As a hypnotherapist this question still fascinates me every day as I try to understand exactly what it is that creates changes in people. Hypnotherapy works in many ways and there are many techniques but I will not be covering these in this article it is the actual mechanics of hypnosis as such that I will be discussing here.
To understand how hypnotherapy works first we must ask ‘what is hypnosis?’ Often I explain to clients that hypnosis is a deep state of mental and physical relaxation and focused awareness that we call ‘trance’, you are in control, can hear all that I’m saying to you but the subconscious mind is more open and receptive to those suggestions that you receive in that state. This is true but what exactly is it that is going on inside the brain to make this happen?
I have read a number of times that the brain waves change in a state of hypnosis. Brain waves change from Gamma, an active state of high cognitive functioning through Beta which are also fast brain waves in our active alert state then slowing into Alpha waves which occur when we are more relaxed. Hypnosis occurs in Theta state, this is a slow calm relaxed state which allows us to access the subconscious mind. Delta waves are the slowest, those of deep restful sleep. In most hypnotherapy sessions I see people moving through these states usually resting somewhere between alpha and theta and sometimes slipping down into delta.
We can see that there are changes occurring but we would all enter these different states of brain wave activity without necessarily being in a state of hypnosis. We are all familiar with daydreaming for example which is a natural state of trance that occurs.
I want to look further still at what is happening within the areas of the brain during hypnosis. It is only recently that we have been able to consider this and measure this as modern technology has advanced and especially the use of MRI scans to look at brain function. Recent studies by David Spiegel at Stanford discovered there were 3 hallmarks of the brain under hypnosis. It is the first two of these that are relevant to my practice and which I will discuss here. The first is that there is a decrease in activity in an area called the dorsal anterior cingulate, part of the brains salience network. This means you are so absorbed in hypnosis you’re not worrying about anything else. Secondly, they noted an increase in connections between two other areas of the brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula. Spiegel described this as a brain-body connection that helps the brain process and control what’s going on in the body.
The first change would account for the intense mental relaxation and calmness experienced during hypnotherapy . It is this deep mental calmness that can be used to overcome anxieties. If you can tap into that calmness even for just a short while you know it is possible and this is incredibly useful for facilitating positive change.
The second change in brain activity could help to explain the mechanism of how hypnotherapy can be used to affect physiological states. Hypnotherapy has been shown to be effective for lowering blood pressure, relieving IBS, changing the pain response and a myriad of other physical conditions. This new finding may well help us understand how this happens.
So apologies if that’s all a bit technical but I love science, I love knowing how things work and why things work especially the mind. I’m glad science is taking hypnotherapy away from the myths and misunderstandings that stage hypnosis has brought to it and is moving it to where it should be at the forefront of psychology.
One last point though before I finish this look into ‘How does hypnotherapy work?’ We have looked into the ‘hypno’ part of hypnotherapy but how about the ‘therapy’ part. Here I refer not to the techniques used once someone is in a state of hypnosis but rather simply the conscious talking part of a session. That being the trusting, open, non-judgmental space that is created. The space that is held so the client can talk through the issues that have brought them here. Talking through things increases awareness which in turn helps people understand their thoughts and feelings in relation to the problem. It is often this part of the hypnotherapy session that is as valuable and effective in creating positive changes than the hypnosis part itself. This great combination is what Hypnotherapy is and how hypnotherapy works.
I hope you found this interesting. I welcome your thoughts and questions. Best wishes Helen