Category Archives: Hypnosis

Using mindfulness with difficult emotions

When I first began to get a handle on my own issues with weight, one of the great tools I found was Jan Chozen Bays’ book Mindful Eating. I’ve used it ever since in my classes and with individuals—if you haven’t looked at it, do. (It’s available at the Bellingham Public Library, in case you’re in my area.) That led me to my own meditation practice, and to discovering other writers in the field, like Tara Brach, a meditation teacher and writer I admire, and Rick Hansen, a research psychologist and also a meditator and writer.

(At this point I doubt I’ll ever be a good meditator, but I am a meditator, and I think for me perhaps the whole point is being a bad meditator. Paradoxically, it means I’m doing something right, when I’m aware of my thoughts and feelings straying from whatever I’m focusing on.)

Rick Hansen wrote Buddha’s Brain, and Hardwiring Happiness, both worth reading. But it’s Hardwiring Happiness, with its focus on our ability to develop or strengthen positivity as a personality trait that led me to a powerful insight that’s helped me with lots of other issues or situations.

I think we all have a resistance to feeling difficult emotions—it seems natural to me that we don’t want to feel fear or grief or rejection, among others. But the cost of being unwilling to face and feel those emotions can be pretty high in terms of our own growth and wellbeing. Think of the lost opportunities when we make a decision or act from our desire to avoid being uncomfortable, for example. Some of life’s most powerful moments can arise from difficult situations, after all.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Hansen offers techniques for facing those difficult emotions; one of the techniques he suggests is practicing strengthening our connection with the most positive emotions we’ve experienced, and then, when we’re ready to, allowing ourselves to feel both a positive and a difficult emotion at the same time. (It makes sense, doesn’t it, that we can and do feel more than one thing at a time?) The positive sensations become a kind of buffer against the  negative impact of the difficult ones.

I’ve used the technique this way: dwelling on the sensations associated with feeling loved and supported when I am also feeling stress and fear over an upcoming event. When I do this, I am able to bring the stress reaction under control, in a sense, as I remind myself that I am as prepared as I need to be for whatever’s coming. It allows me to see the stress reaction as a natural and possibly (on my good days!) even a beneficial force in a new situation.

Which reminds me—I’ll be doing two new workshops this coming fall at Whatcom Community College: one for dealing with chronic pain, and the other for transforming our experience with stress—and yes, we’ll be talking more about mindfulness (as well as self-hypnosis) in those contexts. I’ll post details as they become available. 

Positivity skills worth learning

Science Daily is a great resource if you’re interested in what’s happening in the world of science. I just read about a study at Northwestern University, part of a larger study by Judith Moskowitz on teaching positivity skills to enhance the experience of people dealing with illness or other high stressors. This study compared the benefits of teaching these kinds of skills versus prescribing (or increasing) anti-depressants for 159 patients recently diagnosed with HIV. About 17% of these patients were already on antidepressants.

Half the participants took 5 weekly classes focusing on eight positivity skills. After 15 months, the rate of antidepressant use had not changed in the group learning to cultivate feeling calm, happy, and satisfied, and 91% of them showed a reduction of the virus in their blood, compared with 76% in the control group, more of whom were then using antidepressants (35%).

Here’s the report’s description of the 8 skills they learned to practice:

  • Recognizing a positive event each day
  • Savoring that positive event and logging it in a journal or telling someone about it
  • Starting a daily gratitude journal
  • Noting a recent use of a personal strength
  • Setting an attainable goal each day and noting progress
  • Reporting a relatively minor stressor each day, then listing possible ways to reframe the event positively
  • Practicing a small act of kindness each day
  • Practicing mindfulness with a daily 10-minute breathing exercise, concentrating on the breath

Reading this, I’m reminded, once again, that there is a direct connection between active positivity and immune system function, and that we can support our own wellbeing—even when dealing with illness or other difficult stressors—with small daily actions.

Update: I have been doing a brief (10 minutes at most) self-hypnosis session in the mornings to remind myself of what I need to focus on–it helps with motivation, I find. Since I read about this study last week, I’ve been including using this list with a daily journal. It’s been great, although full of unexpected challenges, like focusing on when I’ve used personal strengths. One that I particularly appreciated is the reminder to be thoughtful about stressors; it feels really good when something difficult comes up to be able to view it in a positive way, instead of just trying to forget it as soon as possible.

Judith Moskowitz, the study’s author, is also doing the same work with diabetes patients, women with breast cancer, and caregivers of dementia patients. I imagine aspects of this could be helpful for people living with dementia as well.

An additional resource is a book I often recommend in my classes: Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. He’s a well-known psychologist and long-time meditator, and the author of Buddha’s Brain, about the neuroscience behind the effects of meditation on the brain. Hardwiring Happiness helped me make a breakthrough in realizing that I can move beyond my innate “negativity bias,” and giving me practical tools for developing and strengthening a more positive frame of mind.

Can anyone be hypnotized?

I hear people say they can’t be hypnotized, but in my ten years of practice, I have yet to meet anyone who really can’t. Sure, some people take to it more easily than others, but isn’t that true of any skill we learn how to do? We get better at things through practice.

Some practitioners use a “hypnotizability scale” to determine how easily hypnotized their clients are. I don’t, because it doesn’t really make any difference to me how easily my clients go into trance, or how deeply into trance they are able to go. The value of the hypnotic state can’t be measured by how deep the trance is.

Here’s a definition of hypnosis, just to make sure we’re starting on the same page: it’s a natural state of deep relaxation and intense focus, or concentration. (It’s really very simple, even though attempts to explain what’s happening in the brain can get pretty complicated.)

The first benefit of this hypnotic state is being able to experience such a deep relaxation. If we do nothing else during a hypnosis session, I guarantee that we will feel the benefit. How often do we normally allow ourselves to relax deeply? Or how often do we take the time for it? The time we spend distracting ourselves from the cares of our day doesn’t have the same effect, though it can be pleasant.

The benefits of the relaxation itself—the side effects of hypnosis—are powerful. They include measurable things like changes in blood pressure or blood sugar readings, as well as less quantifiable things like a positive mood boost or a sense of increased energy, or being able to get better sleep.

Those side effects are reason enough to give yourself some time in hypnosis every day. If you know anyone who could use a boost in this way, let them know I have a class in Self Hypnosis on April 13 at Whatcom Community College. Here’s a link to the registration page.

The placebo effect–an update

I’m fascinated by the placebo effect, and hypnosis as a way of activating it, so I was particularly interested in reading about some of the current research in Cure, A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, by British science writer Jo Marchant.

But first I should clarify what a placebo is. Here’s a very mainstream definition from Dictionary.com: “an inactive substance or other sham form of therapy administered to a patient usually to compare its effects with those of a real drug or treatment, but sometimes for the psychological benefit to the patient through his believing he is receiving treatment.”

Here it is in black and white, the prevailing assumption that physical ailments require dosing with a “real” medical treatment, and that “psychological” benefits from “sham” treatments affect the mind but not the body.

To me, the word “placebo” instead refers to the mind’s ability to activate the body’s natural healing abilities, including, for example, the immune system. This explanation makes so much more sense when I think about the way we experience everything in this life through the dual lens of our bodies’ experiences and our minds’ interpretations of those experiences.

Cure is a fascinating look at some of the cutting edge research into the interaction between our thoughts and our physical experience. In particular, the meaning, or value, we find in the experience or the treatment makes the treatment more powerful, and more likely to result in either a cure or a lessening of symptoms.

In some cases, the mind-body connection changes both our experience of our physical state and changes the underlying condition, as in IBS, for example, which responds well to hypnosis. In other cases, although the symptoms get better, the underlying condition stays the same. For example, the pain we experience from a slipped disk becomes less severe when we use hypnosis, although the damage from the disc injury is unchanged.

I loved the book—available at the Bellingham Public Library—and its thorough discussion of the current research that’s challenging the old model of a separate, mechanical physical experience and a separate psychological experience of the mind. I recommend it.

A week off, thanks to the snow . . .

Here in Bellingham, it feels as if we are newly released from a snowy dream of real winter, back into our normal February transition from the cold and wet winter mode to the slightly less cold but even wetter spring mode. Some years it’s hard to notice the transition unless we make a point of getting outside everyday—but this year Winter has been unmistakable.

It’s been interesting, this past week—with kids out of school and the usual (for here) snow-related halt to normal activity. No class, for example, for the newest group doing the Weight Control with Hypnosis class this last Wednesday at Whatcom Community College, and I confess I missed it. I really like getting to know the people who’ve chosen to try something new in the interests of their own health and wellbeing, and I love being part of the process as we all get to know, understand, and help each other with our separate and shared concerns.

These classes ask people to try new things—new ways of thinking and acting—and it’s not always comfortable or easy. Lately I’ve come to think of it as a learning process, more than anything else. We’re using our good minds, and hearts, our powers of attention and creativity, and all the other tools we’ve developed over the years, to study and learn how we can get from where we are now, to where we want to be, to where we belong, as healthy as it’s possible for us to be.

It can take a lot of energy and time and thought, this project—this process—of identifying what we need to change to bring ourselves back into a healthy relationship with food and activity. The process is full of surprises, and fortunately it has enormous rewards. Some of those rewards comes from being able to share the process with each other, to support each other, and it may also be the most powerful thing we do, not just for each other, but for ourselves. The compassion we give each other—and ourselves—counteracts so many of the negative effects of our stressful lives and gives us energy we need to stay positive and focused on our goals.

Weight loss goals that matter

Last night was our monthly drop-in-for-a-refresher meeting, open to anyone who’s taken the hypnosis for weight control classes that I lead at Whatcom Community College. Some of the regulars have their own names for it. I’ve heard “brainwashing,” and “tune up,” for example.

It’s always fun for me to see who comes—it could be someone who took the classes years ago and wants a refresher before an event like a holiday or a trip. Or it could be a few of the regulars, and that’s always cozy. Every once in a while it’s a bigger group, and it gets a little cramped, and that’s fine too. I look forward to this every month.

We talk about how things are going—it’s usually a mixed bag, of course, just like everything else in life. And then I lead a hypnosis session focused on whatever concerns are highlighted.

Last night was nice—just two good friends sharing updates and challenges. The highlight for me, though, came after, as we were all walking to the door. One friend said, “I have a goal.” Her goal is an adventure, not a set of numbers. It’s a fun adventure, to be shared at a date in the future, as a celebration. (I’d give the details, but it’s not my story to share, and if I’d thought of this last night, I would have asked her permission to give those details, but since I didn’t, I won’t.)

But I loved it! So many of us focus on the numbers, and that can be a real source of stress, especially when it’s a set of numbers that’s tormented us in the past. How much better to focus on something that has its own meaning. Meaning that is much more personal—an activity that’s been out of reach in the past, that can be shared with the people we love, who love us. It’s exciting to think about this kind of goal—it’s really about growing into the person we have the potential to be—and bringing our friends and family along for the ride.

Stage hypnosis vs. hypnotherapy

I’m not a fan of stage hypnosis shows. I don’t enjoy watching people being influenced to behave in ways that would make me feel embarrassed. So I’m not likely to show up on stage as either the hypnotist or the hypnotized entertainment—not anytime soon, anyway.

What’s interesting to me about stage hypnotists is that when I get over my aversion to embarrassing myself or others, I can appreciate the way they demonstrate the power we have when we’re in that naturally-occurring altered state we call hypnosis.

In a hypnosis show, there’s a specific social context. The participants are the hypnotist, the volunteers on stage, and the audience. Everyone is involved in creating the show, the spectacle. The shared expectation is that the participants and the audience will be involved together in creating an entertaining experience. There will be surprises; people will surprise themselves and others by behaving oddly.

That shared expectation is an important component of the hypnosis experience, whether the context is a stage show, or a quiet office during a hypnotherapy session. In the stage show, the expectation is shared among all the participants. In a hypnotherapy session, it’s shared between the hypnotist and the client.

When potential clients contact me, I offer a (free) brief introductory session; I do it because it becomes an opportunity to establish that shared expectation—not for the purpose of entertainment, but to help clients benefit from the innately healing nature of the hypnosis trance state.

I say it’s innately healing, and what I’m referring to is the healing effect of being deeply relaxed—something I think we all could use more of.

Many of the people I see in my practice have seen hypnosis shows. They already know I’m not going to embarrass them in public, but they also have to trust that I have the skill to help them into that altered state of heightened, self-directed, focused attention—and then help them use that state in a healthy and productive way.

So I have mixed feelings about stage hypnosis. It makes me cringe, but I’m happy that other people have a chance to witness the power of the mind to change our perceptions and our behavior.

When is visualization helpful, and when does it get in the way of reaching a goal?

Fantasy, a kind of visualization, is a chance to embrace a magical reality. It can be a wonderful experience—it can feel good—to lose ourselves in an alternate reality, when we can pretend that life is as we want it to be, maybe with a better job, fabulous success in your chosen field, better health, etc.

There’s only one problem with any fantasy: it doesn’t exist.

In 2002, a study evaluated four groups of people with goals, who either visualized what success looks and feels like, or anticipated a negative outcome. These groups’ four different goals were finding a job, looking for a romantic partner, acing an exam, or recovering well from surgery.

The study authors concluded that fantasy visualization leads people to feel as though they have already succeeded, while anticipating a negative outcome helps people to identify and deal with the obstacles or challenges they foresee. In other words, the pleasant feelings a fantasy evokes end up negatively affecting our motivation to pursue success—getting out there and applying for jobs, studying harder for exams, etc.

Another group of people expected good results based on their own past experience, and they also had a better outcome than the people who fantasized about success—presumably at least partly because they already knew the steps they would need to take to ensure success.

Fast forward to this year, and another study builds on the earlier research, this time focusing on the effect of positive thinking on depression. In this case, the study looked at the effect of positive visualization both in the moment and over time. What they found is that people did in fact feel better in the moment, as they experienced the positive feelings evoked by the fantasy, but the long-term effect (up to 7 months later) was an increase in depressive symptoms. The long-term reality did not live up to the fantasy, which remained just a fantasy. In this study, visualization of positive results not only didn’t provide a benefit, but over time it led to more depression.

So, positive thinking or visualizing success may not be an effective force for change in our lives.

In hypnosis, we typically use visualization. But a good hypnosis session involves more than visualizing the goal achieved—it’s not just fantasy. A good hypnosis session also explores any barriers to success—not just practical, tangible, obstacles, but also internal barriers like negative assumptions about our abilities and limits. With that basis, we use hypnosis to prepare for the work needed to achieve success. For example, a student who is struggling because of a negative assumption that he or she isn’t smart enough needs to reverse that assumption, needs to know that he or she has what it takes to do the work required to meet the goal. Hypnosis works well for that.

There are a couple of studies that I’ve written about before, showing that visualization under hypnosis involves the same areas of the brain that are active when people actually perform the activity. This doesn’t happen when people are simply thinking about it (fantasizing). Perhaps that’s part of the reason for a different outcome with hypnosis. When we’ve gone through the process under hypnosis, we are expecting a good outcome because we’ve experienced it before, rather than day-dreaming about how good it will feel.

When is visualization helpful, and when does it get in the way of reaching a goal?

Fantasizing, a kind of visualization, is a chance to embrace a magical reality. It can be a wonderful experience—it can feel good—to lose ourselves in an alternate reality, where we pretend that life is as we want it to be, maybe with a better job, fabulous success in our chosen field, better health, etc.

There’s only one problem with any fantasy: it doesn’t exist.

In 2002, a study evaluated four groups of people with goals, who either visualized what success looks and feels, or who anticipated a negative outcome. The four different goals of these groups had to do with job hunting, looking for a romantic partner, acing an exam, or recovering well from surgery.

The study authors concluded that fantasy visualization leads people to feel as though they have already succeeded, while anticipating a negative outcome helps people to identify and deal with the obstacles or challenges they foresee. In other words, the pleasant feelings the fantasy evokes end up negatively affecting our motivation to take the steps to pursue success—getting out there and applying for jobs, studying harder for exams, etc.

Another group of people expected good results based on their own past experience, and they also had a better outcome than the people who fantasized about success—presumably at least partly because they already knew the steps they would need to take to ensure success.

Fast forward to this year, and another study builds on the earlier research, this one focusing on the effect of positive thinking on depression. In this case, the study looked at the effect of positive visualizations both in the moment and over time. What they found is that people did in fact feel better in the moment, as they experienced the positive feelings evoked by the fantasy, but the long-term effect (up to 7 months later) was an increase in depressive symptoms. The long-term reality did not live up to the fantasy, which remained just a fantasy. In this study, visualization of positive results not only didn’t provide a benefit, but over time it led to more depression.

So, positive thinking alone, visualizing success, may not be a powerful force for change in our lives after all.

In hypnosis, we typically use visualization. But a good hypnosis session involves more than visualizing the goal achieved—it’s not just fantasy. A good hypnosis session also explores any barriers to success—not just practical, tangible, obstacles, but also internal barriers like negative assumptions about our abilities and limits. With that basis, we use hypnosis to prepare for the work needed to achieve success. For example, a student who is struggling because of a negative assumption that he or she isn’t smart enough needs to reverse that assumption in order to do the work to meet the goal.

A couple of studies that I’ve written about before show that visualizing an activity under hypnosis lights up the same areas of the brain that are active when people actually perform the activity. This doesn’t happen when people are simply thinking about it (fantasizing). Perhaps that’s part of the reason for a different outcome with hypnosis. When we’ve gone through the process under hypnosis, we are more like the people who expect a good outcome because they’ve done it before, rather than people who are day-dreaming about how good it will feel.