There is, as many have said, more than one way to skin a cat. And no, we’re not planning on skinning any cats here today, or any day for that matter. Metaphorically, perhaps, but literally, we won’t be separating any felines from their hides. No, today we’re here to talk about hypnotism techniques, and there are many varying approaches to that ancient and often misunderstood craft. Hence the reference to the skinning of the cats—hypnotists (professionals including doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and laymen like “mentalists” and entertainers) use a staggering variety of methods to induce hypnosis as well as to make suggestions to the subject, and today we’ll examine several of them.
It is probably helpful to state right at the beginning that there is no consensus even among the medical community on what, exactly, hypnosis “is.” It has not been studied enough in terms of its medical and/or physiological mechanisms for anything more than conjecture and educated guessing. What the body of literature resulting from the study of hypnosis does indicate is that it can have profound results, and that it is, medically, a waking state in which the subject is tremendously relaxed, so relaxed as to allow an intensity of focus unavailable otherwise, and in which the subject is very suggestible. The suggestions made by hypnotists can have effects long after the hypnosis session is over, and can help people to recover from traumas, stop or modify negative behaviors, and be useful in many more positive applications.
With that in mind, the varying methods used to induce the hypnotic state are not so much the quackery of pseudoscience (as some cynics might imagine) but simply individual approaches to the same, still-only-partially-understood goal. It does not matter how one separates one’s felines from their pelts, then, as long as at the end of the day, the job is done.
We must begin our discussion of hypnosis techniques with the first step in the process: induction. But if you have just begun on the path to becoming a hypnotist, or if you are simply interested in the topic in general, you might do well to check out some online courses in hypnotism that will give you a solid background to draw from. There is a course called “Hypnosis Crash Course” that gets you started quickly, and a more general “Introduction to Hypnotherapy” that will give you an idea about how hypnosis is used and what for.
Hypnosis Tools and Eye Fixation
You’ve all seen the pocket watch, swung on the chain, haven’t you? In movies and television shows, this is how hypnotists are generally portrayed when inducing the hypnotic state. Years ago, when the majority of hypnotists used the “eye fixation” method of induction, the swinging watch might not have been as much of a cliché as it is today. Eye fixation is, simply put, the technique whereby a hypnotist gets the subject to close his or her eyes. When the eyes are closed, visual sensory information stops flowing into the subject’s brain, enabling relaxation and internal visualization, removing roadblocks on the path to hypnosis.
What was the watch used for? Well, looking for something at or just below eye level for an extended period of time helps to tire the eyes, causing the subject to close his or her eyes to rest them. Following the path of a swinging object back and forth also tires the eyes. And that’s all there is to the watch. Hypnotists who practice eye fixation could use anything, really, that was eye catching. A penlight or any attractive object (especially a faceted gem which captures the eye) will suffice for eye fixation.
Some hypnotists simply use their own eyes for eye fixation. The other eye fixation induction technique you might have seen in the old movies began with, “Look deeply into my eyes…” If you imagined Bela Lugosi (or someone similar) speaking those words, you’re not alone. Simply being compelled to make prolonged eye contact with another person tires the eyes and encourages the subject to shut and rest them.
In the 21st Century, most hypnotists, however, don’t use eye fixation, finding it corny and more importantly, because other methods are more effective. We’ll talk about them next.
Overt and Covert Hypnosis Induction Techniques
Let’s start with the obvious question you’re forming right now: what do they mean “overt” techniques? Well, there are two ways to hypnotize a subject: with his or her knowledge (overtly), or without his or her knowledge (covertly). While the use of covert hypnosis induction techniques by anyone other than psychiatrists with willing but blocked subjects creates something of an ethical quagmire (episodes of “The Mentalist” notwithstanding), we’ll content ourselves with discussing the methods and not the morality of using them. Okay?
The vast majority of covert hypnosis induction techniques involve a willing subject who is guided through a progressive series of relaxation states, usually verbally. A serene and non-threatening location is required. The hypnotist calmly explains to the subject exactly what will happen: that he or she will progress through deeper and deeper states of relaxation until arriving at the hypnotic state.
Once the subject is reclining comfortably, the hypnotist guides the subject through a process of relaxing each part or section of the body, generally while imagining that he or she is in a “safe, happy place.” Once the body is relaxed, the visualization shifts to a fantasy location, like a cloud-filled sky. The subject imagines him- or herself flying through clouds, with stress or worry vanishing into the clouds.
Then, the hypnotist directs the subject to focus on his or her breathing, as in meditation, and keying the directions to the tempo of those breaths, tells the subject that with each word or phrase, he or she will relax more and more, descending deeper and deeper towards the hypnotic state. Eventually, in this way, little by little, the subject is hypnotized.
Not much like the way they do it on TV, is it? The real method takes a lot longer than the swinging watch, and would make for boring TV, too. We can forgive Hollywood.
Of course, there are variations on how the process of Progressive Relaxation is accomplished, but what you’ve just read is the basic framework. If you’re interested in this aspect of hypnosis especially, it might be worthwhile to read up on meditation techniques, as they apply directly to Progressive Relaxation. There is an excellent blog post on “Meditation Techniques” by David Green that will get you started nicely.
Covert Hypnosis Induction Techniques
As for the covert methods of hypnosis induction (and we must say “don’t try this at home, kids!”), they are also known by the names “conversational hypnosis” and (our favorite) “sleight of mouth.” That last name should give you an indication of why this technique is somewhat dangerous and places you on ethically shaky ground. You have probably seen Patrick Jane do this more than once if you watch “The Mentalist,” and that is where the technique should stay.
Generally, conversational hypnosis techniques are derived from renowned psychiatrist Milton Erickson’s “Indirect Hypnosis” method, in which the use of certain patterns of speech, tones of voice, eye contact, and key hypnotic words help to create a state of “semi-hypnosis” in which the subject is susceptible to suggestion, usually in the form of a metaphor.
And that’s all we’re going to tell you about it. You didn’t think we’d let you go out and hypnotize people without their consent, did you?
Self Hypnosis Induction Techniques
Many people pursue self-hypnosis, or autohypnosis, as a means to change patterns in their lives. You might want to quit smoking, or relieve stress, or let go of old grudges, work with more focus and initiative towards a goal, or even learn how to manage pain effectively. Self-hypnosis can accomplish all of those things, to an extent. While it is not a magic bullet, it is worth thinking about trying self-hypnosis.
Autohypnosis works in much the same way as conventional hypnosis, except that you act as your own guide, and you do not need to speak out loud. Choose a comfortable and quiet room with mellow lighting. Wear comfortable clothing, and turn off your cell phone. Be certain that you choose a time when you will be undisturbed and alone for at least thirty minutes.
Recline or lay down, and close your eyes. Make a conscious effort to let go of other matters and all stress. Visualize each part of your body, and relax each in turn, letting go of tension in all your muscles. Breathe regularly, slowly and deeply. Some find sound helpful, especially music designed to work with meditation. In general, any droning, continuous, benign sound will work.
Breathing slowly and regularly, guide yourself through the same stages that a hypnotist would guide you through, mentally directing yourself to do all the same things a hypnotist would, such as, “I am now floating in the clouds. All my tension is drifting away into the clouds…” and so on.
Once you have achieved the hypnotic state, you can focus on what you really need to work on, whatever that may be. You can make the suggestions to yourself by preparing statements ahead of time, like “I don’t need cigarettes,” or “I can turn off my pain any time I want to,” and so on.
It’s a good idea to set a timer or choose music that will change after a certain amount of time to make sure that you don’t linger too long in the hypnotic state and miss your appointments. You can, of course, end the hypnotic state yourself, and most have no problems, but it pays to be safe, especially if your kids are going to be getting home from school in an hour…
There are some excellent online courses that teach self-hypnosis, and one great one is called, simply, “Self Hypnosis.” Check it out if you want to know more.
Suggestion is the tricky part of hypnosis, isn’t it? We’re going to assume that you’re not looking to get anyone to take off their clothes or act like a chicken (not that there’s anything wrong with acting like a chicken if that’s what you want to do) and go straight to the basic methods of suggestion.
Basically, there are direct and indirect methods. Direct suggestion consists of simple statements intended to reinforce beliefs or behaviors the subject wants to reinforce. For example, a hypnotist might make a direct suggestion to someone with anger management issues like this: “You are a calm, kind, caring individual. You always consider situations from other people’s points of view. You think before you speak, and when you do speak, it is from a place of empathy…” and so on. This method works well, and is used widely.
The indirect method of suggestion, which comes, like indirect induction, from Erickson, couches suggestions in questions, such as, “I wonder if you know how valued you are in your workplace?” Indirect suggestions can also take the form of metaphors or short allegorical stories. Again, we don’t want to get too specific lest you go off half-cocked and get into trouble. Learn more about Erickson’s methods in this course, called “Certificate in Ericksonian Hypnotherapy.”
Hypnosis can be of tremendous benefit to the subject, whether it is another person, or yourself. Lives are changed for the better every day thanks to hypnosis, putting to rest any suspicions that it is a pseudoscience or a con job. Of course, con artists are out there, so seek out only reputable hypnotists if you want to visit one. If you become one, we’re sure you’ll be reputable, to say the least, especially if you remember to leave the gold pocket watch at home. Happy hypnotizing!