is a general misconception that it is. Those under hypnosis are fully conscious and aware during the process. For the most part, hypnosis is very safe.

“There are not many people that do hypnosis in Guelph,” Naylor said. “Part of the issue with hypnosis is that people don’t understand it. There needs to an education process because people don’t think about hypnosis for the things they might be dealing with. It is certainly not part of the mainstream vocabulary of health or mental health.” People seek hypnosis at his office for depression and anxiety, pain management, and anger management. If you grind your teeth at night or have an unusual phobia, a practitioner like Naylor may be able to help.

Say you want to be a more confident person, someone who feels more capable of succeeding at what you put your mind to. Perhaps something within your subconscious, a fear or a negative belief, is acting as an impediment to self-assurance. Hypnosis can help get to the bottom of it, according to certified hypnotist Angela McClenahan.

McClenahan recently moved her hypnosis practice from her home in Burlington to a modern office building at 848 Gordon St. Her Guelph Hypnosis Works specializes in serving people working to achieve smoking cessation, weight loss, stress management and greater confidence. It can also help enhance academic and sports performance, and manage pain, she said.

“We help people break habits, break patterns and find new ways to cope,” she said. “It’s amazing how the unconscious mind works, and it (hypnosis) can work very, very quickly. People can be stuck in patterns that they’ve been doing for years, and we can help them get out of it within minutes. It’s amazing to watch people make all these changes and to be able to help them do that.”

McClenahan said if you want to quit smoking, change eating habits, gain control over negative impulses and attitudes, hypnosis can help by essentially giving you better access to the subconscious processes that influence your behavior. We may not always know why we do what we do, she said. Hypnosis can help access the underlying motives behind our behavior.

McClenahan demonstrated one method of instilling a kind of a mental anchor that helps reorient the mind. In this example, she was helping instill an anchor for self-confidence. Close your eyes and picture a circle on the floor in front of you, she instructed. The circle could be a hula hoop, a rope, a painted line, or a series of stones.

Then, think of someone who embodies the qualities you want to instill in yourself, she said. Identify those good qualities in your mind. Once you have them identified, place those characteristics in the circle and step inside.

Now, envision absorbing those characteristics up through your feet to the top of your head until they are fully embodied in you, at least on the level of thought. Then step back out of the circle and make a fist. The making of a fist will be your trigger in situations where you want those admirable, self-assured qualities to come to the fore. During a test to determine if a subject was susceptible to hypnosis, Naylor asked the subject to hold a pendulum over a piece of paper that had a circle on it. The circle had a vertical line and a horizon line across it.

He instructed the subject to relax, to watch the pendulum and imagine it going back and forth in one direction. The pendulum moved in that direction, apparently without any movement in the fingers of the subject. When asked to imagine it stopping, it stopped. A succession of suggestions made the pendulum go up and down, and in both clockwise and counter-clockwise directions, with stops between each new direction. The subject was clearly susceptible.

Naylor said subjects who respond well to hypnosis are not gullible. Instead, they tend to be people with a good imagination, who can fully visualize things suggested to them. A good rapport between the hypnotist and the subject is also important.

The key to the success of any hypnosis is the client’s openness to it, their willingness to be helped by it, and a solid commitment to change, McClenahan said. “You can-not hypnotize anyone who does not want to be hypnotized,” she said. “It’s a choice.”

Hypnosis has long had a presence in the world of entertainment, the kind of stage hypnosis that has been popular at different times. In some ways it has given hypnosis a bad name. It has provided an impression it’s a form of mind control or mesmerism that alters the state of mind and puts people in a trance that renders them vulnerable to suggestion and control. “Even in stage hypnosis they can’t make anyone do anything that they don’t want to do,” McClenahan said. “You are still aware of what is going on.”

The state of hypnosis, she explained, is similar to the state we find ourselves in just before falling asleep or in those few moments after waking. It is a very relaxed state of mind in which we are still aware of our surroundings but not really thinking about them. It is not uncommon to enter such a state while doing ordinary things. One can move into a kind of hypnotic state while driving, finding they have travelled some distance without fully remembering the details of the route or without noting the amount of time that has passed.

“We experience hypnosis-like states all the time,” McClenahan said. “It’s a natural phenomenon. What we do here at Guelph Hypnosis Works is we use that relaxed state of mind to help work with your unconscious mind to make the changes that you’re looking to make.”

Individual human beings are made up of various parts, go through numerous stages of life, and perform many roles, Gouws said. Things happen in different parts and at different times of our lives that we may not understand or be aware of, but which affect us over the long term.

“Some of the stuff that happened to us may be so threatening that we can’t really face it, in the same way that I am not going to have a root canal while I am wide-awake, without freezing,” Gouws said. “Hypnosis is a tool that allows the therapist access to deal with those particular things that happen in the subconscious mind.”

McClenahan said many of her clients are taught the techniques of self-hypnosis. With smoking cessation, those techniques are relatively straightforward and don’t take long to learn. But things such as stress management or weight loss are a longer process, the root of the problems running deeper. Single hypnotic sessions are not offered at Guelph Hypnosis Works, but, rather, programs are offered involving varying numbers of sessions, at various costs. The nitty-gritty details, or the deeper secrets of a problem, needn’t be revealed to a hypnotist, McClenahan said.

“We just help you access states of mind that will help you get beyond your issue,” she said. “We need to get them to level with themselves, to realize on a conscious level that they are doing this. And then you can help them change those patterns.”

Challenges such as weight gain are symptomatic of deeper, often subconscious fears, anxieties or traumas. The weight gain is a symptom of an emotional/psychological issue that must be accessed to get to the root of the problem.

McClenahan referred to the work of family therapy pioneer Virginia Satir, who identified a number of “coping stances” that influence our behavior and can get in the way of healthy relationships and lifestyles.

Some of us are placaters who are always trying to please others — always focused on others as opposed to themselves. There are blamers who always blame someone or something else for their problems, distractors who constantly distract themselves from their problems and thinkers who overanalyze.

“Sometimes people get stuck in these stances, and we help them get out of them,” McClenahan said. “They are coping mechanisms that we all use at some time or another. When you get stuck in any of them, we help you get out of that rut and level — to actually be able to see what you do, recognize it and change it.” Being in a hypnotic trance allows one to see in much the same way as dreaming while asleep, Gouws said. “The hypnotic trance allows one to work with those issues in a way that they can-not in a wide-awake state.”

Unless the trance experience is particularly threatening, or if there is a posthypnotic suggestion not to remember the experience, a patient will remember everything that happened while under hypnosis. Some people are much more susceptible to hypnosis than others, and are able to go very deeply into their past experiences and see them as though they are watching a movie, Gouws said. Many are able to regress back to infancy. But regressing back to times of abuse and trauma, he reiterated, is potentially risky.

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