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Monday Hypnotherapy Myth-Busting: Hypnosis is something that happens when your eyes are closed

Posted Mar 08 2010 1:44am

There is something about that swinging watch, ‘look into my eyes,’ association with hypnosis, something about the idea of hypnotism and the hypnotist, that produces an expectation in many people that, in order to go into a powerful state of trance, first their eyes will need to close. (And, of course, soon after that their head will loll back and they will start drooling and dribbling and then an hour later they will open their eyes and wonder ‘Where was I?’ and have no recollection of what has occurred.)

Yes, this is still what many, many people think about when they think about hypnosis: that the hypnotist induces the state of hypnosis in them or for them and their bodies respond in a particular way, perhaps like being in a walking dream or even totally anaesthetised or unconscious.

In fact, as we have discussed before on this blog, a hypnotherapist does not and cannot put you into hypnosis. Perhaps the only thing we can say with any accuracy is that, when you are willing, a hypnotherapist can facilitate the process with you, helping you to create a certain quality of attention or awareness in which you are more receptive to suggestion and change.

In order for this to happen, you do not even have to close your eyes. You can be in trance with your eyes open, moving around, going about various aspects of your day.

As many hypnotherapists will tell you on their websites, hypnosis is a very natural state (or non-state) that we move in and out of quite naturally. One of the common examples of a natural trance state is the ‘driving trance,’ that state of relaxed and focused awareness, often a heightened kind of awareness, in which your conscious mind drifts off with all kinds of thoughts and suddenly, to your surprise, you realise that you are reaching the end of your road, approaching your own house and you think to yourself, ‘How did I get here? Who has been driving all this time?’

If you are a child of the 80’s, like me, you might remember the famous shower scene from that 80’s soap, Dallas, where Bobby Ewing drifts off in the shower, thus imagining or day-dreaming an entire series, with plot twists and side stories, that had audiences on the edge of their seats trying to figure out who shot JR. That is, until Bobby realised that he had been standing in the shower for far too long and really should get out now because he was becoming a wrinkled prune. The entire series had been imagined and experienced inside his mind. And Bobby Ewing certainly didn’t have his eyes closed. (Maybe there was a little soap involved.)

Or you may be most familiar with the particular trance state, often described as ‘hypnagogia,’ in which we drift somewhere between waking and sleeping, either at the beginning or end of the day.

Or, like me, you may enjoy being fully immersed in a certain creative activity  such as writing or painting or gardening, where you lose all track of time. This kind of temporal distortion is a strong sign of trance. I would even argue – and I regularly do – that writing, when approached in a particular way, is a kind of self-hypnosis and can be used to induce a state of trance.

And so this idea that hypnosis is something we do with our eyes closed is clearly unhelpful and misleading.

One of my favourite books on hypnosis and therapeutic trance is called ‘Trances People Live By,’ by Stephen Wolinsky, a book that, as the title suggests, describes our problems as states of negative or unhelpful trance. Wolinsky writes:

‘Reactions are trance states when they happen to us – which is more often than not. We blow up, raise our voices, slam our fists down on tables, get red-faced,  get passionate. We don’t usually experience ourselves as consciously, intentionally creating our reactions, especially when any degree of emotional valence is involved.’ (Wolinsky. 1991. p. 15).

You may have noticed, only after the event, this kind of unhelpful trance state.  For example, you might be experiencing a certain relationship trance: he says that, you say that, then he says that and, before you even know it, you’ve both had that argument again, that one, the one that goes like that. You’re firing off all kinds of post-hypnotic suggestions to each other: ‘You always do that… You’re always late… You never do that…’

According to this model, our reactions are very useful tools, giving us valuable information, once we’ve blurted them out for the hundredth time and can see them clearly and become less identified with them.

An enjoyable in-the-present-moment experience can turn into a particular kind of trance state when we start spinning fantasies or stories – either positive and pleasurable or anxiety-invoking – into the future.

I love the way Wolinsky describes the trance phenomena (age regression, pseudo-orientation in time, positive or negative hallucination and so on) that we can create in this way: ‘Trance phenomena “shrink-wrap” our focus of attention, leaving a very consricted perspective with which we usually strongly identify’ (p.15).

One of the most wonderful and fascinating hypnotherapy sessions I ever experienced was when I was working with a very young client, aged seven, who had been refusing to go to bed at night, refusing to go to school in the mornings, getting very distressed, crying and screaming and shouting and generally creating all kinds of problems for herself and her parents. Her parents were worried that she was very anxious about something and asked me if I could help.

Sure enough, the girl arrived in a temper. She was really very angry with her mum and she proceeded to kick her legs and stamp her feet and sat on the floor in the corner of my consultancy room, with her back to us and her hands over her ears.

She shouted repeatedly, ‘I don’t need your help. I can do it myself.’

As her mum told the story of the problem, I noticed that the little girl’s body language became more marked whenever her baby brother was mentioned and so I continued to question her mum about the little brother until we were talking about him almost exclusively.

Sure enough, my client soon stopped shouting, turned around, tried to climb on her mum’s lap and started interjecting herself into the story. After some time, I asked her if she would like to talk about the feelings that she was having in the morning before school and she repeated, more quietly, that she didn’t need my help. She could ‘do it herself.’

I replied that I could see how grown-up and clever she was and that I was absolutely certain that she could do it herself extremely well.  I then went through an elaborate rigmarole of taking out my notebook, asking her questions -  her name, age, the school she attended, her favourite activities – and I made a great show of writing them all down in my book. Right at the end of this I said ‘So could you tell me exactly, just so that I can write it in my book here, when you will have this problem sorted; exactly when you will be able to do it all yourself?’

Quick as a flash, she answered, ‘By tomorrow.’

I wrote that down too, gave her mum a self-hypnosis audio programme to help the client to enjoy deep, refreshing sleep – when, and only when, she would like to use it – we finished the session and arranged that I would call her mum to check in with her the following day. And how wonderful it was to discover that my client had got up, got dressed, had her breakfast and gone happily off to school as if without a care in the world. And this new behavior continued for the next few days, weeks, months. She certainly did do it all her self.

Only the most indirect and conversational hypnosis was used in the session. There was certainly no formal kind of eyes-closed trance.

I often think about that session and just how well it illustrates that a problem itself can be a kind of negative trance-state in which we unconsciously do the things we do, creating all kinds of bad feelings for ourselves. As a therapist, I believe that, when I can meet my client in his or her particular trance, I can then help him or her to shift it and transform it.

If we think about hypnotic trance as a quality of non-conscious attention – sometimes helpful and sometimes not so helpful – that we can naturally find ourselves in at all kinds of times, then this subtly changes our understanding of our role as practitioners and clients of hypnotherapy.

By becoming more consciously aware of that trance thing you’re doing – with your eyes wide open – you can begin to make changes to it, to manipulate it and move it forward.

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