“Trauma is hell on earth. Trauma resolved is a gift from the gods.” ― Peter A. Levine
Hypnotherapy has been used to reverse trauma for over 150 years, beginning with the work of German physician Franz Mesmer and continuing with Sigmund Freud. Ever since World War I, the first truly modern mechanized war, hypnotherapy has been used successfully to combat shell shock and other forms of physical/mental illness acquired in war and its aftermath.
What is Hypnosis?
Hypnosis is not magic. Basically, it’s a natural state of mind in which relaxation of the critical factor (our ability to compare a situation to our experience and belief system) allows for directed focus. In hypnotherapy the focus lies on some form of positive suggestion. Trance is natural, in that, whether clients know it or not, they experience trance multiple times a day. Working with a hypnotherapist, the client accesses a trance state with the purpose of reprogramming subconscious perceptions and reactions. Interestingly, the elements of hypnotic state and the symptoms of PTSD have much in common, and that what makes hypnosis an ideal form of therapy to treat it.
What is PTSD?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may experience four types of symptoms: 1) nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts; 2) hyper-vigilance, insomnia/restlessness, and concentration problems; 3) avoidance, as in staying away from people, situations, conversations, and places that bring up memories and emotions from the traumatic event; and 4) negative self-concept and/or lack of positive emotions, which sometimes result in detachment so severe that the details of a trauma blur or can’t be consciously accessed almost like amnesia.
The three main aspects of hypnotic trance include absorption (hyper focus), suggestibility (taking on emotional states or beliefs), and dissociation (a feeling of separation from the self). Similarly, a PTSD victim experiencing a flashback is hyper-focused on aspects of the memory, experiences an emotional reaction to the memory of the traumatic event, and feels separation from the self. Of the three aspects of trance, dissociation has the strongest link to PTSD. Dissociation during or after a traumatic situation is a natural self-protective coping response. In fact, one of the most common reports of rape victims is an out-of-body experience during the assault. While dissociation may occur unexpectedly in respect to trauma, during hypnosis, it is brought on deliberately in a safe, structured, controlled manner to help victims reverse or neutralize their emotional reaction in relation to the traumatic event.
Why is Hypnosis so effective at treating PTSD?
PTSD patients have a reportedly high hypnotisability. This is because the victim’s state of mind during or after the trauma resembles the hypnotic state. Their attention focus is narrowed, and the person experiences dissociation. This suggestible state of mind influences how memories of a traumatic event are stored and can be retrieved. Since PTSD patients experience a kind of trance state when experiencing symptoms, they are easy for a skilled hypnotherapist to hypnotize. Under hypnosis, the therapist can guide the client to neutralize negative emotions and memories regarding the event.
How does PTSD affect the brain?
Just as with chronic pain, in which key parts of the brain learn to send pain messages even when the body itself has healed, PTSD maintains the feeling of trauma long after the trauma has passed. And, the neurological mechanisms that result in PTSD affect particular parts of the brain. Patients manifest excessive activation of the amygdala, the roughly almond-shaped mass of gray matter inside both cerebral hemispheres. This area is involved with experiencing of emotions. During the traumatic event, the victim needs to react quickly without analyzing information, so this response precedes conscious judgment. Also involved is the hippocampus, the elongated ridges on the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain. The hippocampus is thought to be the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system. Memory of the event is trauma is held in emotional centers and can stimulate the nervous system. Therefore, when something triggers memory of the event, the victim bypasses conscious processing for the nervous system, causing sweats, anxiety, pain, respiratory and cardiac changes. Simultaneously, the memory deactivates the left anterior prefrontal cortex, responsible for the verbal expression of thoughts and emotions. So, while regions which experience strong emotional and physical responses are activated, the ability to communicate these feelings rationally is reduced.
What types of hypnosis are used to treat PTSD?
This is why talk therapy, or the conscious cognitive reframing of the trauma, does little to improve symptoms, while hypnotherapy can have often immediate and long-lasting benefits. Abreactive hypnotherapy, which many therapists would term as a “regression” back to the traumatizing event, allows the client to consciously process the emotional and physical experiences, to slow them down and think them through, to interact with key figures, in a complete and more satisfying manner. The clients gain perspective on their role in the event and are able to assign meaning to the event itself.
Another type of hypnotic induction, called active-alert hypnosis, utilizes the entire physical body to relay suggestion. During trance, the client engages in active physical movement while maintaining intense mental and emotional focus. The therapist and the PTSD victim work together to reinforce the person’s sense of inner control, and by engaging the entire body, the memory is spread to other parts of the brain, thus helping the patient process it and neutralize formerly intense emotions. Patients can also learn what are called “anchors” and other autosuggestion techniques which can be practiced outside the therapy to reduce the symptoms.
Lastly, hypnosis can also be used as a supportive psychotherapy. Hypnotherapy provides all clients with a life long tool that can help them regulate emotions, change habits, and improve sleep. For some, learning to relax constitutes the most important aspect of treatment. Through affirmations, visualizations, and relaxation techniques, PTSD patients can directly address related symptoms, such as insomnia or anxiety attacks. Therapists found that the isolated treatment of sleep disturbances, for example, successfully improved the victims’ mood significantly and lessened the negative effects of PTSD. The fact that the client gains useful tools that can be carried through life also provides a sense of satisfaction and control.
Real-life Success stories...
Renown classic film director John Huston shot the World War II documentary “Let There Be Light,” which shows severely shell shocked soldiers recovering from PTSD with the aid of hypnosis and other therapeutic techniques, such as art and physical therapy. The dramatic before and after footage of the men shows that miracles with hypnotherapy are indeed possible.
The typical contemporary PTSD client is much higher functioning than the soldiers chosen for Huston’s documentary. However, whether their trauma stems from parental abuse or spousal abuse, witnessing a crime, or surviving a devastating car accident, their psychological pain is real and can affect any and all aspects of life. A client’s sexual abuse as a child can sabotage otherwise healthy adult relationships. My own husband nearly lost his life in a surgery gone wrong due to surgeon error. The resulting PTSD was so severe that he experienced pain and depression for years, until he worked with a hypnotherapist. After treatment, he was able to get outpatient surgery to reverse some of the damage. He came home feeling happy and totally comfortable.
Reversing severe trauma may require the client to relive some dark emotions, but by finally addressing them, by slowing them down and processing them fully, by interacting with the memory of key figures in the trauma, the client creates a healthy relationship with the past and is able to move forward.
American Psychiatric Association (2013): Trauma and StressorRelated Disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)
American Psychiatric Association (2013): Dissociative Disorders. 2020 Volume 44, No. 4 In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)
Abramowitz, E. G., Barak, Y., Ben-Avi, I., Knobler, H.Y. (2008): Hypnotherapy in the Treatment of Chronic Combat-Related PTSD Patients Suffering from Insomnia: A Randomized, ZolpidemControlled Clinical Trial. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 56:3, 270–280
Huston, John, World War II Documentary film “Let There Be Light.” 1944-6, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRqgpSpDdp4
Spiegel, D. (1988): Dissociation and Hypnosis in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1:1, 17–33