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Trance as a therapy: A hypnosis self-experiment

Larissa Warneck
March 8, 2018

I used to believe hypnosis was utter nonsense, something that esoteric people with swinging pendulums do. However, a self-experiment taught me how wrong I was. Medical hypnosis can actually work. Larissa Warneck reports.

Image: Colourbox

The waiting area of the outpatient department for natural medicine at Berlin's university hospital Charité consists of a few wooden chairs that are nailed to the grey wall of the corridor. The glare of the ceiling light bounces off the brown linoleum floor. From time to time, small groups of people enter the department through a swinging glass door – an old couple supporting each other; two students chatting loudly about an exam; a small child playing on the staircase, its mother watching anxiously.

I'm feeling nervous. Conducting interviews is one thing, but being hypnotized does not happen every day, at least not to me. I wonder why I am scared. Is it the fear of the unknown? Or the fear of losing control over my thoughts and actions, passing the reigns of my entire being into a stranger's hands? Immediately, I try to comfort myself: The man is a doctor. He is a professional, who has studied hypnosis and has probably hypnotized hundreds of people before me.

How can hypnosis help?

The glass door swings open once again. This time, a man approaches me. He smiles and extends his hand: "Michael Teut, it's nice to meet you." I shake it. He has a calm and trusting manner and I slowly feel the tension leaving me. I follow him into the consulting room.

Michael Teut has been the head of the Charité outpatient department for several years now. He is a specialist in general medicine and homeopathy. One day, during a conference, he participated in hypnosis training and enjoyed it so much that he decided to train as a hypnotherapist.

"Many patients come to me because they are stressed and exhausted. Hypnosis helps them to relax, discover new perspectives and activate inner energy sources," Teut explains. Hypnosis is further used to enhance psychotherapies in order to relax patients or encourage behavioral changes.

People who want to be hypnotized should go to a hypnotherapist who belongs to an accredited societyImage: Colourbox

At the doctors, hypnosis can support people with irritable bowel syndrome, pain, or sleeping disorders, and people who want to change their habits around smoking, exercising or their diet. "Hypnosis is especially significant when it comes to medical procedures, such as minor operations. It can be applied to reduce anxiety and increase trust," says Teut.

And so the self-experiment begins

Teut wants to know whether I have brought an issue that I want to discuss. I nod. "Sometimes I pick at or bite my fingernails," I reply, embarrassed. It is a good issue to work with, he says. However, he warns me that one session won't suffice to give up the habit completely.

Although hypnosis can also take place whilst lying down, I am now asked to get comfortable in my chair and select a spot on the wall. Lying on the shelf opposite me is a plaster roll made of green plastic. I choose it as my reference point. "While you gaze at your point of choice, you may notice that your sight becomes blurry and your eyes are growing heavier and tired," I hear the hypnotherapist's soft voice say. My eyes start watering immediately.

The green plastic spool is all I can see. Everything around it is dark, as though I was looking through a paper tube.

Trance is like falling asleep

Now, I am asked to regulate my breathing; allow sounds, thoughts and feelings to glide past me like clouds in the sky. I am to let myself "be carried, to drift and to let go", the voice says. Deeper and deeper it guides me into the trance. It is similar to drifting off to sleep. Although I am still aware of my body and can still hear the rush of cars on the road outside, everything seems far, far away.

At this exact moment, something extraordinary is happening in my brain. Contrary to popular belief, hypnosis is not a state in which the hypnotized person loses control over their body and mind. Research into the mechanisms of hypnosis has shown that the brain's activity status merely changes. This can be observed with the help of the electroencephalogram (EEG), a technique that shows brain waves.

In our waking state, our brain activity is measured in so-called beta waves. In this state our eyes are open and our mind is active. When we close our eyes — our exciting surroundings disappearing behind our eye lids and our body slowly relaxing — the EEG will show a very different brain activity.

"During hypnosis the neuronal activity decreases. The EEG reflects this in alpha and theta waves," explains Wolfgang Miltner, senior professor for clinical psychology at the Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena, Germany. "The lower the frequency on the EEG, the deeper the trance."

Teut adds that trance is actually nothing special. "Most people experience the state of trance, without consciously recognizing it. For example, when you are on a train and watching the countryside rush past you; your gaze goes blurry and after a while you start dreaming. Even that is a kind of trance."

Dr. Michael Teut
Michael Teut is the senior physician of the outpatient department for natural medicine at Berlin's university hospital CharitéImage: Privat

My comfy place

Step by step the voice carries me deeper into the relaxation: "Imagine a staircase that leads to your comfy place." The image of a wrought iron spiral staircase floats to the surface of my consciousness. I can feel the cold metal of the curved rail beneath my hand; see the interwoven ornaments and delicate engravings.

I slowly ascend the stairs. "Once you have reached the landing, you will find a suitcase," says the soft voice. Immediately, a small, red, leather suitcase appears at the top of the stairs. "Place everything that may stop you from sinking deeper into the trance into the suitcase." I rush up the stairs and throw everything into it: my handbag, because it's always in the way and annoys me; my laptop, as it reminds me of work; and my mobile phone, so nobody can reach me in my comfy place. I step over the threshold.

The room is bright. Sunlight glistens through a tall window onto a large bed. White linen curtains flutter in a soft breeze that is blowing through the open window. A green palm tree stands in a corner. A golden shimmer lies in the air. "Please find your favorite spot and take a seat," I hear the quiet voice say. Automatically, I move towards the window. The windowsill is wide enough for me to sit on it comfortably.

The red knot

"And now I would kindly ask you to think of a situation in which you've experienced the behavior that you want to change," says the voice. My heart starts to race. A sudden cold creeps through me. I shiver.

"While you remain in trance, you can execute this hand movement in slow motion, when you pick at or bite your fingernails." I notice how my fingers obey. The thumb of my right hand starts scratching the skin of the middle finger and pushing back the cuticle. In what kind of situations do I behave like this, the voice wants to know. "When I am stressed," I hear myself mumble. "Why?" asks the voice. I answer that it is a way of getting rid of excess energy. "Where do you feel that energy?" the voice wonders.  "In my stomach," I reply. At that moment, I realize that a tight knot has formed in my belly. 

The voice asks me about the knot's color. I answer automatically: "red." From far, far away my consciousness is wondering why I know this. "How can the knot be loosened?" the voice asks quietly. "I need to take some deep breaths," I mutter. Immediately, the voice asks me to try it.

I breathe in and out, taking deep gulps of air. Slowly, the tension leaves me, the knot loosens. The voice wants to know whether this relief has a color. "Light yellow," I reply and again I feel this curiosity, because I am surprised by my own answer.

"Permit yourself to be carried by this light yellow, this relaxation," the voice recommends. "Your nervous system, your physical memory can automatically learn from this posture, this breathing, this light yellow." The voice asks me to place my thumb and index finger together and allow the relaxation to intensify. 

What is happening in our brain?

This recommendation is what psychologists call a suggestion — a process during which the feelings, behavior or thoughts of a person in trance can be guided by the hypnotist. "Suggestion actually affects brain regions that are responsible for certain activities. During hypnosis, the brain does exactly what it is told to do," explains Miltner. "Information processing is therefore influenced and implemented."

At the university in Jena, Miltner and his team are studying the effects of hypnosis on pain. In one experiment, for instance, the hypnotized test subjects were given pain stimuli onto their finger. After only 150 to 300 milliseconds, imaging techniques showed a strong reaction in the brain. Next, the hypnotherapists gave the suggestion: "Imagine you take your hand and place it into a glove filled with a cooling liquid. The liquid numbs your hand and you can't feel the pain anymore."

"It actually happens that the pain stimulus is not processed anymore, although it is given regularly," Miltner explains. "You can observe a clear reduction of activity in the somatosensory cortex, the brain region which usually perceives pain."

In scientific circles it is widely known that processes within the hypnotized brain are similar to those that take place during a relaxed state. "Predominantly, brain structures are involved which relax us. These include several neurotransmitters, such as GABA, which makes sure that we can unwind," says Miltner. "The hypothalamus is a sort of conductor for our neurological state of activity. It is a structure that calms our breathing and lowers our blood pressure. Suggestion activates the hypothalamus. In that instance, similar processes take place as when falling asleep or taking sedatives."

A quick awakening

I feel relaxed again. My heartbeat has settled down once more. My eyes are still closed, my arms are lying limply on the chair's arm rests and my thighs are heavy on the seat. The soft voice tells me to do this breathing exercise every time I'm stressed. "That way your body can automatically remember and let go." I could support this exercise by placing thumb and index finger together again, says the voice.

Gradually, I am to prepare to leave my comfy place. "Retrieve from the suitcase whatever you want," I hear the soft voice saying. I walk straight past it. I will pick up the stuff later, I think.

The hypnotherapist's voice is now getting louder: "Step by step you will gradually return to this room and this time." The voice is now taking on form. I slowly understand that it belongs to Michael Teut. He is now counting fast and loud from zero to ten. 

I open my eyes. It takes me a while to get used to the light and the sounds. Everything seems brighter and louder. My vision is blurred as though I have just resurfaced from a deep sleep. "What an experience," I hear myself say. "I didn't even know that I had this room inside of me."

An unfounded fear

The fear of losing control and the fear of the unknown that I had experienced about 30 minutes ago, now seems completely pointless. "Unlike show hypnosis, there is no loss of control in medical hypnosis," Teut explains. "Trance is a platform which the therapist and patient use to work together as a team. An open, creative dialogue develops that allows the patient to discover something new for him- or herself. And the hypnotherapist accompanies their patient on that journey."

A hypnotherapy session costs about 70 to 200 Euros per hour. People who want to be hypnotized should definitely make sure that they go to an accredited hypnotherapist who belongs to a recognized society. "These societies also have members' lists where one can find information on accredited hypnotherapists close to home," Teut emphasizes.