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Hypnosis —
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Page Contents: Hypnosis / “Negative” Hypnosis / Cognitive Psychology / Negative Thinking / Changing Negative Thinking / Emotions and Thoughts: Putting it all Together



HYPNOSIS (from the Greek hypnos, sleep) in general is simply a sleeplike state of focused awareness. To say that hypnosis is “a sleeplike state” means that it isn’t sleep exactly, and therefore dreaming, for example, isn’t hypnosis either. And yet, in those moments we all experience just on the verge of falling asleep or waking up—moments called hypnagogic states—we are sort of awake and sort of sleeping, sort of conscious and sort of dreaming. When such an experience is induced deliberately, it’s called a trance.

Trances can be very useful clinically. In such a sleeplike state, a person can be very open to new and creative ways of looking at the world because rational logic—and old, restrictive, psychological defenses—can be bypassed.

Milton EricksonMilton Erickson, for example, often used a technique called confusion, in which he said things that on the surface seemed logically contradictory and yet in essence conveyed an ingenious creative truth. When patients heard these things while in a trance, they literally could not get anxious because anxiety and relaxation are mutually exclusive physiological states. The sympathetic nervous system controls arousal (and anxiety) and the parasympathetic nervous system controls relaxation, and only one system can be in control at any one time. So, when deeply relaxed patients in a trance heard Erickson say confusing things, they just gave up their conscious objections and accepted the underlying, healing truth that Erickson was speaking.

To experience a deep trance therapeutically, you generally need a hypnotist to direct the process, because your own conscious processes can’t function when so deeply relaxed.

You can, however, induce a lighter trance all by yourself; this is called self-hypnosis. Self-hypnosis can be induced by listening to relaxation tapes; it can be induced by creating your own visual imagery; it can be induced by meditation or Progressive Muscle Relaxation; and it can be induced by “talking to yourself,” as in autogenics. In all of these cases you experience bodily relaxation while maintaining a mental awareness that directs the self-hypnosis process by which you offer to yourself creative suggestions for new and healthy behavior.


With dedicated practice, some persons are able to achieve a deep state of self-hypnosis through a process called lucid dreaming. To do this, you utilize the naturally occurring trance-like state of dreaming by recognizing that you are dreaming and then intentionally redirecting the dream imagery for creative purposes. The hard part, of course, is to transition from a passive dream experience into an active self-hypnosis experience. But it can be done, with practice.





Anyone who is curious about hypnosis probably wonders if he or she can be hypnotized, and if so, how it feels.

Surprisingly, you have probably been in a hypnotic state many times, perhaps without realizing it. Getting so absorbed in a good book or a movie that you stop noticing what is happening around you is a dissociative, trance-like state (technically called nonpathological dissociation) that is a light form of hypnosis. And, as I said above, that dreamlike state we all experience just as we begin to fall asleep or wake up is an hypnotic experience.

In addition, we have all been hypnotized into a negative hypnotic state as well. Most people don’t think of it this way, but consider what happens when someone tells you, “You will never be able to do that.” Most likely you will accept that statement, you will yourself believe you can’t do it, and you will fail.

This leads to the fact that hypnosis is nothing but expectancy. If your expectations are positive, you will make your best effort and will likely succeed. But if your expectations are negative you will almost certainly fail.

Consider a child who out of curiosity tries to do something he has never done before; for example, say the child has just seen a golfer and now tries to hit a stone with a stick. His concerned parent yells at him, “You can’t do that!” Wouldn’t it be nicer if the parent had said, “I’m not sure it will work that way. It may or it may not. Let’s try, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll find out why.” Which parental reaction do you think will encourage the child to become creative and successful?

Unfortunately, the same sort of negative parental criticism is unwittingly given out by many physicians time and time again. It’s common for a physician, face grim with an air of authority and finality, to say, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing that can be done.” How many people lose all hope then and there, right in the supposed office of healing, when they have expectancies of failure planted in them by their own physicians?


I once had a dentist, well-trained in hypnosis, pull four of my wisdom teeth. In fact, I specifically chose him because he was trained in hypnosis. Before the operation he sat with me in his office and solemnly warned me of the potential danger of nerve damage if one of my teeth snagged a nerve as it was being pulled.
Then the dentist looked at me, and in a very soft tone and slow voice said, “Of course, this has never happened to anyone in my practice as long as I have given this warning beforehand.”
Was this all just a lot of foolishness? Of course the dentist was legally required to give the warning. But when he gave the warning as a hypnotic suggestion the roots of my teeth seemingly relaxed into soft noodles as they decided they weren’t going to snag on anything.
And when it was all over, he didn’t just hand me a prescription because there would be “a lot of pain” that night, nor did he lie and tell me there would be “no pain.” He told me, “There will be some bleeding and some pain, just as much as your body needs to heal itself properly as soon as it can. Then you will be fine.” And I was.
So compare the positive expectancy I did receive with the negative expectancy I could have received:






There will be some bleeding and some pain, just as much as your body needs to heal itself properly as soon as it can. Then you will be fine.

This type of operation can be very painful. I’ll give you some powerful medication to help you with the pain.



Very painful



A long time


All health-care providers, therefore, can increase their effectiveness in so far as they realize that healing is about expectancy, and that hypnotic language, in contrast to “negative hypnosis,” is about encouraging growth and health.

I learned the technical aspects of this lesson from a Lacanian psychoanalyst. Even though psychoanalysis and hypnosis are technically at opposite poles of theory (and this point is tangential to the point of expectancy, so I won’t go into it here), this man did impress upon me that all language has multiple layers of unconscious meaning, and that therefore the whole point of psychotherapy is to encourage a shattering of illusions about any one particular meaning and an opening up of alternate possibilities of meaning. He taught us that when a depressed client once complained to him, “Sometimes I feel like I’m not even part of the human race,” his analytic response was, “Someday you might win the race.” After reading this, so might you.




Many of the theoretical developments in the field of cognitive psychology have come from the research of two men, www.guidetopsychology.comAaron Beck and Albert Ellis. As the name implies, cognitive psychology focuses on the way we think and feel in the present. Consequently, the cognitive and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapies help us change unhealthy behavior by changing our thought processes—that is, the way www.guidetopsychology.com we think about the various events that we encounter throughout the course of our daily lives.

Now, all these therapies tend to boil down to one basic concept: when an emotion (for example, fear) follows an event (for example, encountering turbulent air in an airplane), the event itself isn’t the full cause of the emotional reaction.

“What?” you say.

Well, let’s stop here and consider the way it seems to happen:




Now, here’s the way the theory of cognitive psychology says it happens:





That is, according to the proponents of cognitive psychology, a belief comes between the event and the emotion. For example, when you first experience turbulence in an airplane, you might say to yourself, “Oh, no! Now we’re going to crash!” And so you feel afraid, and you develop the symptoms of an anxiety disorder.

But consider what would happen if your immediate thought was, “Wow! This is fun!” You would feel a completely different emotion than fear, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s the idea behind cognitive psychology. If you change the thinking, you change the emotional outcome—and when you change the emotional outcome, your outward behavior will change as well.


Actually, the premise of Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is that “thoughts cause emotions,” but the neurochemistry of emotion can be very complex, and things may not be as simple and direct as Ellis makes it sound.

Even though there may be a thought—more of less outside your awareness—behind every emotion, we all tend to routinely formulate conscious thoughts following our awareness of any emotion.

For example, if you feel discouraged by your inability to accomplish something, you might tell yourself, “You’ll never succeed at this!”

Consequently, the practical sequence of things is more like this:



Subliminal Belief


Conscious Belief


Moreover, more often than not our conscious thoughts following emotions tend to be negative beliefs that lead us right into failure. Therefore, developing your emotional awareness will help you recognize your thought processes, because emotions are signs—like instruments on an instrument panel—warning you of beliefs that may be sabotaging your success. Once you train yourself to be aware of those thoughts you can change the direction they take. And that leads us to the next section: negative thinking.


BE CAREFUL of your thoughts, for they will become words. 

Be careful of your words, for they will become actions. 

Be careful of your actions, for they will become habits. 

Be careful of your habits, for they will become character. 

Be careful of your character, for it will become your destiny. 

—Source unknown  




When our thinking patterns cause problems for us, this self-sabotage is usually the result of negative thinking. Below are several examples of how this works.

Keep in mind here that some of your negative thoughts—the most dark and ugly ones—are so shameful and frightening that you would not reveal them to anyone, not even your own psychotherapist. Is it any wonder, then, that for some persons psychotherapy can take a really, really long time?


Blaming. Either you make someone or something else responsible for your problems—in which case you perpetuate the belief that you are a victim—or you put all the responsibility on yourself—in which case you can become depressed and unable to take any action to solve your problems.
“If Bob hadn’t been late I wouldn’t have gotten a speeding ticket. It’s all his fault.”
“I’m such a stupid person. I can’t do anything right.”

Shoulds, Musts, and Oughts. You have the belief that either you or someone else has failed to live up to an expected standard.
“I shouldn’t be so bothered when the airplane hits a little turbulence.”
“My mother should be more understanding when I don’t want to fly across country to see her.”

Polarized Thinking. You think of things as polar opposites, with no room in between, so every effort you make is perceived according to the threat of a total failure.
“If I don’t get through this flight without panicking, that treatment program was just a waste.”
“If my back starts hurting I’ll never get any better.”

Overgeneralizing. Your use of terms such as all, always, everyone, etc. makes individual events seem universal.
“Another delay! Why does it always happen to me?”
“Everyone else gets to enjoy the flight, but I always have to suffer all the anxiety.”

Catastrophizing. You imagine the worst possible outcome and then react as if it will come true.
“What if I try to get on the plane but can’t? I’ll lose my job, and I will never be able to work again.”
“What if my back starts to hurt? It will be unbearable, and I will have to be in agony for hours.”

Resignation (or Being Controlled). Either you believe that you are controlled by others who have total power over your fate, or you believe that you are totally responsible for—and therefore controlled by—everyone else.
“My husband says psychology is a lot of bunk, so I can’t practice relaxation exercises.”
“If I don’t get over this quickly, the new project at work will fail.”

Emotional Reasoning. You assume that your negative beliefs associated with your feelings must be true.
“I feel scared. The plane is going to crash, I just know it.”
“There’s that back pain again. It’s hopeless; I’ll never get any better.”

Rumination (or Filtering). You focus only on the problem and nothing else, filtering out any positive elements of your experience.
“I can’t bear to look out the window when there is any turbulence.”
“When my back is hurting like this I can’t be bothered with what the children want.”

Entitlement. You have created a belief that you are entitled to a life without problems.
“Look at them. They don’t have to work at being relaxed. It’s not fair. Why do I have to work so hard?”




No adult ever needs the help of a psychologist to learn negative thinking. That’s because the adult received so much negative hypnosis as a child that negative thinking has become an assumed fact of life. Changing negative thinking, therefore, requires some intense, concentrated training to overcome the effects of previous experience.


The process of changing negative thinking necessitates the substitution of a functional thought for a dysfunctional thought. In theory, this is a very simple process; in fact, it’s the core of Cognitive Psychology. Yet in practice there can be one major, and often hidden, obstacle to the process: unconscious masochistic satisfaction can maintain dysfunctional thoughts with a tenacity that resists treatment itself. Therefore, it may be necessary to use psychodynamic psychotherapy to understand and resolve your hidden masochism before cognitive retraining can be effective.


The first step of changing negative thinking is noticing the thinking patterns in the first place. Thoughts that occur in response to triggering events are so deeply ingrained and usually happen so fast that we aren’t even aware of them. That’s why it can seem as though an event causes an emotion.

Therefore, if you make an effort to begin to notice any of your thoughts and keep a record of them, you can take the first step in developing the ability to prevent triggering events from taking you by surprise. Accordingly, as you listen to your inner thinking, write down as many internal statements as you can. Compare them to the styles of negative thinking outlined above.

Once you have identified the sorts of things you tend to tell yourself, you can work on changing—or disputing—the beliefs.

Blaming. To overcome this thinking pattern, remind yourself that your actions are the result of your own choices.
“Yes, Bob was late. But speeding was my own decision.”
For self-blame, remind yourself that you are doing the best you can and that progress takes time.
“I did the best I could. I’ll get better with practice.”

Shoulds, Musts, and Oughts. To overcome this thinking pattern, learn to see things the way they are, despite your feelings. Only then can you find a solution to the problem.
“Well, turbulence does scare me. But after I have read about it and understand what it’s all about, it won’t be so bad.”
“If my mother can’t understand my fear, that’s her problem. I’ll overcome this problem without her support.”

Polarized Thinking. To overcome this thinking pattern, be patient with yourself and accept progress at its own pace.
“I closed my eyes and felt comfortable for a half hour. That’s a big improvement over last time.”
“If my back starts to hurt, I’ll practice my relaxation exercises. I’ll get through it.”

Overgeneralizing. To overcome this thinking pattern, stay focused on the present, individual event.
“OK. The flight is delayed. Let’s see what can be done now to develop new plans to work around it.”
“Yes, I do feel anxious. As for others, maybe they are anxious too—but it doesn’t really matter. So let me just focus on my relaxation exercises.”

Catastrophizing. To overcome this thinking pattern, acknowledge your fear, and then find the logical flaw in the associated negative beliefs.
“OK. I will be afraid as I’m boarding. But have I ever run away from other problems before? No.”
“OK. Maybe my back will start to hurt. But I do have things I can do to relax. All things will pass.”

Resignation (or Being Controlled). To overcome this thinking pattern, give yourself credit for your own good sense. Realize that though you may be valuable to others, you are not so indispensable to others that you need to take responsibility for them.
“Well, maybe my husband doesn’t understand psychology, but I have seen how it has benefitted other people, and it just might help me.”
“I need to take the time to let my healing happen at its own pace. Other people at work can fill in if I can’t be in the lead.”

Emotional Reasoning. To overcome this thinking pattern, accept the feeling for what it is. Give it credit for what it is telling you. And then create a positive belief to cope with it.
“OK. I feel scared. No one enjoys being bumped around like this. But I’ve read about turbulence, and it’s not all that dangerous. We will get through it.”
“OK. I’m feeling some pain. So slow down. Be careful. Relax.”

Rumination (or Filtering). To overcome this thinking pattern, expand your awareness beyond the unpleasant situation and open yourself to positive aspects of the experience.
“Look. It’s a nice view. Sitting here paralyzed won’t make the plane any safer.”
“I have the skills to get through this. Look at how much fun the kids are having. What a joy to have them in my life.”

Entitlement. To overcome this thinking pattern, remember that life is not fair. But more than that, realize that every difficulty can draw strength, courage, and creativity out of you. Your trials can be a blessing, if you accept them with faith.
“Yes, many other people don’t seem to have to work at being relaxed. But who knows what other problems they have to struggle with. At least I’m discovering an inner peace I never had before.”




Cognitive psychology focuses primarily on changing the thought processes that underlay your dysfunctional behaviors. Nevertheless, a large part of psychological healing in general depends on recognizing and understanding your emotions, especially in so far as your emotions are the warning signs of underlying thoughts. So you might ask, “As I do the hard work of psychological insight necessary to become aware of my emotions, how can I be sure that the cognitive work I do to let go of my negative thoughts doesn’t just invalidate the very emotions I am trying to acknowledge?”

To answer this question, let’s use a simple example from everyday life. In order to let go of something, you first need to pick it up. For example, you can’t let go of a rope that is lying on the ground. If you want to let it go, it has to be in your hand. It doesn’t matter how long it has been in your hand or when you first picked it up; all that matters is that you know that you are holding it now.

Psychology works in a similar way. If you want to let go of something, you first need to pick it up. But what does it mean to pick up something psychologically? What does it mean to know that you are holding on to a dysfunctional behavior? Well, “to pick up something psychologically” means that you understand its psychological purpose.

In other words, to change dysfunctional behavior, it can be helpful to acknowledge and respect its original purpose. All dysfunctional behavior derives from childhood psychological defenses, and the whole point of a defense is to protect you. Therefore, respecting that original protective purpose of a defense, rather than just getting rid of the defense, will aid you in changing your behavior without invalidating your emotional life.

Here is an example of how that process can be outlined.

Identify the problem and your feelings.

I want to go to college, but I feel anxious and afraid.

State the negative beliefs underlying your feelings.

“Wanting anything is selfish.”
“I’m not worthy.”
“I don’t matter.”
“I don’t deserve to have any ambitions.”
“I will never succeed at anything.”

Identify the “voice” behind the negative beliefs. That is, is it the voice of your mother or your father or someone else?

It’s the voice of both my mother and my father. It’s my father because, as an alcoholic, he passively hid from taking responsibility in the family. It’s the voice of my mother in her anger at herself and at us children because of my father’s selfish passivity.

State the original purpose of the negative beliefs.

They protect me from feeling hurt by my father when he got drunk and broke his promises.

State the “voice” of the original protective purpose.

“You have a right to feel afraid. Staying hidden has kept you alive all your life. If you expose yourself now, you will be destroyed!”

Acknowledge the “voice” of the original protective purpose.

“I understand how much you fear betrayal. My father’s broken promises hurt deeply. But now there are other means of self-protection available that you didn’t know about in childhood. I can learn about them and use them.”

Dispute—that is, make a rebuttal to—the negative beliefs.

“Yes, having ambition is partly selfish, and  yet it can also be of use to others. It’s also true that if I get a college degree it will enhance my self-esteem and my prestige, and  yet it will allow me to do better work than I can do now. So if I go to college, everyone can benefit.”

State how the rebuttal still fulfills the original purpose of the negative beliefs.

Going to college will protect me from getting hurt; that is, it will protect me from the hurt of “burying” my true talents.

Predict how you will feel—and why you will feel that way—if you carry out your rebuttal.

I will feel sad because it will remind me that my father really wasn’t there for me.

Validate the underlying truth of those feelings. Then feel the pain as you experienced it as a child. Note that the previous points can be discovered relatively quickly through logic and intellect. This point requires some deep, emotional introspection and for that reason it is often the core work of psychotherapy.

“I felt very sad all throughout my childhood because I was constantly disappointed by my alcoholic father.” Yes, say it, and then feel what the child felt at the time.

State how those feelings can now be a positive motivation.

My sadness that my father wasn’t there for me can be an incentive for me to “be there” for someone else.

Make positive affirmations about your decision.

I will protect myself by going to college. I will learn how to be assertive and to protect my boundaries. I will make my best effort. I will not sabotage myself. I will “be there” for myself to validate my own emotional experiences, and  I will “be there” for others. I will never forget the betrayal inflicted on our family by my father, yet I will work to forgive him rather than get stuck like my mother in thoughts of resentment.




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Additional Resources
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy:
Albert Ellis Institute  provides information about Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: self-help, therapist referrals, workshops, lectures, training, and publications.
Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research  provides information about Cognitive Therapy: workshops, lectures, training, and publications.
The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists  provides current information concerning cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, including a searchable National Referral Database of certified cognitive-behavioral therapists.
REBT FAQ  — Questions and Answers about Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy from the Albert Ellis Institute.
Questions & Answers  about Cognitive Therapy from the Beck Institute.
Ego States:
Ego State Therapy  features online “reprints” of articles by hypnosis researchers John & Helen Watkins.
American Society of Clinical Hypnosis —“Founded by Milton H. Erickson, MD in 1957, ASCH promotes greater acceptance of hypnosis as a clinical tool with broad applications.”
Milton H. Erickson Foundation  provides information and training in the style of hypnosis used by Dr. Erickson, who was a master at healing unconscious conflicts using unusual and paradoxical techniques.
Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis  —“Founded in 1949, The Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (SCEH) is an international organization ... dedicated to the highest level of scientific inquiry and the conscientious application of hypnosis in the clinical setting.”
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Family Therapy
Psychology and Psychiatry—and Psychoanalysis
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Types of Psychological Treatment
The Unconscious
INDEX of all subjects on this website
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A Guide to Psychology and its Practice



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