A Key to the Subconscious Mind: Medical Hypnosis
“Hypnosis is a system or collection of methods that enable mind and body to share information more effectively. One of those methods is called trance. It is a process of creating an inner-self experience of focused consciousness that enables your mind and body to accept and share your intentions, beliefs, and expectations as true. The focused intention of your consciousness magnifies your power of belief (and the capacity of your belief) to cause your subconscious mind to accept and act upon it.”
Misconceptions of Hypnosis
There still exists much apprehension over the word hypnosis. I have been swimming against the current misconceptions about hypnosis for decades. And I have found that when individuals discover more about what it really involves and can do, that the apprehension translates to acceptance. The stage hypnotists in the last 50 years have done great injustice to the offerings of medical hypnosis. The same phenomena occurred in the late 1800s when the medical community was embracing the benefits of this mind-body method for their patients. That was a time when the first medical journal solely on hypnosis was published in England by Dr. John Elliotson (the inventor of the stethoscope); stories abounded of its application for anesthesia, skin conditions, digestive disorders, and more. But as soon as lay individuals began to put on public demonstrations and exaggerate the experience, the medical community took flight until the early 1920s when it again became both researched and endeared. Physicians during World War II proved its benefit and validity and formed the first professional societies in medical hypnosis that have endured and grown. But again, misconceptions propagated by stage hypnotists have only exploited its merits for entertainment purposes. No one can actually hypnotize another person. The clinician can facilitate the process of entering that focused daydream state, but he or she cannot actually hypnotize or exercise control over another person. Another common misconception is that in a hypnotic state, subjects can be motivated to act against their will. In reality, no one can override the best intentions, ideals, or values of another. What we can do is offer hypnotic suggestions, statements designed to influence the mind-body connection in a therapeutic manner.
There is no loss of consciousness, no “going under.” The individual remains aware of where they are and what they are doing at all times. There is no relinquishing of control, action, or activity that would embarrass the subject or reflect an action taken against their will. Realizing that the hypnotic state is essentially identical to a daydream quickly alleviates these fears.
Trance and Daydream
Hypnosis can be taught in one or two sessions, and can be used just about anywhere when needed. I tell my patients that hypnosis is a system of methods that allow mind and body to share information more effectively. One of those methods is called “trance” in the jargon of medical hypnosis, or “daydream” in common language. I see a hypnotic trance and a daydream as being very similar if not identical. For in each, the individual is conscious and aware of where they are and what they are doing, while at the same time they are wonderfully absorbed in their own thoughts and ideas. The trance or daydream-like state is only the first part of medical hypnosis and is referred to as the “induction,” or getting into that pleasant state of mind. But the powerful features of hypnosis are the “utilization” of that altered state to access and communicate with the mind-body connection. Utilization involves using words, ideas, images, and imagination to provide the mind-body with information that will cause it to produce a therapeutic or healing response.
Language of the Subconscious Mind
Words are powerful. They are the verbal expression of thoughts and ideas. And your subconscious mind hears everything you hear, everything you say, and everything that you picture or image in mind. But most important, your subconscious mind interprets these words and thoughts in its own language, which is not quite the same language that you consciously think with yourself. Your subconscious mind takes everything literally. You can think both figuratively and literally. That is, you can use figures of speech and know what your mean. For example, you might say, “I want to lose weight so badly.” We hear people say that phrase quite often. We know what they mean. But the subconscious mind hears something else and responds to what it hears. The literal understanding of that phrase is, “I want to lose weight…” and the subconscious mind asks, “And how would you like it done? “…so badly.” And that is how it is done subconsciously: badly.
We all use the word try in our speech, and we know what we mean when we use it. But look at what your subconscious mind does with “try.” The subconscious interprets everything literally. What is a “try”? We cannot perceive a literal “try,” for it is only a figure of speech. A “try” does not take up space or have weight, so it is not literally there. However, your subconscious mind will do its best to literalize the word try when it hears it. So, what is the literal meaning of “try”? I think it means “to see whether or not” to try, like to try a case in a court of law, to put it on trial. Remember the advice Yoda gave to the young warrior: “There is no try; there is only do and do not.”
Metaphors are figures of speech that are useful in communicating with other people, but your subconscious mind takes metaphors literally. Think about what some of these metaphors mean or how these metaphors might be expressed by your body:
- He’s a pain in the neck.
- She gets under my skin.
- That just burns me up.
- I must sit tight for a while.
- I just have to hang in there.
- It’s too hard to swallow.
- I’m itching to get out of school.
- I don’t have a leg to stand on.
Case studies offer an excellent introduction to the magic of the subconscious mind. Although just about any medical condition or behavior can be approached with medical hypnosis, skin and gastrointestinal conditions especially benefit. Below are several case studies.
Janice had brought her son, 10-year-old Kenny, to see me because of the warts on his fingers. Their family dermatologist had tried all the usual treatments, and they worked for a time, but the warts always returned. While Janice was very skeptical that hypnosis would eliminate them, Kenny was desperate to be rid of the embarrassing brown bumps, so she made an appointment for him to see me.
“How would it feel for your warts to be gone?” I asked him.
“That would be the best Christmas present in the world!” Kenny replied.
We were a little surprised by his answer, because Christmas was the furthest thing from our minds on this hot summer day. The first thing we did was to trace an outline of Kenny’s hands on a large sheet of paper and ask him to draw his warts on each outlined hand.
Now it was time to begin creating the story that would become Kenny’s healing tool.
“Now, I would like you to imagine that you are shrinking down and down until you are so tiny that if you stood on top of your head, your hair would look like a forest to you,” I said.
Kenny’s expression showed he was intent on miniaturizing himself in his mind’s eye. Next, I suggested that he look for the tiny hatch on the top of his head and open it. Inside, there was a ladder leading to a miniature submarine, so Kenny climbed down into the sub. Like any good captain, he first familiarized himself with the control panel and found the steering controls. Looking through the large windshield, he began guiding his submarine down through his body, all the way to his hands.
He maneuvered the tiny sub until it was underneath one of the warts on his finger.
“Can you see roots on the wart?” I asked him. “That’s where the wart takes its nutrients from your body to keep itself alive.”
“Your submarine has little mechanical arms that you can operate,” I told him, “and you can use them to snip off the roots of that wart, or maybe paint them with some kind of coating that would stop those roots from growing. Can you do that?”
Kenny had a vivid imagination. I guided him to travel in his submarine to each of the warts on his hands, where he used his imagination to devise ways to prevent all the roots from getting any nutrients from his body. I then offered some words that suggested to him that he was now absolutely sure the warts could obtain no food at all.
When the root blocking was complete, Kenny drove his submarine back up through his body to the top of his head, where he climbed out, went out through the hatch, and closed it. When his tiny self was back on top of his head, I suggested that he return to full size, which he did, feeling satisfied with his excellent work. As the last step, I asked Kenny to erase the warts he had drawn on the outlines of his hands, and he did a very thorough job. When I asked him if he needed the paper any longer, he said no. Our session was ended.
As each month passed, Janice called to reprimand me that Kenny’s warts had not gone away. As summer continued, and autumn arrived and passed into winter, she called me every month without fail. Kenny’s fingers were still sprinkled with little brown warts, she reported.
In early January, she called again, with a wonderful story. Janice told me about being in church with her children on Christmas day.
“I was holding Kenny’s hand when I realized that his fingers were smooth. I whispered to him, ‘Kenny, your warts are gone.’ He looked up at me and, very matter of fact, said, ‘Yeah Mom, it’s Christmas.’”
When Kenny had come to see me that previous July, did he literally mean that his warts would be gone at Christmas, giving him “the best Christmas present in the world”? What is important is that his subconscious took his comment literally—as the subconscious does with everything it perceives.
Alice, in her 40s, had ulcerative colitis and was losing a great deal of blood in dozens of bowel movements a day. In our work together, we realized her trips to the bathroom began every morning when she went to feed the family’s horse. Under hypnosis, she recovered a forgotten incident from age eight—falling from a rearing horse and breaking her arm, at which her father plainly showed his fear for her. Her current symptoms began when she and her husband bought a horse. Using relaxation techniques, Alice was able to relieve her ulcerative colitis.
Jenna, a bank teller, developed frequent acute nausea and vomiting, but only at work. We discovered that the nausea occurred only when men in plaid “lumberjack” shirts came into the bank. Under hypnosis, she remembered a robbery at the bank two years earlier. One of the robbers held a shotgun against her mouth—and he was wearing a lumberjack shirt. Jenna was suffering from unrecognized posttraumatic stress. I helped her reframe that experience so that her body no longer reacted to the trigger of a lumberjack shirt.
Despite medical tests that showed no organic problem, Ted, an engineer, would frequently gag and vomit while drinking or eating. During hypnosis, he revealed that his fiancée had broken up with him two months earlier. Hearing the news had devastated him; he felt all choked up, unable to express his sorrow in words. Once he was able to discuss this experience with me, the self-described “lump in his throat” disappeared and he could swallow easily once again.
Both the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (www.ASCH.net) and the American Psychotherapy and Medical Hypnosis Association (www.APMHA.com) provide information about medical hypnosis and referrals to qualified practitioners. Additional resources may be found on my Web site (www.healingwithhypnosis.com).
Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
Dr. Steven Gurgevich is a psychologist specializing in mind-body medicine. He is Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine in Dr. Andrew Weil’s Program in Integrative Medicine. He is a Fellow and faculty member of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, and a member of both the Society of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis and the American Psychological Association. Dr. Gurgevich and his wife, Joy, have a private practice at Sabino Canyon Integrative Medicine, LLC, in Tucson, Arizona.