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The Power of Hypnosis

Author: Dierdre Barrett

Date Published:
Publisher: Psychology Today

Studies show that hypnosis can treat everything from chronic pain to poor study habits. Chances are, it can work for you.

Nancy Jordan sat down in my office and lit a cigarette - a deadly habit, given her severe asthma and tobacco allergies. Jonathan Hunter, M.D. - my supervisor, her psychotherapist - was also in the room. He wanted to attend Nancy's first hypnotherapy session to put the shy college sophomore at ease. I knew he was also eager to observe hypnosis. "Hunter," as he was known, was supervising my graduate school psychotherapy program. Although Hunter was no hypnotist, I had taken a hypnosis course and had been practicing on volunteers for a semester. We agreed that he would direct me on general psychological aspects of Nancy's treatment, my first hypnotherapy case.

I positioned my chair at a 90-degree angle to the recliner in which my young patient sat. I asked Nancy to look up at the ceiling, where four porous tiles intersected in a neat point. I have yet to encounter a hypnotist who uses a swinging gold pocket watch. Instead, we ask clients to gaze at a steady object to block distracting visual stimuli.

"Stare at the point on the ceiling and let your breathing become slow and deep. Let your body begin to relax, starting with the muscles of your feet and toes. Let your thighs relax; let all tension flow out of your legs." I gradually slowed my voice as I spoke to subliminally cue her breathing to slow down. "As you continue to stare at the point on the ceiling, your eyelids become heavier, as if a weight were attached, pulling them gently down. You may notice the point starting to move or change color; that will be a sign that you are beginning to go into hypnosis. Each time you blink, it gets harder to open your eyes. Soon they will close completely, and you will sink into a peaceful, sleeplike state." Nancy looked drowsy, and her eyes began to droop.

At that point I glanced over at Hunter to see what he thought of the induction. The worst reaction my insecure imagination could conjure was mild disapproval, but what I saw was infinitely more dismaying: My big, rangy supervisor sat slumped in his chair. His eyes were closed, muscles lax, breathing barely detectable.

I stalled as I wondered what to do next. I could just proceed, but I had no idea how Hunter, a nonsmoker, would respond to my commands about Nancy's smoking. What if he woke, thinking he did smoke? I decided to bring both Nancy and Hunter out of the trance. She gradually opened her eyes as his popped open. After a moment of confusion, he quickly affected a look of exaggerated nonchalance. I made another appointment with Nancy, and she went on her way.

"You were out cold!" I announced to Hunter the instant the door closed behind her.

He looked perplexed again. "I think I dozed off. I remember you saying my eyes would close - er, I mean, her eyes would close. Maybe I was hypnotized."

Can you be hypnotized? Most people like to think that they can't. There is often the suspicion that being hypnotized could label them as being weak-willed, naïve or unintelligent. But in fact, modern research shows that hypnotizability is correlated with intelligence, concentration and focus. Hypnosis is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, but rather a continuum. Most people can be hypnotized to some degree - the only question is how far.