Imagery typically is used as part of clinical hypnosis, but effective hypnosis therapy can also be provided without use of imagery.
When imagery is used, patients can be taught to imagine themselves
- In a calm, safe location as a way of achieving a peaceful state of mind. Such imagery is useful in the treatment of anxiety or its associated conditions such as those causing development or perpetuation of physical symptoms.
- In a future wherein a troubling issue no longer bothers them. For example, after imagining a future with minimal anxiety, patients might explore what steps need to be taken in the present in order to manifest such a future.
- In a future wherein they have mastered a skill, such as a dance movement. This can provide patients with confidence, following motivational author William Arthur Ward’s principle, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it.”
Patients can be prompted to imagine what they can see, hear, smell, feel, and taste in their imagination. Induction of the imagination prompts activation of the brain centers that perceive each of the senses, and thus attention to each of the senses leads to a “whole brain” experience that some patients report feels real. The ability to experience imagined scenes as real is one of the characteristics of individuals who are highly hypnotizable.
However, there are a significant number of individuals who report that they cannot imagine well in their “mind’s eye.” Nonetheless, clinical hypnosis can be adapted so that it can be used effectively with such patients.
I happen to be an expert in such hypnotic adaptation, as while I have been able to facilitate hypnosis for thousands of patients who have an excellent ability to use imagery, I do not have such an ability. I recall my extreme frustration in my college Organic Chemistry classes because of my inability to rotate images of molecules in my mind. Fortunately, I have nonetheless been able to utilize hypnosis for great benefit in my own life.
Like with the use of imagery, note that in the following examples of non-imagery methods, achievement of a hypnotic state involves altering the state of consciousness from the “here and now” to a state in which people are more receptive to suggestion.
Change “Can” to “Might”
Sometimes, patients wonder what they should do if they cannot imagine a particular sense. Such patients can be reassured that imagining how something “might” be perceived can be as helpful as asking themselves what they “can” perceive.
Patients can be instructed to look straight ahead, and then roll their eyes back as if they are trying to look through the top of their head, without movement of their head. They are then told to close their eyelids slowly and told that this allows them to enter a hypnotic state.
Focus on Movement
Borrowing from meditation practices, a hypnotic state can be achieved by focusing on a repetitive movement. For example, patients can be taught to focus for several minutes on the sensation of air moving in and out of their nostrils as they inhale and exhale slowly. Alternatively, patients can closely observe movement of trees or leaves in a breeze, or the rhythm of waves lapping a shoreline.
Focus on a Spot
Staring at a spot on the wall or at a coin held between the thumb and index fingers, especially when attention is fixed on a spot above eyelevel, can lead into a state of hypnosis. Patients can be encouraged to allow their eyelids to close as they feel heavier during such a staring exercise. The natural tendency for eyelids to fatigue while staring augments this type of hypnotic induction.
Focusing on a single thought can also be hypnotic. Patients can be taught to fill their mind with a loving thought that they direct toward a specific individual, groups of individuals, or even the world at large. Examples of such thoughts include a wish for success, a prayer for well-being, or gratitude for the existence of others. Another form of directed thought involves repeating a mantra such as “Om.”
Patients may recognize such directed thoughts as commonly used techniques to achieve and maintain a meditative state. However, while people who meditate can be instructed to continue with the single thought throughout a session to clear their minds, patients who are doing hypnosis add the use of suggestions, including self-suggestions, to help promote change in themselves.
Listening to a Story
When patients become engrossed in a long story or engaging movie, they often enter a hypnotic state. Evidence of this phenomenon is when people lose track of time during such experiences.
Silencing the Mind
Some people are able to achieve a hypnotic state by pausing their thinking process and listening carefully for input from their inner voice that emanates from their subconscious.
Once patients achieve a hypnotic state with non-imagery techniques, they can be given hypnotic suggestions. For example, patients might be told that they can
- Achieve a similar state of calm by employing a hand symbol, such as a peace sign, or by taking a deep breath utilizing the diaphragm. Such breathing is associated with the belly rising during inhalation, while the chest wall muscles do not move much.
- Use positive affirmations such as, “I want to be able to think more clearly during stressful situations,” or “I can develop more discipline that will allow me to better complete my assigned tasks.”
Take Home Message
Almost every person who wants to learn how to use hypnosis can be taught how to achieve a hypnotic state with techniques that may or may not utilize imagery.
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