The Multi-Layered Nature of Hypnosis

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“What is Hypnosis” Describe the psychological and physical aspects of hypnosis and discuss the role of relaxation in Hypnotherapy

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Hypnosis is a complex concept. Forms of hypnosis have been around for thousands of years, with a more detailed historical account of the development and practice of modern hypnosis being available largely from the 18th Century onwards. No one definition of what we understand under the term hypnosis is exactly the same, in the same way as no patient who considers hypnosis as treatment is going to be the same, or will experience hypnosis in exactly the same way as others. Academic and theoretic debates about whether hypnosis is a real or imagined phenomenon have been long standing.

This essay explores the question of what hypnosis is by taking a look at a brief historical account of hypnosis and how this has influenced the modern theory and practice. The essay will describe the various psychological and physical aspects of hypnosis and detail hypnotic techniques and delivery, taking a look at the key ingredients of suggestion and trance to help us understand the nature of hypnosis. We will also consider what role relaxation in particular plays in the hypnotic process and hypnotherapy, before concluding.

A brief history of hypnosis

Ancient history accounts for examples of hypnosis as early as 2000 BC when Egyptian priests were using techniques of hypnotic induction in death and rebirth rituals in ‘Sleep Temples’. The ancient Greeks also practiced a form of hypnosis and healing in sacred temples. In India yogis have used self-hypnosis as a tool to quieten the mind during meditation for thousands of years. [1]

It is generally thought that modern history of hypnosis began with Franz Anton Mesmer (1733-1815), an Austrian doctor who used magnets and the notion of transferring ‘cosmic fluid’ in order to cure illness. As there was no scientific evidence to his work but he was relatively successful, it is believed that patients virtually were ‘mesmerised into the belief and expectation that they would be cured’. Mesmerism, hence, shows a very clear relation to hypnotic suggestion, a key ingredient of the hypnotic process and trance. Mesmer’s disciple, de Puysegur, made a further significant discovery that patients frequently entered a sleep like state during treatment but were still able to respond to the suggestions of the mesmerist. He had come across the concept of the hypnotic trance but did not name it as such. [5]

Many proponents of hypnosis followed Mesmer, among them in Victorian times John Elliotson and James Esdale who pioneered the use of hypnosis for relieve of pain during often very lengthy operations, and John Braid (1795-1860) who coined the phrase ‘hypnosis’, in reference to the Greek god of sleep Hypnos.

In modern times, the most notable names involved in hypnosis were Sigmund Freud who through the use of hypnosis, some argue, made his most important discovery - the role of the unconscious - the central theme in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, and Milton Erickson who is often referred to as the father of (post)modern hypnotherapy because of his hugely influential work in the use of indirect hypnotic techniques. [2]

Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy definitions

The British Medical Association’s definition is one that focuses closely on underlining the psychological and physical aspects of hypnosis:

‘A temporary condition of altered attention in the subject, which may be induced by another person and in which a variety of phenomena may appear spontaneously or in response to verbal or other stimuli. These phenomena include alterations in consciousness and memory, increased susceptibility to suggestion, and the production in the subject of responses and ideas unfamiliar to him in his usual state of mind. Further, phenomena such as anaesthesia, paralysis and rigidity of muscles, and vasomotor...
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