Background to Theory
Most of you reading this I’m sure, will be familiar with those stage hypnotists seen on the television and in the media, or even down at your local pub, but Clinical Hypnotherapy is quite another matter, and it is by no means a new phenomenon, in fact the use of hypnotherapy and hypnosis to solve emotional and psychological problems; in other words therapeutically, dates back as far as 1779, with Franz Anton Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism, later referred to as mesmerism.
We are still learning about how the mind works as oppose to the brain, and although Clinical Hypnotherapists have been practising for a long time using tried and tested methods, there are still a number of theories as to what the state of hypnosis actually is, and how it works.
I feel that having some theoretical background knowledge about these theories plays an important part in the successful outcome of the process, and its ongoing usefulness for any individual that wants to use it. I am therefore, going to briefly outline the main theories or assumptions about the state of Hypnosis (as there are many more than those listed here) and there are some excellent books available if you really want to get your teeth into the subject in some depth, suffice to say, that recent developments have resulted in a common view that the ‘State of Hypnosis’ is both scientific and phenomenological based. I will explain later what is meant by the conscious and unconscious (sometimes also referred to as subconscious) minds, as this is the cornerstone of Ericksonian Hypnotherapy and Hypnosis.
Theorists suggest here that the subject disassociates from conscious mental activity and external events, whilst accessing other compartments of the mind with the focus being on internal experience. This theory claims that this can be likened to wakefulness and full conscious activity to sleep and dream activity.
Altered State Theory:
Suggests that not only is another part of the mind accessed during hypnosis but also in addition, another level or dimension of consciousness is entered into. ‘Hypnosis may be defined as an altered state of awareness affected by total concentration on the voice of the therapist. It will result in measurable physical, neurophysiological and psychological changes in which may be produced distortion of emotion, sensation, image, and time’ (Waxman 1981)
Essentially, theorists fall into two main categories; State Theory and Non-State, but a common understanding and agreement that all theorists share, is that the process of hypnosis can be utilised to benefit individuals psycho-biologically.
Well, now you have some basic knowledge of what the theorists and experts in the field think hypnosis could be, you can perhaps understand why it is so difficult to answer in a few words when people ask me, ‘how does it work’. I guess what you really want to know is ‘will it work for me?’ Well, like all alternative and complimentary therapies, there are no guarantees, much as there often isn’t with traditional medicine, but if you have an open mind and an imagination, there is every chance it will do.
It is generally accepted that 90% of the population can be induced into the hypnotic trance state by an individual Hypnotherapist, provided that the subject is willing and not afraid. Analytically minded people that try to work out the why and wherefores of what is happening to them during hypnotherapy, are not likely to find the hypnotic process as easy to relax into as others, but even for these people sufficient depth of the hypnotic state for successful treatment can be obtained, with adequate preparation, patience, repetition and perseverance.
Whether the hypnotic trance state is arrived at through face-to-face Hypnotherapy or through Self-Hypnosis, (using pre-recorded audio CD’s, MP3’s, or Personal Computers) the procedure is very similar.
Unfortunately, there are few qualified registered Hypnotherapists, who also have first-hand knowledge of what a rider goes through when they have reached an all-time low on the confidence-scale, so face-to-face sessions are rarely a practical option. But with today’s advance of audio technology, which seems to change daily, access to pre-recorded material is as easy now as hitting a button, and far more cost effective. My self Hypnosis CD’s can now be downloaded for use on any MP3 player, (often called an iPod, which is the brand name for Apple’s version) or a personal computer or CD player. However, I must emphasise that no hypnotherapy session should ever be undertaken whilst driving, riding or operating any machinery or doing anything that requires concentration. You need to be in a relaxed, quite environment where you wont be disturbed. Therefore, the portability of MP3’s, iPods and mobile phones really does make it easy now to get away from it all, and really engage in the hypnotic process whenever the opportunity arises.
How Hypnotherapy Works
Hypnotherapy works by accessing the ‘unconscious’ mind (also called ‘subconscious’); so what is meant by the conscious and unconscious minds?
When we talk about the conscious mind, we refer to the thoughts that are going through our heads right now, the ones that we are aware of as we think about something, the little voice on the shoulder or in the head, the one you can hear right now, as you think of your shoulder. The conscious mind is rather less significant than our unconscious mind. To make it clearer, or not as the case may be, If you compare your mind to an iceberg; an analogy that one of my lecturers favoured, then the tip of the iceberg that you see above the surface of the water is the conscious mind, and the larger more substantial part of the iceberg that is out of sight, below the water line (but supports the tip), is the unconscious mind, a significantly larger part.
The unconscious mind is the seat of our emotions, and directs nearly all our behaviour. Everything that has ever happened to us, and everything we have ever seen, smelt, touched or heard is stored away there for future reference. It contains all our wisdom and intelligence; it is our source of creativity. The number of activities our unconscious mind performs and controls for us is quite humbling and astounding. Whenever we need to remember something, a name, date, place, an instruction, an understanding or insight, up it pops out of our unconscious mind like magic, weather the conscious mind wants it to or not. Without ever being consciously aware of it, we breathe, walk, talk, drive a car and use complicated pieces of technology, never giving a second thought as to where all that knowledge came from. However, the conscious mind constantly takes credit for, and finds explanations for the activities of the unconscious mind, over which it actually has no control and about which it is unaware.
Over many years, the conscious mind becomes very good at this act so that it is able to offer such impressive rationalisations and explanations for its behaviour that we don’t even question it. Nevertheless, the unconscious mind is much more observant, wise, intelligent, adaptive, and skilful than the conscious mind could ever be; it is said that the conscious mind can only hold eight thoughts at any one time; usually in small chunks, which is why we tend to remember numbers more easily if they are in small bundles.
The unconscious mind can also delete information from our awareness. It would be impossible to process all the information we receive consciously, so the unconscious mind sorts it and then presents us with a summary of what is taking place. We have all heard anecdotal stories of extreme bravery when someone has badly injured himself or herself, but feels no pain and has no awareness of their own injuries until after the traumatic event. The unconscious mind had sorted through the information and decided what we need to know to help our actions at that moment in time. The interaction between the conscious and unconscious minds is going on all the time and we never give any of this process a second thought.
Our conscious mind uses questions to reason, our conscious mind; the voice in our head, is always evaluating – critically and analytically – by comparing, contrasting and noticing, but in hypnosis, and the hypnotic trance state, the conscious mind is dampened down and this allows excellent communication with the unconscious mind, and without it’s critical analytical partner, changes in core beliefs and behaviours can take place.
But this ability of the unconscious mind to accept without critical analyses has a downside, because it can just as easily hang on to negative experiences, so that whenever a similar event to that previously experienced occurs again in the future, the old feelings of discomfort that were felt the first time, are instantly brought back to the conscious mind in an attempt to protect us; this is how phobias start.
If you had a bad experience on your horse, your unconscious mind may bring back all the negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviours associated with that experience the next time you ride. This is very frustrating for the rider who knows rationally and logically that there is nothing actually happening in the present time to create these unwanted thoughts and feelings, (it’s a doubly hard pill to swallow when you aren’t even sitting on the same horse anymore because you had to get a new one to satisfy yourself that is was the horse that was the problem!).
So to recap, during a hypnotherapy session, it is the unconscious part of the mind that is spoken to, where new ideas, concepts and affirmations can be implanted, and it is here that old limiting beliefs can be changed. Past phobias and learnt negative behaviours, feelings and concepts can be looked at and laid to rest, allowing the conscious mind to adopt a more rational positive outlook. The subconscious part of our mind has no critical awareness, and is only limited by our imagination.
How nerves affect the rider.
Well if you first of all accept that horse riding is potentially a dangerous activity, you are more than half way there to understanding what’s going on inside your mind and body when you ride.
Nature has been very clever in installing a small chip into our brains that is designed, amongst other things, to protect us if something life threatening is happening, or about to happen, (the Hypothalamus – part of the endocrine system) and not surprisingly, when we do something that this chip perceives as a potential threat to its host, it starts to react, and this is when we run into problems.
The unconscious mind starts to ask questions like; “why are you doing what you are doing? Do you need to do what you are doing? When will you stop doing it? Do I need to take action?”, and then our conscious mind analyses the situation from the stimulus it receives via our environment and our senses such as smell, sound, sight, temperature touch and so on. If the host – that’s you and me – doesn’t come up with a sensible, rational, logical, objective explanation, and the unconscious mind makes a connection between the outside stimuli and a previous negative experience, the chip in our brain starts to take charge and produces chemicals that will help the body to survive an attack; that’s the flight or fight instinct that all of us horse riders hear so much about. When this happens we feel the effects in all sorts of places, our stomachs, legs, arms, wrists, ankles, heart and head, and psychologically it causes feelings of anxiety, stress, panic and fear; phobias can be created associated with this perceived threat, that can last for days months and even years. In prolonged periods, it can cause stress leading to distress, and in sever cases, depression, a less effective immune system causing general ill health, and heart problems.
So let’s look in more detail at what’s going on. Stress and anxiety have some rather devastating affects on the human body. When we are stressed, anxious or frightened, the chemicals our brain releases are: Adrenaline, Noradrenaline and Cortisol – an ‘Alarm Reaction’, part of the Sympathetic Nervous system, and this creates all sorts of problems, the eyes adjust to long vision, in preparation for finding an escape route, so that near vision becomes blurred; the skin sweats and becomes pale as blood is drawn from the surface to important organs; muscles under the skin partially contract in readiness to spring into action causing ‘goose pimples’; the heart increases its output and blood pressure goes up so you feel your heart pounding; breathing becomes more rapid so that adequate oxygen can be transferred to the blood; the spleen releases more red blood cells from its store; and non essential systems are inhibited, so the digestive system slows and speech is difficult.
With all this going on in the body, it’s not surprising that we feel sick; we feel hot or cold; we get headaches; our muscles go into spasms; we feel there is as a knot in the stomach and we can’t eat; we are short of breath; our mouth goes dry; we shake; we can’t get our words out; our minds go blank and our concentration starts to deteriorate. Is this sounding familiar?
Well – if it’s any consolation, at least you now know that you and your body will be prepared, and function perfectly normally should a Sabre-Toothed tiger appear in the middle of your dressage arena, pop up behind a show jump, or jump out from behind a bus shelter! Be assured though, that you and hundreds like you feel just like this every time they so much as even think about getting on their horse, let alone actually doing it.
This flight and fight response stuff is understandable, and as I’ve said, acceptable and very useful when faced with something that is actually life threatening, like that approaching Sabre-Toothed Tiger, (I never actually came across one by the way, but sometimes I’m sure my horse did!!) but when there is only a moderate danger, or none at all (other than in our distorted perception) we need to be able to reduce the output of these chemicals, and dampen down the psychological, emotional and behavioural responses they create. Changing our perception of a situation; the way we think, changes the way we feel, and changes the way we behave.
Our thoughts, feelings, behaviour and emotions are so closely intertwined with one another, this sequence is more like an electrical circuit, when the circuit is activated anywhere along its length, it creates a chain reaction that completes the circuit before we even have time to consciously think about. Which comes first is still debated in the medical field, some feel that the chemical response is activated by the mere thought of danger, or by acting as if frightened, others feel the unconscious instinctive part of our brain picks signals up we are not aware of, and then produces the chemicals. But all we need to really concern ourselves with is how do we break this cycle, short circuit it and change the negative direction that the electrical current is flowing in, to a positive one? This is where Hypnotherapy, hypnosis and the hypnotic-trance-state really start to work.
Whilst this situation of an over-stimulated flight or fight response will normally only affect our own physiological and psychological well being, horse riders have the added problem of dealing with how their responses affects their horse. A creature that lives and survives by its own acute, more developed instinctive sense of its environment, including the observation of body language of other living creatures around it (visual and non visual), a superior sense of smell, taste, touch, hearing and eyesight and speed of reaction, and it because of these attributes, horse can pick up, like a radar, how we are thinking, feeling and behaving in any given situation, tuning in to every channel we broadcast.
What we have to bare in mind then as riders, is that only do we need to conquer our own fears, anxieties and lack of confidence for our own benefit, we need to do it to stop us passing negative signals to our horses. If this isn’t prevented as much as it can be, we run into the problem of the rider actually creating the very situation they are trying to avoid, a nervous horse which then makes a nervous rider, which makes a more nervous horse and a more nervous rider and so on and so forth.
The Process of Hypnosis for the Horse Rider
During the state of hypnosis the conscious mind is bypassed, the unconscious part of the mind is spoken to (and if we stay with the electrical circuit metaphor); the negative current is short-circuited, overridden, and the current is reversed in a positive direction, and then rejoined to a positive terminal. Once we have reprogrammed the unconscious mind, and the unconscious mind reconnects with the conscious mind, our perception alters, we feel different, and depending on the reason for hypnotherapy, we find that whatever blockage was stopping us from achieving our goal, has either been reduced to such a degree that we can now live with it, or it has been removed completely.
The first part of the process of hypnosis is the “induction” of the trance state; a day dreamy state of mind, often experienced when listening to music, or driving for a long time on a boring road, listening to a long lecture, or during meditation. Think how many times you have driven home from somewhere and you can’t remember the actual journey; or in the middle of listening to someone you have drifted off to somewhere else; you are engrossed in a book or TV program to such an extent that you have forgotten the time; that half-awake feeling as you drift to the surface of sleep caught between wakefulness and sleep, these are ‘trance’ states or ‘altered states of mind’.
The Induction sequence of a trance state is to allow your body and mind to move into a state of complete relaxation. This prepares your mind and body to transfer on to the next stage of the hypnotic process. Breathing techniques, relaxation, visualisation imagery, use of metaphors or bombarding the critical mind with an overload of information can all induce the mind to start to alter its state of awareness. The old stereotypical image of swinging a watch in front of a subject’s eyes is to some extent valid; it was just another technique to get the conscious critical mind to switch off, to allow the subject to concentrate on what was being said to them and to start to focus on the inner self. Today there are allsorts of hi-tech gadgets about that create moving shapes or noises, but they are just that – gimmicks, and when it comes to listening to Self-Hypnosis pre-recorded material, whether you are using a traditional Hi Fi system, MP3’s (iPods) or via a PC, there is no concrete evidence that using headphones with two different voices in stereo sound, overlaying of voices one on top of another, or special sound effects and subliminal messages, actually increases the success of the process at all, furthermore, clients of mine than have tried these techniques elsewhere, have told me that they actually find these most annoying, and rather than allowing them to focus on the voice it actually distracted them to such an extent that they gave up using the process. Why re-invent the wheel if it works as it is?
The next stage of the hypnotic process is called the “trigger”. Depending on the therapeutic training of the Hypnotherapist and their personal preferences, different techniques will be used to increase the depth of the hypnotic trance state, sometimes a word is offered, or a particular behaviour, such as touching ones ear or pressing a finger and thumb together. This trigger can be used in the normal waking state to reproduce the same state of calmness and relaxation achieved during hypnosis. It can also be used to bring back to the conscious mind any imagery or suggestion that the unconscious mind has visualised or heard during hypnosis. It is always emphasised by the Hypnotherapist, that this “trigger” word or action, will ONLY take on this special significance when used in relation to hypnosis, in all other circumstances the word or action will have the same meaning as it always has.
The next level of the hypnotic process is called the “deepener”, this stage takes the mind through a process that encourages the critical conscious mind, to fade into the background and the unconscious mind to come into the foreground, and a much deeper hypnotic trance state is established. This state is associated with a vivid involvement in imagined events, a shift into a context-free literal understanding of words and phrases, and a removal of the restrictions ordinarily imposed upon conscious abilities and responses. Hypnotherapy is designed to take full advantage of these characteristics. The Trigger and deepener stages are interwoven with each other and the listener is taken ever further from the conscious world.
During the next stage, the ‘therapeutic’ stage of the hypnotic trance state, the unconscious part of the mind is spoken to with more precise language with either direct or indirect suggestions; the negative electric current is short-circuited, overridden, and then rejoined to positive terminals. R. A. Havens and C. Walters (1989) say: ‘As a result of these changes in conscious attitude or state of mind, clients in a trance are able to pay closer attention to their own unconscious resources of potential information and guidance. They also are able to more comfortably accept indirect and even direct statements from the therapist…while in a trance state, clients can experience imagined events with such clarity and relaxed involvement that they undergo many of the same changes in learning, performance and belief that they would in the actual situation’.
Once the unconscious mind is reprogrammed, using a variety of techniques such as deep relaxation, therapeutic language, positive imagery, metaphors, indirect or direct suggestion, and post hypnotic anchors, the unconscious mind can then positively influence the conscious mind in any given situation or series of events. Our perceptions of the situation can be altered, we feel differently about it, and depending on the reason for the hypnotherapy in the first place, we may feel more relaxed, calmer, optimistic, energised, healthier, motivated and more in control of our responses, habits and behaviours. This control increases our confidence. With growing confidence comes the realisation that we can actually achieve those goals that we never thought possible – and the actual subsequent achievement is our biofeedback. However, hypnosis can go further than this, we can actually change the way our body functions, reducing heart rate, improving blood supply and boosting the immune system are but a few.
All through a Hypnotherapy session and the hypnotic trance state, whether it be face-to-face or listening to a Self-Hypnosis Recording, positive language is used to encourage you, to motivate you and reward your achievements, positive confidence building are the foundation blocks of the whole process, and added to this are other more specific elements. Interwoven within the language are suggestions, concepts, and ideas that will help you long after the session has finished. You will experience the actual event or events that you are struggling to deal with, but this time you will only experience positive sensations, you will see the goal you want and actually be there. You will use all your senses, of smell, hearing, taste, touch, and feelings to experience this achievement; feeling all the positive emotions associated with that achievement. All negative non-productive thoughts, concepts, ideas, feelings, and behaviours are reduced or rationalised and put into their true perspectives. Post hypnotic anchors are used to enable you to make an instant connection between the thoughts, feelings, and emotions you have experienced during the hypnotic state, to the here-and-now situation you’re in.
The final stage, “The Termination” is when the hypnotic trance is brought to an end, and the subject is gently brought back to full consciousness and wakefulness. During this process, the subject is offered the option of bringing back with them into their conscious world, all the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that they have experienced during the hypnotic trance, and they can also leave behind any that they do not want. This suggestion allows the subject to decide for himself or herself what feelings, thoughts, and emotions they have found most pleasurable and beneficial, that they may wish to hold in their conscious mind.
When the session is finished, you should be left feeling very calm, relaxed and peaceful. The positive feelings of motivation and confidence can often take some time develop. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why hypnotherapy works instantly for some people, but takes time for others. And even when it feels that nothing at all has actually happened, you’ll be surprised at just how much has changed, but this is only noticed in retrospect when you look back at how you were before you started using hypnosis.
Often during hypnosis, you may experience various physiological and biological changes. Your Legs and arms may feel particularly heavy as if they weigh more than normal, or they may feel light as if they are floating or you experience a tingling sensation in them or sometimes they feel as they are not there any more. You may be aware of your heartbeat slowing down and your breathing becoming shallower. Sometimes the stomach can start to bubble and gurgle and be quite noisy. There maybe increased watering of the eyes and fluttering of the eyelids. Others report that they feel as if they have become at-one with the chair or couch they are resting on, there can be a reluctance to move, and there is a distortion in the passing of time (often an underestimation of the time spent in hypnosis). As you start to drift back from the hypnotic state, you may experience a feeling or euphoria and wellbeing.
Resistance and Blockages to Process.
For some, Hypnotherapy, and particularly Self-Hypnosis, does not work, and there are different theories as to why this is, as mentioned earlier, those people that are very analytical, and question everything to such an extent that they find it impossible to accept a concept that they perhaps don’t fully understand, may find the hypnotic state eludes them. If you find losing control or enjoying yourself doesn’t come easy, then this is can also make relaxing into a hypnotic state very difficult. Sometimes hypnosis fails because we self-sabotage the process, and I know this sounds odd when you really are convinced in your own mind that you want something to change, but just imagine this scenario. If you are nervous about riding out, and therefore avoid it by staying in a safe environment, such as the arena, removing the issue that is creating this situation also means that a valid excuse has been removed. When you no longer have an excuse to avoid a situation, you are then faced with the reality of actually having to do something. So in this case, you would now have no excuse for staying in the arena and not hacking out; but just suppose that you really rather liked the convenience of riding in the arena, because it kept your horse cleaner, dryer and you could save time and energy. Perhaps you don’t actually have the inclination or energy to hack out, but up until now, you could always convince yourself and others this wasn’t the case.
Alternatively, perhaps you have been avoiding competitions because you felt too anxious and panicky when you did, but in actual fact, you are not really that competitive, but others feel you should be. Perhaps a partner or parents are pressuring you to justify the expense of your hobby if you don’t compete, and it’s easier to say you are fearful, than you really aren’t that interested. On the other hand, perhaps you are more worried about failure, or not living up to others expectations’, so avoiding the situation altogether is a safer alternative.
If there are other underlying reasons for the preservation of a phobia or fear, then these really need addressing, if the desire to hang on to these thoughts, feelings and behaviours is very resistant to removal, it maybe that they are serving a useful purpose.
Another blockage to this process could be that the issues around riding are only a reflection of what is going on elsewhere in your life. If you are a nervous, anxious person generally, and you find situations at work, home or socially provoke similar feelings of panic, nervousness and fear, then it’s a lot to expect that in this one area of life, riding, you are suddenly going to become a very confident, self-assured calm, relaxed person. Finding help to deal with a non-horse related issue in your life, could lessen or remove the horse related problem.
However, taking all this into consideration, for most people the hypnotic trance state is attained easily and the process works well. For many it has been the last clutch of the straw before throwing the grooming brush to the floor and hanging up the boots for good!