Hypnosis and Ordinary Trances

It is often possible to discern a structure to people’s difficulties,
in which internal states and external events
continually create conditions for the recurrence of each other

– Paul Wachtel

The hypnotic state clients experience in my office as a result of a formal trance induction is just one of the many different trances they experience throughout their day. Anxiety, confidence, anger, and romantic love are each trances, or psychological states, and each filters psychological phenomena such as perception, motivation, and behavior in a different way. You are a different person when you are anxious than when you are confident; when you are calm than when you are desperate. In a sense, there is no real you. How you see things and how you act depends on the psychological state you are in at the moment.

Hypnosis refers to the method of purposely changing your psychological state in order to have an intended influence on state-dependent phenomena. Hypnosis is not weird or unusual. In a sense, everything is hypnosis; all experience is trance experience. We are always in one psychological state or another. The only thing unusual about a formal hypnotic induction is that the state change is elicited intentionally rather than as an unintended consequence of a person's reactions to the things that happen.  

One hypnotic strategy of change — Intentional Trance Formation —  involves purposely attending to a particular stimulus in order to elicit an intended psychological state. It takes a strength to purposely attend to one stimulus and resist the pull of other stimuli demanding attention. Meditation is an exercise to develop this strength and is analogous to lifting weights. To follow that metaphor, hypnosis is analogous to working out with a personal trainer. It is easier than meditation in the same way that working out with a trainer is easier than doing it without the external structure the trainer provides.

To sample a formal trance induction now, please click here. By paying close attention to the script and focusing on the visual stimulus [feel free to let your eyes close at any time], you will evoke an altered psychological state. But you do not need a formal induction to evoke a state change. Consider the following thought experiment:

Thought Experiment: The Emergency

Imagine that you just got a message that someone in your family had been seriously hurt in an automobile accident and you must get to the emergency room right away. Your biological state would change immediately and you would run or drive there as fast as you could, heart pounding, thoughts racing, and experiencing great distress. When you got there and discovered the report was untrue, you would experience relief, a very different trance. Objectively, the report was never true, yet it had a great impact on your physical and emotional state.

In this example the State-Dependent Phenomena—including motivation, perceptual bias and response tendencies —were determined by your subjective reality, not by what was objectively true.

Your perceptions are being continually created by your nervous system. Your overt behavior becomes part of world history (and so can never be undone), but the trance that gives birth to it is purely subjective and does not exist outside your consciousness.


Another hypnotic strategy — Suggestion —  employs the imaginative faculty which most forms of meditation do not. Rather than dispassionate observation and acceptance of experience, Suggestion involves active manipulation of subjective phenomena.

When you tell yourself to raise your hand it goes up, but when you tell yourself to calm down, become sexually aroused, or salivate, you may not get the desired response. This is because consciousness is a property of the Rational Processing System, which can operate your skeletal muscles, but cannot directly control your passions. 

There is, however, an indirect method by which you can exert a conscious influence over your biological responses: Instead of willing the response, aim your attention to the stimulus that elicits the intended response. For example if you want to salivate, instead of telling yourself to salivate, imagine licking a juicy but sour lemon—the same approach works with sexual arousal, anger, and other emotional reactions.

Thought Experiment: Eliciting a Cringe

Take a few moments to relive a time when you embarrassed yourself.  You will find that the more vivid the image and the more you can get into it, the greater the cringe effect.

If you were able to evoke the cringe, then you initiated Intentional Trance Formation—that is, you willfully aimed your attention to a particular stimulus, in this case, an embarrassing moment, in order to produce the intended state change.

Thought Experiment: Acting "As If"

Can you bring on the subjective experience of fear or anger intentionally? How would you do it?

Below are some common paths to negative emotional states for you to explore. [Please do not spend too much time with this exercise or take it too seriously. It is presented as an introductory demonstration of what not to do in real life]:

  • Think of everyone you know who is younger than you and makes more money.
  • Review the Cognitive Distortion Mechanisms. Choose the ones that might apply to you and make a case for each. Note ones that elicit an emotional reaction and dwell on them.
  • Use the powers of your imagination to create thoughts and images that would elicit the emotional state of anger or fear. The topics can be real or imagined, and may pertain to the past or future. Themes of pervious episodes of Ruminative Self-Focus are good places to start.
  • Act as if you were an anxious fellow [Barry] or an angry on [Bernie]. For this personal experiment you are an actor playing the part of Barry or Bernie. Because you are a good method actor, you can really get into it and see the world through the character's eyes, and feel in your heart what the character feels.

The act of monitoring subjective experience forces you to shift from the associative perspective of the experience to the dissociative perspective of the beholder. A common research problem is that the very act of monitoring affects what you are trying to monitor. In this case, the change of perspective tends to decrease the intensity and seriousness of the emotional state. Nevertheless, see if you can, track your Subjective Units of Discomfort as you go through the experience. Alternatively, review your emotional course through this experiment from the dissociative perspective of hindsight.

Because this is an early exercise and I wanted to make it easy, I asked you to attend to negative rather than positive cognitions. Efficacy-enhancing thoughts and images are far more difficult to work with than pathogenic ones. In fact some people are so biased against efficacy enhancing suggestion that they actively work to suppress suggestions such as I am competent, successful, loveable, etc., because they were trained to be modest or self-deprecating. If shaming suggestions such as: I am not good enough, I am defective, I am unlovable, etc. are part of you conditioning history, then escaping this trap is likely to be the key to good long-term outcome.


Hypnotic Inductions, Suggestions, and Exercises > >

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