It seems as if the interest in hypnosis is rooted in time, but the ideas many have of hypnosis are based on the one that occurs in the entertainment industry and which goes by the name of stage or stage hypnosis. At the same time, researchers and clinical psychologists are doing their best to dispel the aura of mystery that still surrounds hypnosis, largely due to the way it is presented for entertainment purposes.

It is important to emphasize that there are different types of hypnotic methods. These are different because the goals you want to achieve are different. The purpose of clinical hypnosis is to help people feel and function better. With the help of experimental hypnosis, the various parts of the brain and their way of functioning are examined. In stage hypnosis, the goal is to entertain an audience.

Hypnosis in clinical practice

In this article we want to address a particular aspect of the application of hypnosis in clinical practice, specifically its use in trauma processing.

The discussion about on the one hand cognitively oriented, on the other psychodynamic forms of therapy has been polarized to such an extent that other forms that combine elements from different directions have ended up in the shade. This applies eg modern hypnotherapy which empirically proved to be effective in more comprehensive trauma processing. If it concerns the processing of non-traumatic experiences, self-strengthening hypnosis with elements of positive suggestions and target images may be sufficient.

The concept of trauma seems to lack a clear definition. In medicine, it denotes an injury caused by external violence. In our everyday language and also in psychology, the meaning given to the concept varies. It can denote

– a special type of event which is either limited in time or takes place on repeated occasions
– an experience of one or more events of a special nature
– the strain an individual is exposed to through such events
– the damage that affects the individual due to of these events.

Clearly Misleading

The first definition is clearly misleading because there are no events that are inherently traumatic. On the other hand, there are traumatic experiences which usually have their origins in one or more external events that cause or have given rise to strong fear and where one experiences or has experienced that one is helpless and at a disadvantage. The fear can be so strong that you suppress all or parts of what you experienced. It ends up in an inner part of us, traditionally called our unconscious/subconscious, inaccessible in a normal waking state of consciousness. Indirectly, it can express itself in dreams and various types of symptoms.

In psychoanalysis, we talk about such experiences as repressed memories that need to be made aware of. Both concepts are actually misleading in this context.
1/ The experiences cannot be made conscious because they are already in a deeper part of our consciousness.
2/ Experiences that we are unable to recall in the usual waking state of consciousness cannot be called memories either, since memory is explicitly defined as recalled notion or the ability to recall.

In altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, we come into contact with these experiences but not in the form of memories but as real here and now experiences. It is only when the repressed experiences are processed in therapy that they can be transformed into memories which are then put on the shelf and no longer play an active role in our lives.

Better than talking about traumatic memories is the designation post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSS) which aims to describe the consequences the experiences have in that one experiences and reacts to the events that gave rise to them as if they were as real today as they were then they met. We experience this sense of reality with full force during hypnosis, where the hypnotized has an intense here and now experience as if she were in the middle of the action.

In Waking the tiger:

Healing trauma: The innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books 1997), Peter Levine has made a valuable contribution to the understanding of the response of humans and animals to events that create traumatic experiences. If eg If an antelope is attacked by a cheetah, it reacts to this life-threatening attack by ”freezing” its energy. According to Levine, it does this to play dead in front of its attacker and to desensitize itself to pain. The animal ”freezes” the energy it uses if it has an opportunity to escape from the situation it is in. The same can be done by a human who is under threat of death. It is a kind of shock state and at the same time a survival strategy. But in contrast to man, the animal – if it survives – can physically shake off the pent-up energy. Thereby, the body is reset again from unnecessary tension and from the memory of what happened.

Humans, like animals, do not have the ability to just shake off what happened. Therefore, she continues to walk around with ”frozen” or pent-up energy in the body, which in turn manifests itself in the form of various psychosomatic and other types of symptoms. In order for us to get an outlet for the pent-up energy, according to Levine, the primitive, most original part of our brain needs to be involved in trauma processing, the so-called reptilian brain. This means that when we go through a processing of traumatic experiences, we need to go through a phase where, just like an animal, we physically shake off what happened.

Does it eg if processing traumatic experiences in childhood, a Levinian shaking without exaggeration is a must. It exists as an element, as a completely decisive part in hypnotherapy. Figuratively speaking, a functioning trauma therapy involves a kind of thawing. Emotions and various types of physical reactions that have been frozen now begin to thaw and the energy in the body begins to flow freely again.


The reason for freezing is that you are unable to react or counter-react adequately in the situation you are in when you have a traumatic experience. Instinctively, like the antelope that was attacked by the cheetah and survived, we wait until we are out of danger and have the capacity to respond constructively by developing adequate counter-reactions to what has happened. Counterattack is the best defense in this case.

Responding physically is an important and often forgotten part of the solution, but expressly only a part. As humans have a more developed brain than other animals, it is natural for them to process situations also on a cognitive and emotional level, ie in a reflective and feeling way. In modern cognitively oriented hypnotherapy, one works on and integrates these different planes.

Some authors/psychologists

Some authors/psychologists warn that what happens in a therapy can be retraumatizing, ie that the client’s experiences in the therapy situation can mean a renewed traumatic experience and thus reinforce the problems instead of curing them. It is a well-known fact that people who have had traumatic experiences run a greater risk than others of later being affected by them even in objectively less stressful situations.

It may be justified to ask how it is that this surfacing of repressed experiences during hypnosis can have a healing and not a traumatizing effect. In order to shed light on that question, it is first of all important to make a distinction between traumatizing and processing. Piaget, Swiss psychologist and cognitive theorist, likened processing to our digestion. Just as the body cannot assimilate food without first processing it, we need to process our experiences in order to incorporate them and benefit from the experience.

With his so-called SIBAM model, Levine has given a good description of the various ingredients that characterize our experiences (unpublished, described eg in Babette Rothschild; The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. WW Norton & Compay 2000) Normally , our experiences consist of five different elements: sensation (Sensation), image (Image), behavior (Behaviour), feeling (Affect) and meaning (Meaning). In a complete experience, all five elements are integrated, while a traumatic experience can mean that one or a few elements are dissociated, separated from the experience in question. A traumatized person can eg be unable to feel and express their feelings about what happened.

The therapist’s fear of creating a new trauma in her client can prevent her from going as deeply into her experiences as she needs to in order to process them. Processing means getting access to all these elements, reacting fully to what happened and thus integrating, incorporating it, making it become a part of oneself instead of something that feels foreign and can be harmful. Processing is something we do automatically all the time, but we only notice it if our experiences are too complex or too negative in nature. In both cases, they can cause symptoms in the form of tension, worry, anxiety, etc

Traumatization and Processing

In a sense, traumatization and processing are opposites: traumatization divides, while processing heals, integrates. When we traumatize, we find ourselves in a squirrel’s wheel where we constantly repeat what we really want to get away from. Maybe it is our way of forcing ourselves to heal the experiences that stand and stomp. Processing, on the other hand, allows us to move forward. In order to learn from experience, we need to have the ability to preserve the memory of the traumatic without continuing to traumatize for the sake of it, i.e. without continuing to react as if the situation that initially caused us to experience something traumatic was still a reality here and now.

But let’s get back to the question we asked: If a client is in a hypnotic state and what she experiences feels as real as what originally gave rise to traumatic experiences, why does this not lead to retraumatization but to processing and by extension to healing?

Professionally conducted modern hypnotherapy always begins with a period of ego-strengthening training of shorter or longer duration depending on the client’s needs. The purpose of this is for the client to become strong enough to be able to confront his unprocessed experiences in ways that lead to processing, ie to the incorporation of all aspects of an experience. This self-strengthening work continues and runs like a red thread throughout the therapy, i.e. not only during the initial training but also during processing. It takes place both in the form of a conversation and during hypnosis, where the client constantly increases his ability to create calm and well-being. Simplistically, you could say that you need to feel well enough to be able to deal with what makes you not feel as well as you have the capacity to do.

Causes of Anxiety Disorder in Children


The most central part of modern hypnotherapy is based on observation training. The ability to observe is the royal road into the deeper hypnotic states where we gradually experience greater well-being. Doing this is a prerequisite for becoming strong enough to face difficult experiences without being consumed by them. In the hypnotic states where we encounter these, we are then not only experiencing but at the same time observing. The part of us that we can call ”the observing self” is a wide-awake observer of what is happening here and now. With the help of this, we create distance from what is happening. From an outside perspective, we can then consider another part of us, the part that is in the middle of the action. Is it e.g. When it comes to traumatic childhood experiences, the adult observer is always there as a witness and support for our inner child who comes into contact with experiences he could not bear and did not manage to get in touch with before. In addition, the therapist is there as additional support and as a guarantor of security and guidance.


In summary, we can say that when we come into contact with traumatic experiences in a hypnotic state, the situation is not identical to the situation or situations that gave rise to these. But it is similar enough to the original one(s) to allow for successful processing and lead to healing.

We particularly want to emphasize that the important thing is not to come into contact with traumatic experiences, but above all how to do so. Pure catharsis can certainly be retraumatizing. There is therefore every reason to question so-called experiential therapies where i.a. the observing self shines with its absence.

Finally, it should also be mentioned that, contrary to Freud, we regard our so-called unconscious/subconscious as a rationally functioning conscious part of ourselves. If you work with hypnotherapy in a modern way, which i.a. means the self-enhancing way we advocate. Our long-term experience shows that this inner part of us shares unprocessed experiences with us at the rate and to the extent we can handle. The processing takes breaks when necessary and is interspersed with ego-strengthening work. Bit by bit, we are confronted with fragments of experience that are finally integrated into an overall picture and we gradually learn to react adequately to what is happening.

Under the new and reassuring conditions that prevail in a functioning therapy situation. During processing we gradually build up a new positive world alongside the old traumatized one. For a period we live in two parallel worlds before the positive world completely takes over. This manifests itself in a phenomenon that clients in hypnotherapy usually notice: The more one gradually dares to let go and react in hypnosis. The greater the ability to calm down between rounds and afterwards and achieve a deep well-being. Or as one client put it: How is it possible to be in heaven and hell at the same time?

Jonas Sandberg

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