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Clinical Hypnosis Explained -

Phil Harford, LICSW

From the American Association of Clinical Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy:

Hypnosis is a state of inner absorption, concentration and focused attention. It is like using a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun and make them more powerful. Similarly, when our minds are concentrated and focused, we are able to use our minds more powerfully. Because hypnosis allows people to use more of their potential, learning self-hypnosis is the ultimate act of self-control.

While there is general agreement that certain effects of hypnosis exist, there are differences of opinion within the research and clinical communities about how hypnosis works. Some researchers believe that hypnosis can be used by individuals to the degree they possess a hypnotic 

trait, much as they have traits associated with height, body size, hair color, etc. Other professionals who study and use hypnosis believe there are strong cognitive and interpersonal components that affect an individual's response to hypnotic environments and suggestions.

Recent research supports the view that hypnotic communication and suggestions effectively change aspects of the persons physiological and neurological functions. Practitioners use clinical hypnosis in three main ways. First, they encourage the use of imagination. Mental imagery is very powerful, especially in a focused state of attention. The mind seems capable of using imagery, even if it is only symbolic, to assist us in bringing about the things we are imagining. For example, a patient with ulcerative colitis may be asked to imagine what his/her distressed colon looks like. If she imagines it as being like a tunnel, with very red, inflamed walls that are rough in texture, the patient may be encouraged in hypnosis (and in self-hypnosis) to imagine this image changing to a healthy one.

A second basic hypnotic method is to present ideas or suggestions to the patient. In a state of concentrated attention, ideas and suggestions that are compatible with what the patient wants seem to have a more powerful impact on the mind.

Finally, hypnosis may be used for unconscious exploration, to better understand underlying motivations or identify whether past events or experiences are associated with causing a problem. Hypnosis avoids the critical censor of the conscious mind, which often defeats what we know to be in our best interests. The effectiveness of hypnosis appears to lie in the way in which it bypasses the critical observation and interference of the conscious mind, allowing the client's intentions for change to take effect.

Some individuals seem to have higher native hypnotic talent and capacity that may allow them to benefit more readily from hypnosis. It is important to keep in mind that hypnosis is like any other therapeutic modality: it is of major benefit to some patients with some problems, and it is helpful with many other patients, but individual responses vary.

I. Clinical Hypnosis explained

You may wonder how hypnosis, hypnotherapy and guided imagery can actually be of any benefit to you and help you to improve various medical or emotional conditions. First, hypnosis is not stage hypnosis, nor is it mind control.

Hypnosis simply puts you into a normal and natural state of mind that all individuals experience many times throughout the day. It is a state of intense concentration.

Experiencing hypnosis or hypnotherapy is not sleep, unconsciousness, nor mind control, it is simply an altered state of consciousness. Day dreaming for example is another altered state of consciousness, you remain alert and aware of your surroundings but your focus of attention is elsewhere.

Generally experienced as restful and relaxing, it is different to slumber. During hypnosis (the altered state of consciousness) you are aware of your surroundings, hearing sounds, smelling smells, also being aware of movements and in control of your actions. Consciousness is NOT lost, rather it becomes more selective.

It is typical to be more aware of internal processes than in the outside world’s activities and distractions. Contemporary scientific studies show trance is a natural and normal state of mind and like other states, such as alertness or pleasure, which have many different and individual components.

When a therapist uses this very same state in hypnosis to guide and assist you, this becomes therapy – hypnotherapy uses the state of hypnosis as a form of therapy – and anything the therapist says, you can accept or reject freely. Being in the state of hypnosis is not only natural, but it is voluntary, and you are able to speak, hear, and communicate if needed.

Guided imagery or visualization is one aspect of hypnotherapy, where descriptions of images are visualized (or by creating an awareness of what is described) which help you to work through various medical or emotional concerns either by direct suggestion or use of metaphor in the imagery. It is often said that imagery is the language of the subconcious mind. These images may not be “rational” to your conscious mind, but they are symbols that can be very powerful tools in helping to guide you, to taking part in your own healing, and self improvement. Other times, the therapist will give you suggestions to help you on your healing journey. Each person interprets these suggestions, or views the imagery in their own way, according to what is needed by the person at the time – you will experience the very same session differently at different times of listening, and from another individual, because your own subconscious mind knows exactly how to interpret the images or suggestions in the way that is just right and tailor-made for you.

You are always in Control:

It is important to know that your conscious mind has a component that acts as a critic and it operates automatically when you are using your conscious mind. This part of your mind makes sure that anything that is suggested to you is in agreement with your own belief system. You will never do anything that you normally would not want to do, or change your beliefs that you hold dear – you will still be “you.” Your subconscious mind protects you from danger whether real or imagined.

There is a critical factor in your conscious mind that is responsible for keeping you persistent in your current beliefs and thoughts. In order to get past this critical part of the conscious mind, the hypnotherapist uses hypnosis to bypass critical thinking to enter your subconscious mind and to focus it to accept new positive information and change in behavior. If these new thoughts, ideas and suggestions are allowed to enter into your subconscious mind, change and acceptance will occur, and depending upon the condition, within time, you will automatically respond differently or change according to the suggestions.

The content of the suggestions, or the visual images presented and the way it is put together is sometimes called the protocol, and the method by which the protocol is delivered and administered is the process. The same protocol may be delivered by a different process – variations in voice inflection, intonation (delivery), listening pattern and schedules can all influence the outcome.

When you are in the hypnotic state (altered state of consciousness), you will always be protected and will never accept suggestions that are not in your best interest or that you do not really want. For most specified medical conditions, patients truly do want to feel better, or at least be able to cope better with symptoms, so for the vast majority of individuals, clinical hypnotherapy and hypnosis can be very effective in providing symptom reduction and relief. This fortunately is particularly true and gratifying for functional disorders, such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), even when refractory or unmanageable cases where nothing else has helped. And even though for some it may take varying degrees of time to see results, those results are automatic, and long-lasting and require no active effort on your part except for listening and following the schedule.

When you are listening to your hypnotherapist in session, your senses may actually become heightened and your discernment and ability to decide what you will or will not accept in fact is much stronger during this time.

The Brain

The human brain operates within four states of consciousness which actually are levels of electrical activity measured in the form of brainwaves. By taking your brain from the Beta stage which we are in about 90% of the time and holds our logic and reasoning, to enter into either the Alpha or Theta state.

In order to understand this better, here is a summary of these levels of consciousness:


Normal, awake and alert, area of logic and reasoning, registers 14-40 cycles per second, comprises only 12% of our brain’s abilities, stores information or memory, can result in tension and stress if you remain at this level for long periods of time – as you become more stressed, the brain becomes less able to slow down where learning and change can take place.


Optimal level for competition and concentration, and is the most prominent brain rhythm, 9-15 cycles per second, brain functions at optimal level, tranquil, relaxed, and logical, you can add new ideas and thoughts at this level, control your dreams, the level where you are just about to fall asleep.


Deep relaxation and suggestions can take place, with brainwave frequency at about 5-9 cycles per second – occurs during the first 20 minutes as you fall asleep, but before deep sleep.


Complete rest, deep dreamless sleep where healing of both mind and body takes place, 1-5 cycles per second.

The Mind

The Conscious Mind

consists of rational thinking (which many times is incorrect, though still rational – “I have nothing to wear” or “I can’t do that” may be rational, but not always correct thinking!) It gets us through our day, provides our available or functional memory (not all of it), and regulates voluntary bodily function or movements and commands (moving, walking, the act of eating, etc. done on an active conscious level.) Though with all the conscious mind is responsible for, it only comprises 12% of our mental functioning.

The Subconscious Mind

on the other hand is the master and has the most control since it makes up the other 88% of our functioning. It is responsible for most of our bodily functions – heart beating, digestion, blinking, etc. as well as most of our “automatic” or not thought out behavior. By understanding this, we can unlock the power of the mind to help the body. The mind was meant to function at a much higher level, and by using hypnosis you can tap into your own inner resources. Absolutely no effort is needed, but rather you allow yourself to enter into this state of relaxation to reach the subconscious mind, where you are in a receptive state to begin to take on changes and healing.

The subconscious mind has no emotion, does not know the difference between reality or fact, and non-reality, and is able to learn. It keeps you safe, and is what guides you to do things in an automatic way.

How Hypnotherapy and Hypnosis can help the Mind, Body, and Brain all work together.

Whenever you say something to yourself, or have an experience in your conscious mind, your subconscious makes a note of it and holds it to be “true.” Once that belief has taken hold, it becomes a part of you. Hypnosis reaches the subconscious mind to help change unwanted beliefs, behaviors and thoughts. Once the new thoughts have taken hold, they become automatic.

One thing to remember is that hypnosis will not work if you don’t really want change, or you go into it not really thinking it will help – or using inner language that implies to the conscious mind that you don’t really think it will work. But even with that being said, sometimes, with perseverance, hypnosis or hypnotherapy can override these doubts – we have seen change take place even when the individual doubted that hypnosis would be helpful – but it is always better to go into it with an open and receptive mind.

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