Your eyes are not getting sleepy. You are not clucking like a chicken or quacking like a duck. You will not feel the sudden urge to divulge your deepest, darkest secrets, or be inspired to take off on a rampant crime spree like Bonnie and Clyde. But you may just find your hand levitating eerily above your lap. I did.
When I walked into Stephen Fay’s Rhinebeck office I had no expectations, but was still remarkably apprehensive. While our conversation several days prior had provided me with an in-depth picture of hypnosis and its use in psychotherapy, I still felt unsure of what I was about to experience. Shortly after my arrival, I found myself sitting across from Fay on a checkered sofa, clammy hands planted firmly atop my lap. He did not swing a watch in front of my face — he just talked. And within a few minutes I was staring intently at my left hand, comfortably relaxed and fuzzy, as though halfway between asleep and awake (which is appropriately called a hypnagogic state). My breathing was slow and deep, and my eyes felt big and wide, though I could see nothing outside of my hand. When I realized that my left hand was no longer touching my knee, I clasped it suddenly with my right as though it were about to float away. With a laugh I looked at Fay, who was smiling knowingly. I had entered my first trance; it was admittedly a scary and wondrous thing.
Hypnosis is defined as an induced altered state of consciousness characterized by physical relaxation, heightened suggestibility, and focused attention. Its earliest incarnations are credited to James Braid, a Scottish physician, and Franz Mesmer, the father of “animal magnetism.” Over the past century its therapeutic applications have been explored and expounded upon by many prestigious physicians, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists, including Sigmund Freud, Pierre Janet, and Milton Erickson, the founder of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis.
Today, hypnosis is used as a tool in many fields, from medicine and dentistry to psychotherapy. Robert Pargament of the Westchester Hypnosis Center, a hypnotist for almost 20 years, sees people for anxiety, smoking cessation, weight loss, phobias, sports and test performance, nervous compulsions, and even heartbreak. Pargament adds that hypnosis has even been proven highly effective in reducing the need for anesthesia in surgery and in minimizing the pain of childbirth.
Pretty remarkable, indeed. But how does it work? Pargament suggests you think of the human mind as a computer. Our operating system is the conscious mind, which organizes the world for our thought process so we can function. The subconscious mind is like the hard drive, a constantly spinning disc that stores our emotional memory. “These two — the conscious and subconscious — often conflict. Your conscious mind says, ‘No cake, it’s bad for me.’ But your subconscious mind has an emotional memory of cake as a treat when you were upset as a child. The subconscious usually wins,” Pargament explains. “Hypnosis quiets the subconscious mind, and may even change what it’s saying. In hypnosis the subconscious can absorb new info.”
Fay, a practicing psychotherapist for over 20 years, expands upon the psychological impact: “When we consciously try to affect something or control it, we’re only accessing a very small bit of what we can do. Hypnosis is the vehicle that allows us to tap into some of our more dormant subconscious. It offers us more options for processing, dealing, feeling, and emoting.”
There are a number of ways to induce hypnosis. The whirling dervishes of Turkey spin in circles to induce a trance, while Mongolian shamans bang on large drums. Western methods tend to be far more clinical. Pargament utilizes several techniques including progressive relaxation, which relies on talking and breathing; an acupressure tapping method called Emotional Freedom Therapy (EFT); an audiovisual simulator that produces pulsating light and sound; and self-hypnosis. Fay practices a different form of hypnotic intervention known as hypnotherapy, characterized by a lack of formal induction technique, and used specifically in a psychotherapeutic capacity. “It’s a conversational approach that utilizes what the client is focusing on,” he explains. “It’s paying attention to cues and language, to match that so that there’s a hypnotic blending in what’s being said by the client and what’s being said back. I pay attention to metaphors they use, their body language, their responsiveness, and their mood. I amplify it, and they go into a trance state organically.”
Though Pargament, a hypnotist, and Fay, a hypnosis-utilizing psychotherapist (Fay does not distinguish himself as a “hypnotherapist,” for while hypnosis permeates his practice, it is not his sole modality), differ in style and approach, they were able to help me dispel some of the biggest myths surrounding hypnosis, a widely misunderstood practice.
Myth: Hypnosis is a form of mind control.
Fact: “Hypnosis has nothing to do with mind control,” says Fay. “It’s a cooperative venture that takes place between a therapist and an individual.” Pargament agrees. “People cannot be brainwashed by a hypnotist. You cannot be made to do something that you wouldn’t normally do, that’s not in your belief system, because your conscious mind is still active.” Because the state of hypnosis calls upon your own subconscious, a hypnotist would be unable to force errant or uncharacteristic thoughts or behaviors upon you. “You can’t suddenly be convinced to go rob a bank,” Pargament says, quickly adding with a laugh, “unless that was something you were already apt to do.”
Stage hypnosis (unfortunately the most widespread public conceptualization of the practice), during which a seemingly unwitting audience participant ends up clucking around like a proud hen, is nothing more than most stage acts — a sleight of hand. Often the participant is prescreened, or selected by the stage hypnotist after certain compliant or extroverted characteristics are witnessed. If the observed hypnosis is not entirely coached or staged, the resultant silly behavior is not necessarily evidence of the hypnotist’s “control” over the participant. “The participant opened their mind to silly activity when they agreed to walk on stage,” explains Pargament. Which brings us to our next myth…
Myth: Hypnosis is something done to you.
Fact: “For hypnosis to be effective it has to be a collaborative effort,” emphasizes Fay. “If someone comes in with a passive expectation that ‘You’re going to fix me, so just hypnotize and change me,’ that doesn’t work. It comes down to hypnosis being a tool for an expansion of how you yourself do things. There’s got to be an active participation.” That active participation is willingness or desire to change or learn, and a certain amount of letting go.
This emphasis on collaboration and its profound effects on the psyche is why hypnosis is most often used therapeutically. For Fay, hypnosis organically promotes the essence of good therapy — the reciprocity that develops between therapist and client. “There is the capacity for therapist and client to link up and connect on a level that allows for the intimate exchange of ideas that get past the limitations and conscious defensive barriers we tend to operate from,” he explains. “Hypnosis works to disarm that stuff and allows for people to get to another level of experience or understanding by expanding the possibilities.”
Myth: Hypnosis is a game or a party trick.
Fact: “Hypnosis is not something to dally with,” insists Fay. “You have to make sure someone has adequate training. Trance has the potential to open doors, and you’d hope that if those doors open, the person you’re working with has the wherewithal to deal with that appropriately.”
It was several years ago that Fay encountered this firsthand in his practice when a middle-aged woman came to him to stop smoking. As she went into trance she started to enter into the same dissociative state she would as a child whilst being abused. “If I didn’t have the therapeutic training, that could have turned out very badly for her,” Fay recalls.
Myth: The state of hypnosis or trance is a supernatural or preternatural experience.
Fact: “Hypnosis is a naturally occurring state we can all experience, and do experience. We naturally enter this state when we daydream or when we’re driving down a road we’ve driven a million times,” explains Pargament. Fay agrees: “Hypnosis is just the utilization of everyday experience in a different way.” A trance-like state can be entered into unknowingly when reading a book, watching a movie, or while zoning out in a waiting room or at your desk. While there can be a visual component to a trance (colors or patterns may be enhanced), it is pretty certain you will not see ghosts or zombies, or turn into one yourself.