The word comes from the Greek word for sleep, ‘hypnos’, because people in hypnosis look so relaxed with their eyes closed that from the outside they seem to be asleep.
But that appearance is deceptive. A hypnotised subject is awake and aware of what is going on. In fact they may be hyper-aware of sounds and sensations that normally they wouldn’t even notice. Hypnosis is an active state of mind that involves attention, imagination and absorbing yourself in your internal experience.
Hypnotherapy uses the curious qualities of hypnosis to facilitate change. Because it is deeply relaxing, hypnosis is well known to be good for reducing anxiety and stress, steadying heartbeat and lowering blood pressure. But what is extraordinary about it is how even a very light state of hypnosis allows the mind to reshape its perception of reality: in short, to change your experience. The hypnotherapist guides you in how to do this, so that you can make use of this natural ability to manage pain, break negative habits, deal with intrusive thoughts, cope better with difficult situations and overall to see things differently.
Hypnosis has nothing to do with ‘will power’ or brain-washing. Countless stories in books and movies of people being ‘hypnotized’ into doing things against their will, or making fools of themselves, or being enslaved by a hypnotist’s demonic powers of mind control, have given hypnosis a sinister or thrilling reputation.
For the purpose of entertainment, the natural features of hypnosis are deliberately exaggerated and – combined with some slick showmanship and outright trickery – presented as though the volunteers are being manipulated by the hypnotist. False, but exciting, and the hypnotist enjoys the illusion of power; so the myth persists.
The old clichés, such as staring helplessly into the hypnotist’s gimlet eye or swinging watch, derive from the simple fact that if you stare fixedly at one point for long enough, you will experience a shift into a slightly altered state of mind. It is the effect of focusing your attention. Everybody does it when they watch a riveting film or read a gripping novel; all you have to do is blink and stop doing it to be back in your usual diffused awareness.
In hypnosis you are not asleep. If a hypnotist does invite a subject to ‘Sleep!’ it is only because we associate the word with closing our eyes and letting our muscles go slack. In short, the word helps to trigger an automatic relaxation response.
In hypnosis you are not unconscious. It is only a light state of attention. Nor is it possible get stuck in hypnosis as if it were some kind of spell. You can stop doing it whenever you want. We all ‘switch off’ sometimes, and may be ‘miles away’, before we ‘wake up’ by bringing our attention back to everyday considerations. Hypnosis is a similar state of reverie, of a more deliberate kind.
You cannot be hypnotized against your will. All that a hypnotist can do is guide you in how to do it. At best, all a hypnotist can do is engage your imagination. It is his or her task to articulate for you the suggestions that evoke the changes you want to make, and yours to either accept or dismiss them. No one can hypnotize you to do anything against your will. Your own willing involvement is what makes hypnosis work.
Hypnosis as a recognized psychological phenomenon began in eighteenth-century Vienna and Paris, when Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) became notorious for hundreds of dramatic cures and highly unorthodox methods. ‘Mesmerism’ became such a popular craze that it aroused the interest of doctors and scientists. Mesmer himself believed that he was transmitting a powerful life-force to his patients in the form of an invisible magnetic fluid. But more rigorous observers noted that the often spectacular effects of his mesmerising hand waving and procedures could be attributed to the patients’ own powers of belief and expectation rather than to Mesmer’s elaborate devices or his personal ‘magnetism.’
It is largely to Mesmer that we owe the discovery of hypnosis as a phenomenon that could be harnessed to treat both mental and physical conditions… and also the dubious association of hypnosis with flamboyant gestures and swooning subjects. For while, on the one hand, the latest fashion for wealthy aristocratic ladies was to hold seances around magnetic devices and fall into convulsions, several educated gentlemen, cleric and doctors across Europe began experimenting with the possibilities of inducing a mesmeric trance without the magnets. Invisible fluids were dismissed; the science of psychology had begun.
In Scotland, Dr James Braid observed that when the eyes fix their gaze on one point, the mind becomes singularly focused too. His name for this state of mind – hypnosis – caught on, while the practice of mesmerism, with its unsound theories and flashy performances, was abandoned. But the theatrical element lives on, and while scientists and researchers may disassociate themselves from the showmen, and work to establish a credibility that is founded on an increasing mountain of evidence, the general public remain too fascinated and misled by the myths and wishful thinking associated with hypnosis to recognise it as a mental technique available to anyone, rather than a magic wand or a superpower.
Hypnosis has long been appreciated for the deeply relaxing effect it has on both mind and body. As tension lessens, so do anxiety, pain, panic and negative beliefs lose their hold over us. You can learn to do this for yourself: every hypnotherapy session also teaches you how to change your state of mind and to energise and motivate yourself.
It is easier to hold your focus and go deeper into hypnosis with a hypnotherapist to guide you. But to be able to relax at will and help yourself with positive suggestions – these are skills for life that you can take away from the experience and that will always be available to you.