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What really happens in the mind during hypnosis? How does it work?

Let’s take the mystery out of hypnosis. It is a completely natural state of mind. Although you may not have been formally hypnotized before, you have experienced this state of mind countless times. You’ll understand that better when you know what it is that really happens in your mind during hypnosis.

For the moment, imagine dividing your mind into two parts. One is the conscious mind, those things you are fully aware of and focusing on at any given moment, and the second is the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind works like a giant tape recorder. Every good or traumatic experience we’ve ever had in our lives is permanently stored there. Of course, it would be too much trivia to be constantly aware of, so you can think of it as a filing system that is accessible to us with hypnosis and other methods.

The subconscious mind also controls those bodily functions over which we do not need to exercise conscious control like heart rate, breathing, digestion, and so forth. With practice, you can gain the ability to bring many of these “involuntary” bodily functions under your voluntary control.

Imagine, if you will, a filter, screen, or network which lies over the subconscious mind. I will call it the critical factor. You can think of it as a kind of protective mechanism so that every single thing we are exposed to does not become accepted as truth by the subconscious mind and become acted upon. In hypnosis, we are purposely bypassing the critical factor of the mind so that ideas that are beneficial to us can make a deep and lasting impression on the subconscious mind. In hypnosis, the critical factor of the mind merely becomes less active through a variety of methods, but it never disappears. It is simply less active, and it will return to full activity should any suggestion be presented which your mind did not deem to be in its best interest. You are not a blank slate in hypnosis, and you will not accept just any suggestion which is presented.

Think about some time when you were watching a sad movie, and maybe you were crying or at least feeling some emotions were coming up. The critical factor was still active enough that you knew it was just a movie, and yet it wasn’t bombarding you with interfering thoughts like “Why are you crying? This lady is not dead. You saw her on the Today Show this morning.” And yet, if your partner taps you on the shoulder and asks you if you want some popcorn, you can turn and respond and then instantly return to the movie and be right back into it again. We go into and out of our subconscious mind all day long. Every time we are involved in some creative endeavor, every time we daydream, every time we get wrapped up in our emotions, every time we drive along in our car and suddenly realize we don’t remember the last mile we drove, every time we are acting out of some previously formed habit.

It is estimated that we spend between 50 and 80% of our waking hours in our subconscious minds. I like to remind people that when we enter into that state of mind we call hypnosis, that we are not going into uncharted territory where no human has ever set foot before. It is a common and completely natural state of mind that we have all experienced countless times before; we just didn’t call it hypnosis.

How do I know I can even be hypnotized?

Since hypnosis is a completely natural state of mind, there is no such thing as a person who cannot be hypnotized. If a person is not comfortable with the goals of the therapy or with the person conducting the hypnosis, then they might not allow themselves to follow the instructions to reach that natural state.

Will I know what is going on while I am hypnotized?

Absolutely! Hypnosis has nothing to do with being asleep or unconscious in any way. You hear everything, remember everything, and know exactly what’s going on the entire time. You are always in control.

I have seen stage shows where a person who was hypnotized did a lot of crazy and silly things. Will that happen to me?

Absolutely not. When a person goes up on the stage to participate in an entertainment show of hypnosis, they have a certain contract in mind. They know that they are going to be asked to do a lot of silly things, and they agree to that at some level of their mind. If we were to bring the “star of the show” to my office for some clinical purpose, they would not respond to any of the suggestions which they had responded to when they were in the entertainment setting. The context in which the hypnosis is taking place and the understood purpose of the hypnosis in the individual’s mind always determine the type of responses that can be elicited. You can not be caused to do anything in hypnosis that you would not ordinarily do. And, of course, in a clinical setting, all suggestions would pertain precisely to the goal of you gaining more and more control in your life and accomplishing the changes you were seeking help with.

What will I feel like when I am hypnotized?

Actually, everyone has a different subjective experience, so I can only give you some of the common reports. Some people liken it to the peaceful feeling they have just upon awakening on a morning when they don’t have to get up right away. They are fully aware of where they are and what’s going on, but it’s just very peaceful and relaxing to lie there, sort of a grey area between waking and sleeping. Most individuals think that hypnosis should be more like the state of deep sleep itself where we are not consciously aware of anything. They expect to “wake up” from hypnosis as they would from a sound sleep. Since we are never ‘asleep” in hypnosis, we don’t need to “wake up” from it. It is simply a very comfortable and natural state of mind which we enter into and then come back out of.

Think of it this way. If we gathered a group of people around a swimming pool and asked them to enter into the water, we would see a wide variety of methods. Some would dive right in. Some would head down the steps at the edge of the pool, while others would test the waters gently with their big toe. The same is true with a group of people entering into hypnosis. Some will dive right in and enjoy a deeper quality of relaxation than they ever have before in their entire lives, and they will love it. Others will just gently test the shallow waters. The point is, it doesn’t matter which you do. You only need a light to medium state of hypnosis to bring about positive behavioral change.