This guest post was written by Professional Help’s Head of Counselling Joanna Williams; MA, Advanced Diploma in Counselling and Psychotherapy, MNCS (Accred), MNHS.
The Reluctant Hypnotherapist
Back in Autumn 2013, I found myself sitting in a circle of people in a hotel conference room, at the beginning of the thirty classes and three years that would turn me into a psychotherapeutic counsellor.
The tutor explained we’d be learning hypnotherapy in our first year and asked how many of us weren’t interested in that and were ‘just’ there to become counsellors. About half of the hands in the room went up. Mine included.
Most of the others in the room seemed to be a bit like me: they’d had a different career but now they wanted to ‘make a difference’ or ‘give something back’. These ambitions were confessed, of course, with a fair bit of British embarrassment, as though it was corny as anything to want to help people.
Up to this point I’d spent my adult life working in sales, a profession I’d never planned to end up in but one which had had its perks: not just a good salary and benefits, but an adjacent great social life with like-minded young people, as a result of which I’d forged some strong friendships. I’d also gained a lot of experience in working with people; getting to know their tics and tells, hearing their stories and learning to coach and help employees reach their goals. Although as I sat in that classroom in 2013 it felt like I was starting on a very different road, as it turned out some of the skills I already had would help me in my new career.
Where hypnotherapy was concerned, I wasn’t a skeptic exactly; I just didn’t know much about it. Like most people, I guess, when you mentioned hypnosis I thought of Paul McKenna, maybe Derren Brown, and those ‘comedy’ stage hypnotists. I resolved to keep an open mind, but the truth was, I was impatient to get onto the ‘real’ counselling.
Four years on, I’m practising as a hypnotherapist and boy, did I not see that coming. My conversion had a simple cause: I found out that hypnotherapy works.
(Now, it’s not a magic wand, and it ‘works’ better for some issues than others, in my opinion – but more on that later).
As we started to learn, I found that I knew a lot of the theory already. In the first of many throwbacks to my sales career (which I was still in, though as it would turn out, not for much longer – again more later), I remembered excellent training on topics like ‘Mastering your Motivation’ and ‘The Power of Belief’. I already knew about different states of consciousness; visualising success; visual, auditory and kinaesthetic preferences. The language was familiar, the theory made sense, and as we practised, any apprehension I’d had about the experience of hypnosis fell away.
So what does hypnosis actually mean and where does it come from? It seems some of the earliest civilisations used practices that could be compared to hypnosis, but the modern form has its roots in the 18th century with Franz Mesmer (hence ‘mesmerism’), and its most famous practitioner was Milton Erickson, a 20th century psychiatrist and renowned expert in states of consciousness. The word itself is derived from ‘hypnos’, the Greek word for sleep, although this is misleading: hypnotic trance is not the same as sleep, but is in fact an induced state somewhere between ‘alert’ and ‘asleep’.
Here is a little bit of myth-busting about being in a trance:
- You are in control at all times. I’ve had clients report that they simultaneously felt that they couldn’t raise their arms or open their eyes, and knew that if they really wanted to, they could. You can bring yourself out of trance at any time.
- You can’t be made to do something you don’t want to do! Hypnotherapy helps you to access your own subconscious. No-one is going to make you walk like a chicken…unless you want to, of course.
- Being in a trance is a perfectly natural state, one that many of us drift in and out of all the time, for example when exercising, or doing a familiar task, or just before we fall asleep.
Hypnotherapy is, as the name suggests, a combination of hypnosis and therapy. This is important: I don’t just meet someone and immediately ‘put them under’! I get to know them, listen to them and tailor my work to suit them as an individual. It’s a useful technique in the wider therapeutic toolbox, and now that I’ve been practising for a couple of years I can share what I’ve learned about the areas in which it works particularly well:
Anxiety: hypnotherapy involves a state of deep relaxation. It can work on anxiety in two ways: learning to control the physical symptoms (quickened pulse, shallow breathing, trembling) and defeating the negative self-talk that perpetuates the vicious anxiety cycle.
Habits: we continue with our unwanted habits because at some level, they serve a purpose. They’re a coping mechanism, and they’ve worked. Our subconscious holds onto this as much as our conscious mind says we want to stop. Hypnotherapy is a way of talking to the subconscious and giving it some new, more helpful beliefs.
Phobias: most phobias were triggered by an initial sensitizing event, often in childhood. Logic and reasoning doesn’t work to overcome phobias because the powerful subconscious is determined to keep you away from the object that it believes will do you harm. Many phobias can be ‘cured’ with just one session of hypnotherapy.
(I will write in more detail about each of the above, and more, in future blogs)
I love hypnotherapy because it’s goal-focused and it’s empowering. This is not hocus-pocus; these are practical techniques anyone can learn (which is why, generally, I don’t see clients for the long term – it’s my job to equip them to help themselves). In fact most of us already use hypnotic techniques every day, in our self-talk and in our daydreams. I’ve used it on myself for everything from running to creative writing to general positive thinking and visualisation of success. Four years on from that first class, my daydreams have become a reality: I left my day job to pursue a different life, and I’m now a published author and qualified therapist.
I’m not saying learning to use the power of the subconscious made these things happen – but it didn’t hurt.
I’m no longer self-conscious about saying I want to help people. I do help people, and I love it. And I don’t mind admitting that it helps me, too: my work with clients reminds me to remain grounded, makes me feel safe and at peace – my own subconscious soaks up a little of the positive messages, and they’re powerful.
If I’d known all of this in that classroom 4 years ago? There’s no way I’d have raised my hand.