The unconscious subconscious

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Exploring the depths of the subconscious and the power of tapping into it.

By Rebecca Koch

Whenever I think of hypnosis, I’m reminded of the iconic line heard on television shows and movie screens for decades: “You are getting sleepy, very sleepy.” I imagine awkward high school kids doing things they’d never do if not under the guise of some kind of “mind control.” I’ve never considered the possible benefits, let alone the reality behind hypnosis.

What exactly is hypnosis? Does it actually work? And how is it helpful?

“People try to use logic to think about their troubles, and oftentimes the more we think about them, the more worried we become, and the more we become tied up in knots,” says Donald Moss, Ph.D., dean of the College of Integrative Health Sciences at Saybrook University and president of the Society for Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis. “One of the principles of hypnosis is to invite people to surrender that ego control. Hypnosis is more about the experience. If a person allows themselves to be open, things begin to emerge and surface in their mind.”

And in a clinical sense, it can do a lot of good.

“Hypnosis has a lot of different uses, with a lot of different clinical applications,” says Eric Willmarth, Ph.D., co-chair of the Psychophysiology Department at Saybrook University and president-elect of the American Psychological Association’s Society of Psychological Hypnosis. “It’s important to remember, though, that hypnosis by itself is not a treatment. Instead, it can enhance treatment you’re already using.”

For anyone who has meditated, the beginning process of hypnosis isn’t too unfamiliar. Both require concentration and relaxation, but there’s a key difference between the two.

“Unlike meditation—which is more about opening up your consciousness to the whole universe—hypnosis is more of a focused attention on a small area,” Dr. Willmarth explains. “With meditation, everything fades away because you just want to relax the mind and let anything come in. However, hypnosis is used for a certain reason—a person needs to get to a state where he or she is more open to suggestion.”

A bad reputation

Another area where meditation and hypnosis differ? Their reputation. While the media has given meditation a warm welcome, hypnosis hasn’t received the same. Whether used by villains to brainwash their victims, or by creepy doctors who later turn out to be the villains (who can forget that hypnosis scene in Get Out?), hypnosis hasn’t received the best representation in the media—a reason for its waning popularity over the years.

And stage hypnosis—where Dr. Willmarth actually had his first exposure to the practice—doesn’t do the field any favors. The baggage associated with hypnosis is heavy. But these preconceived notions can actually positively influence how hypnosis affects patients.

There’s been movements of sorts to change the name—whether it be mindfulness or even guided imagery. Yet the word hypnosis still has power with patients.

“In stage hypnosis, it’s the hypnotist’s job to entertain the audience. The person being hypnotized isn’t really the subject; they’re more of a prop. On the other hand, in clinical practice when hypnosis is used, the patient is the subject and all the things the hypnotist says to them, called suggestions, are designed to be helpful in some way,” Dr. Willmarth says. “There’s been movements of sorts to change the name—whether it be mindfulness or even guided imagery. Yet the word hypnosis still has power with patients. People are a little scared of it, but they also attribute it to some magical power that kind of elicits a placebo response. I’ve seen that the effects are better when calling it hypnosis than when calling it mindfulness, even though the exact same script was used.”

The suggestions hypnotists say to a patient when they’re in their trance can range from the benign to the more serious, such as breaking a bad habit, helping someone quit smoking cigarettes, recover repressed traumatic memories, or deal with anxiety. Dr. Willmarth himself focuses extensively on pain management. He uses hypnosis to avoid adding more medication to someone’s regimen due to either already heavy pill use from another condition or past drug abuse.

“The brain has the capacity to shut down pain,” Dr. Willmarth says. “It’s fascinating. When someone’s been hypnotized, we can look on functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs) to measure brain activity and actually see changes in different brain structures when using different suggestions.”

Dr. Willmarth practices what he preaches, undergoing medical procedures without anesthesia, choosing to instead hypnotize himself. Dr. Moss tells me that his wife gave birth to her three children using only hypnosis in the 1960s. It may sound unconventional, but as women turned away from heavy anesthesia during the 1950s and 60s for childbirth, some practiced hypnosis for pain management.

A 2000 study by Harvard Medical School found that patients who were hypnotized rather than given anesthesia had shorter procedures, reduced pain, and fewer complications. Some reports have even shown cost benefits to hospitals.

A wealth of research with proven benefits

While the research on hypnosis is nowhere near scant, it hasn’t received the same support that other methods of studying consciousness have, such as dream work, meditation, and psychedelic drugs. In September 2019, John Hopkins Medicine announced the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research—the first of its kind in the U.S., established with $17 million in donations.

“We've always been fascinated with expanding our abilities and tapping into other forms of knowledge or wisdom,” Dr. Willmarth says. “In the 60s, people used LSD to expand consciousness (though unfortunately, it had some really negative side effects). And you see some people who can lucid dream, or even enter a psychotic state. They’ll recover and talk about creativity and imagination.”

There’s two things that hypnosis has over dream work and psychedelics though: a greater accessibility and a natural effect.

“I think what’s appealing about methods such as biofeedback and hypnosis is that you’re able to do it naturally—training the brain to make its own transitions without having to artificially do it. We can get to healthier states using brainwave training,” Dr. Willmarth says.

When elaborating on the kind of effect hypnosis can have on the brain, Dr. Willmarth evokes an image of a grandmother running two miles holding her grandkids to get to safety—it’s something she never would’ve been capable of doing without adrenaline and necessity.

Not many universities have a full training program in hypnosis these days—probably less than 10 around the entire country.

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine—under the leadership of David Spiegel, M.D., a professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences—have published studies about hypnosis. One explores the areas of the brain that are altered during hypnotic trances; another shows how the brains of people who are able to be hypnotized are different from the ones of those who can’t. Yet no centers in major research universities are dedicated to the study of hypnosis.

Enter Saybrook. For decades, Saybrook has valued exploring states of consciousness by examining a person’s whole psychology. As part of the Clinical and Applied Hypnosis Certificate, students from across the university—in fields including psychology, social work, counseling, physical therapy, and nutrition—find value in adding this skill to their practice.

“I would say Saybrook is special,” Dr. Moss says. “Not many universities have a full training program in hypnosis these days—probably less than 10 around the entire country. We are fortunate at Saybrook that our students—from a variety of disciplines—have access to this training.”

While the popularity is always in flux, Dr. Moss has indeed seen a change in openness to hypnosis. When he first started practicing, he had people walk out of his office after seeing hypnosis books on his shelves. Today, he’s more likely to get questions and engage in conversation.

“I think there’s a greater acceptance in talking about mental health and self-care. Human beings today are more open, and they’re looking for answers. And hypnosis is one of those answers,” Dr. Moss says. “People are looking for meaning, and if we try to logically force people to analyze, again we tie ourselves in knots. With hypnosis we can often experience a deeper meaning to the problems we face and the experiences we have and overcoming the problems.”

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