The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners.
by Roger Dent
Guided imagery is a powerful tool, commonly used for relaxation, deepening hypnosis and constructing suggestions. Often overlooked, however, is the effectiveness of imagery as a means of inducing hypnosis. Listen carefully, and your client will give you all the clues you need to know when they are ready to enter hypnosis and what images will transition them easily. Once in trance, the images you have conjured will continue to develop as suggestions with amazing effect.
The simplest and most obvious means of knowing where to begin when creating imagery for a client is with the introductory interview. By asking new or prospective clients, “Where do you feel calm/safe/relaxed/healthy?”, and, “Can you tell me about a place that you have visited, or even imagined, where you truly are happy?” Variations of these questions (and their answers) might relate to a special vacation, experience, or place of comfort. Sometimes the answers are simple, often clients answer, “the ocean,” or “the forest.” If they are more descriptive or specific, for example, naming a favorite beach in the Caribbean, you will need additional details to craft your images, or use descriptions that are general so as not to contradict the client’s memory.
Linda is a retired school administrator, and seventy four years old. We have worked together for an extended time to relieve her anxiety caused by chronic illness and subsequent prescribed medications. During an earlier meeting, Linda told me of a Hawaiian vacation that she enjoyed with her family. Her memory of the vacation is clear and the description vivid. Because I don’t want my images of Linda’s event to be in conflict with her memory (and possibly distracting), I chose to use small parts of what she had shared to create images at a near-micro level.
At this meeting, Linda told me that she was very anxious and concerned that she wouldn’t be able to relax enough to go into trance. I asked that she close her eyes and think, for a moment, about a walk that she had earlier described from her vacation. I said that for today’s session, a trance wasn’t necessary, only that she listen to my voice as well as she was able. I began in very generic terms, describing the tropical plants, the density of the jungle and contrasting vivid colors of flowers along the path. I then transitioned from talking in those very general terms about what could have been almost any jungle pathway in Hawaii to a level of fine detail; one that I suspected went far beyond Linda’s memory of the place.
In effect, this took Linda beyond the realm of her memory to a highly detailed description of the colors of individual leaves, the differences in texture between leaves, even the variation in colors between the front and back of a blade of grass as it moved in the wind, drops of water slowly descending the smooth leaf faces to collect in tiny pools where the leaves met the stem.
While I used Linda’s memory as a springboard, I moved from those things that likely were accurate about her experience directly to details so fine that she became immersed in that detail. All the while, I avoided saying anything that would distract Linda’s actual memory with contradiction, and she quickly went into trance.
An important part of my new client interview, especially for clients with limited prior hypnosis experience, is an overview of a typical hypnosis session. I like to describe each of the five parts of a hypnotherapy session (eye closure, induction, deepening, suggestion, arousal), followed by a “demonstration.” I explain that the purpose of the demonstration is to introduce the process, and that clients are welcome to listen to my explanation, or certainly are welcome to relax and enjoy the experience as if it were a regular session. In almost every case, the client goes into hypnosis.
Once in a while, we all meet one of those “difficult” clients who is skeptical, or says that he or she knows that hypnosis “won’t work on them. “ If they aren’t interested in a “demonstration,” I might ask if they ever daydream, or imagine something pleasant or comforting. Of course most will admit that they do. Using that as a point of agreement immediately opens the door for use of a descriptive metaphor to take them on a journey in hypnosis. Because this form of induction is very “soft,” the client may not acknowledge that their experience was even close to hypnosis. To ensure that clients don’t feel pressured by this first experience, I also will use a “soft” arousal, rather than a count or other more formal step. I finish the session with just a brief suggestive statement, such as, “When I ask you to open your eyes, you may be surprised by how relaxed you feel. Go ahead and open your eyes now.”
Of all the visual imagery journeys in which I lead my clients, the most common location is the ocean. Beaches, waves, and tides provide a perfect backdrop as there are opportunities for infinite description. Just taking a walk on the beach can induce hypnosis, whether it’s because “your feet are sinking into the warm sand, deeper with each step,” or as you “feel the cool, firm sand under your feet as you watch the waves slowly roll up on the beach, counting each wave by the number of breaths in between.”
In my first meeting with Dan, he told me that he was sure that hypnosis wouldn’t work for him, though he had run out of options to ease the anxiety that began with the beginning of his treatment for Bartonella, tick-borne bacterial illness common to those who also have experienced infection with Lyme disease. When I offered to talk Dan through the steps of a demonstration session, he sat up straight in his chair and appeared uncomfortable.
I asked him what he was feeling, and he said that he was starting to become anxious. “If it could be anywhere in the world, where would you rather be right now?” I asked. Dan thought for a moment, then said, “before I got sick, I used to love to climb out on the rocks on the north coast and fish. Sometimes I would just sit on the rocks and watch the ocean for hours.”
I suggested that he close his eyes, and began with, “This is all about relaxing. I want you to be comfortable and able to relax here, whether you experience hypnosis or not.” I asked Dan to imagine that he had climbed down to a large rock just a few yards above the water, and to nod when he could see the kelp as it lay flat on the surface of the water as the waves rolled out. When he nodded, I began to describe the color of the kelp as it turned from coppery brown to fluorescent blue as the light reflected off of its shiny surface. I continued for a “few waves,” introducing leaf shapes, colors and any other details I could think of.
Within a very few minutes, Dan’s eyes began to flutter. I continued with the descriptions, adding calming images and observations. I was careful to keep my tone soft and the images fluid and relaxing. When I invited Dan to open his eyes after about twenty minutes, he said, “That was wonderful. If hypnosis is anything like that, I think I might like it!” Eight sessions later, Dan told me that he wished he could continue hypnotherapy; however he was feeling so much better that he felt guilty taking the time off of work!
Beginning a journey by creating positive focus sets up a seamless transition into trance. The process is non-threatening, soft, and relaxing. Guiding clients comfortably into hypnosis has many applications and can be a truly powerful tool for your practice.
Roger Cooper Dent is a certified clinical hypnotherapist with a successful practice in Santa Rosa California.