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Hypnosis - Fact From Fiction

Updated: Jan 23

Mention hypnosis and it probably conjures images of a mysterious Svengali-type character swinging a fob watch on a chain while instructing some unsuspecting punter to "look into my eyes". Like meditation, it's a term mired in confusion and misconception, for which Hollywood portrayals of the art are largely to blame. However, used correctly it can be a tool for powerful therapeutic change and transformation, a means of releasing inhibitions, overcoming unhelpful fears and phobias and over-writing old and destructive habit patterns. Such is the labyrinth of mythology which has been built around hypnosis over the years that attempting to sift fact from fiction is no simple task. Like many people, my introduction to it came through television shows such as The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna, in which members of the public would be invited up on stage to make fools of themselves in the name of entertainment. Stage hypnosis has its place as enjoyable theatre but it's also at least partly responsible for some of the misunderstandings surrounding hypnosis and the lack of proper appreciation of its wider applications. If I only had a pound for every client who's greeted me with the line: "You'd better not be planning on making me bark like a dog", I'd be a very rich man indeed.

Hypnosis has its origins in ancient Shamanic tribal traditions which used ritual practices such as drumming, chanting and dance to induce trance for healing purposes. So-called "sleep temples" were commonly used as healing centres in the Ancient Egyptian and Greek civilisations where a combination of darkened rooms, hypnotic herbs, rhythmic chanting and sensory overload were deployed to build powerful trance states to help cure people's ills. The advent of Christianity drove such practices underground for centuries, during which time anyone caught using hypnosis ran the risk of being tried and executed for witchcraft. It eventually staged a comeback in Enlightenment France in the 18th Century with the work of Franz Anton Mesmer, regarded by many as the "father" of modern hypnosis and whose discoveries, dubbed "Mesmerism", paved the way for hypnotherapy to become mainstream.

Hypnosis found a whole new audience through the colourful career of Victorian showman Walford Bodie (1869-1939), who hailed from Aberdeen and lived for a period of time in Fochabers - the same rural village in the north-east of Scotland where my late mother spent her final years. Bodie was known by the name of 'The Electrical Wizard' for his ability to give people electric shocks (a rather neat and completely harmless hypnotic trick which I've deployed myself to great effect). He claimed to be able to use electricity, hypnosis and manipulation to cure all manner of ailments and disabilities. Bodie's performances were enormously popular in the early years of the 20th century and inspired both Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin. The handsome Scotsman claimed to be 'The Most Remarkable Man on Earth' and at the height of his fame became the highest paid entertainer in the world. His stage shows included elements of magic and ventriloquism but his spectacular success was based largely on his apparent miracle cures for ailments. His show posters even included the invitation to 'Send Your Cripples'. The medical profession, sceptical of this new and unproven art, was outraged by Bodie's success and attempted to smear him as a "quack" to drive him out of business. The resulting hysteria led to riots in which Bodie was pelted with eggs on stage by an angry mob of students during a performance at the Glasgow Coliseum and his effigy was burned on the streets of London. He staged a remarkable recovery from this setback though and by the early 1930s he owned a London nightclub and a houseboat - his 'floating palace' - which he named 'La Belle Electra'. He collapsed on stage in 1939 after the end of a season at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and died days later at the age of 70.

Bodie's influence can still be felt strongly in the performances of stage hypnotists of the modern era. Among these, the aforementioned Paul McKenna is probably one of the most famous household names, though even he has stepped away from the stage-show aspect of hypnosis in order to focus on raising awareness of its therapeutic benefits. McKenna is now one of the leading hypnosis and personal development trainers in the world, specialising in working with PTSD, severe trauma and pain control and has published numerous self-help books, CDs and DVDs on the subject. Many of his one-to-one clients are celebrities, such as comedian Rob Brydon who credited McKenna with helping him overcome his fear of flying, and David Walliams who used him to help with his charity swim across the English Channel in 2006. Stephen Fry has advocated McKenna's weight-loss strategies and Ellen DeGeneres credited him with helping her quit smoking.

Another figure who has done much to popularise hypnosis in recent years is mentalist Derren Brown, whose stage and television shows have introduced the concept to a whole new audience. Like Walford Bodie before him, Brown is a natural performer and his shows are a masterclass in the arts of suggestion, misdirection, psychology and sheer showmanship. Brown's methods are disliked by some in the self-improvement industry who feel his controversial stunts bring hypnosis into disrepute. Personally I'm grateful to him for introducing a younger generation to the subject and for making them curious about concepts like perception and how the mind works. What I call "the fun side" of hypnosis, including mentalism, can be great for building rapport with young people in particular and for getting them into a state of curiosity - and when someone's curious, that's when they're at their most receptive to change work. The likes of Derren Brown, David Blaine and Dynamo have done much to raise awareness of the power of perception, as did the hit 2013 movie Now You See Me, about a team of four talented illusionists who use their skills to execute audacious heists. The mesmeric arts have never been more in vogue, as evidenced by this year's Britain's Got Talent in which no fewer than five magicians/illusionists made it through to the grand final. More young people than ever before are questioning the narrow version of reality they've been sold and are broadening their field of perception to view the world in widescreen. And that can only be a good thing.

For all the theatrics surrounding stage versions of the art, there is actually nothing remotely mysterious about the science behind hypnosis. In fact, you’re frequently in a state of light hypnotic trance without even realising. Have you ever had the experience of driving in your car but not been able to remember details of any of the roads you drove on or the cars that passed by you? Your mind was elsewhere, deep in thought, but on a subconscious level you were still fully in control of the vehicle and able to react to any situation in front of you. This is an example of a trance state. While in a state of hypnosis, you are always in control. In fact, all hypnosis is ultimately self-hypnosis. The hypnotist simply helps to facilitate your experience. Hypnotherapy isn’t about being made to do things – it’s about empowerment. It’s a very natural state of altered consciousness in which a person is able to narrow the focus of their attention and direct it with the help of appropriate suggestions made by the therapist. Contrary to common belief, it's not mind control, you can't "get stuck" in a hypnotic state and, in over 200 years, not one single person has ever been harmed by it. So there.

Hypnosis works by bypassing the analytical left-hand-side of the brain in order to communicate directly with the right-hand-side. When conscious control of the mind is inhibited, the subconscious is awoken and this is the part that has the ability to alter a person's behaviour and physical state. The subconscious is the most powerful part of the human mind and controls all of our habits, feelings, emotions, beliefs, our permanent memory and the Autonomic Nervous System. It's also home to the imagination, which plays a powerful role in how we perceive the world around us. The subconscious controls all the things that we do automatically without having to think consciously, such as breathing, digesting food, the beating of the heart, the circulation of the blood and the healing of injuries. When we cut ourselves, we don't have to tell the body to heal. The subconscious takes care of that all by itself. By communicating directly with this invisible powerhouse, which is what happens in hypnosis, phenomenal feats of self-healing and personal transformation become possible. The healing power of the subconscious is almost certainly the force at work in extraordinary accounts of faith healing in which people who are sick, injured and dying confound the opinions of doctors to make seemingly impossible recoveries. More than a thousand cases have been scientifically recorded in which supposedly incurable diseases vanished of their own accord. Almost all had one thing in common – the patient refused to give up and displayed extreme willpower and positive thinking, which they used as weapons against the illness. Like hypnosis, factors such as faith and positivity enable us to bypass the natural defences of the left-brain, freeing the subconscious to work its limitless magic.

Thom Shillaw: The Jedi Master and urban shaman who taught me everything I know about hypnosis, body language and unconscious communication.

My first direct experience of the therapeutic side of hypnosis came during my recovery from stress-related illness and depression a few years ago. Whilst the practice of meditation and mindfulness had by this point resolved many of my symptoms, I was nevertheless still being blighted by recurring nightmares about my former career as a journalist - something other forms of therapy had been unable to shift. This led me to seek out Thom Shillaw - an Edinburgh-based hypnotherapist and world-class trainer who ran a series of monthly Meet-up and practice groups for people with an interest in the field. Thom, a charismatic and mesmerising individual with a forensic insight into people's problems, had achieved international acclaim some years earlier following a well-publicised mass-curing of acrophobia (fear of heights) as well as for the successful treatment of colour-blindness - a condition conventional medicine had claimed couldn't be cured. In 2013 he used hypnosis to treat a Norwegian woman who had been diagnosed with three large cysts on her uterus. Following the hypnosis session, doctors confirmed that the cysts had completely vanished. Curious as to whether hypnosis might be able to provide the answer to my own problems, I went along to one of his open sessions at the Euro Business Centre in Edinburgh one night in 2014. The theme of the group that evening was 'Hypnotic Pain Relief' and many of those who'd turned up were suffering from niggling aches and pains of various descriptions for which they were seeking a cure. The use of hypnosis in alleviating pain dates back to the 1840s when Scottish surgeons James Braid and James Esdaile pioneered its use as an alternative to anaesthetic in surgical operations. Whilst working in India, Esdaile performed 300 major and 1000 minor operations using only hypnotic anaesthesia, including arm and breast amputations and tumour removal. I had a healthy scepticism but watched with interest as Thom performed a demonstration on a female athlete suffering from a hip injury. I happened to be afflicted by back pain myself at the time so was fascinated to know whether it could be alleviated. Thom's method was unorthodox - he told a load of rambling, convoluted stories to his audience while his hypnotic subject swayed in her chair in a light trance. Some of those present were bemused by the demo - there was some chuntering in the back row from those who didn't understand what was going on. Why all the stories? What was it all about? When will he get to the point? One person even walked out in a huff after being reprimanded by Thom for crinkling a paper cup. Fortunately I was curious enough to see it through to the end. And thank God I did, because what happened before the night was through was remarkable. By the time Thom was finished telling his stories, everyone in the crowd who'd previously complained of niggling aches and injuries was suddenly reporting being completely pain-free. Not just the athlete he'd been overtly working on in the demo, but everyone! That's when I realised that the back pain which had been troubling me for weeks had mysteriously vanished. The penny dropped. All the bizarre stories which Thom had been telling throughout the evening had been embedded with powerful hypnotic metaphors designed to resolve the pain issues of every single person in the room. Whilst our conscious attention had been distracted by the work he was doing on the athlete, Thom had been covertly working on the subconscious of each and every one of us without us even realising it.

Pain serves a useful purpose when it's acting as a warning system to alert us to something that's wrong within the body. But sometimes the mind forgets to turn off that pain sensor long after the physical problem has been resolved. This is what happens in cases of psychosomatic or chronic pain where doctors are unable to find anything physically wrong with a patient. In cases such as these the patient isn't faking. The pain is very real but it's being generated by the mind, rather than by a body part. The mind has either forgotten to switch the pain sensor off after a previous injury or ailment, or else it's using pain as a means of trying to tell you to slow down and de-stress. The reason hypnosis is so effective as a means of pain control is that the therapist can communicate directly with the subconscious, where the pain is originated, and switch the pain off. Here a word of caution is necessary. As I mentioned above, pain can serve an important function when it's alerting you to something that's genuinely wrong so you should always, always get it checked out by a doctor. Hypnotherapy isn't a substitute for conventional medicine but a complement to it, and can often provide the answer after other methods have failed.

To say that I was blown away by Thom's demonstration of hypnotic pain control would be an understatement and I knew right there and then that this was a subject I wanted to know much more about. Within weeks I'd arranged a private session with Thom in which he rapidly got to the bottom of my recurring nightmares and flushed them out entirely. I went on to train under him to become a certified master hypnotherapist and body language practitioner, learning how careful observation of subtle body language cues could be used to detect and treat the underlying root causes – or reference memories – of problem behaviour. Thom, a former sports nutritionist who worked with boxers such as Prince Naseem Hamed and other elite athletes, has gone on to pioneer his own revolutionary therapeutic system, dubbed the Shillawian method. He taught me how to perform hypnosis conversationally by layering stories with metaphor - an incredibly powerful and effective tool for bringing about positive change. He became my Jedi Master and mentor and a close personal friendship has developed which endures to this day. It's no exaggeration to say that I wouldn't be where I am now or doing what I'm doing were it not for him. The man's a genius.

One of the most important things I learned from Thom is that the issue people come to you with is very seldom the real problem. Clients will often book an appointment for something like smoking cessation, weight loss or addiction, but the real issue is the reason why they’re smoking or over-eating in the first place. Almost always there’s some underlying cause of stress underpinning the problem behaviour and that’s the issue which needs to be addressed in order for change work to have lasting benefit. It's relatively simple to persuade someone to quit smoking by just setting up something called a "yuk anchor" which makes them feel sick at the very sight or thought of a cigarette. However, if you do so without dealing with the reason why that person needs to smoke in the first place then you’re effectively just putting a sticking plaster on a broken leg and could even do more harm than good by removing the person's emotional crutch without replacing it with something else. At Phoenix we always look to uncover and treat the underlying issue in order to ensure that beneficial change is deep and lasting. I once had a client who came to me for smoking cessation and it transpired that they'd taken up the habit thirty years earlier to cope with the trauma of being sexually abused at the age of 14. Suffice to say, smoking wasn't the issue which really needed to be worked on there but the client did indeed go on to quit smoking as a bi-product of us successfully treating the underlying traumatic memories associated with it.

Another masterful teacher I've had the pleasure of training under is Dr Stephen Gilligan, the developer of Generative Change - a groundbreaking system of psychotherapy which taps into a person's own inner creativity to shift perception and generate new realities and possibilities. The Generative Trance approach is designed to make a person's conscious and unconscious minds cooperate together in harmony to weave a higher consciousness capable of massive transformational change. Gilligan, a psychologist based in Encinitas, California, runs an annual three-week "Trance Camp" out of San Diego, which is effectively an intensive Jedi training school. His techniques incorporate elements of psychotherapy, Aikido, Buddhism, meditation and the performance arts. Gilligan's teachings made me appreciate the value of identifying with archetypes within mythology - a theme I've touched on previously in my blogs about Robin Hood and the symbolism of the phoenix. By making a conscious decision to engage with a particular archetype and myth, we turn our life into an adventure story in which we rise above negative experiences by treating them as part of the hero's journey or quest. When you start to live your life in this way, magical things begin to happen.

Gilligan knows his stuff and has an impeccable pedigree. Not only was he one of the original students of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) during its formation in Santa Cruz in the 70s, but he was also a direct disciple of the late Milton Erickson - the American psychiatrist who was the pioneer of conversational hypnosis. Born in 1901 in Aurum, Nevada, Erickson was a bizarre and inspirational character whose work became the model for NLP. A real-life Yoda figure, he was plagued by enormous physical handicaps for most of his life. At the age of 17 he contracted polio and was so severely paralysed that doctors believed he would die. While recovering in bed, almost entirely lame and unable to speak, he became strongly aware of the significance of nonverbal communication – body language, tone of voice, and the way that these nonverbal expressions often directly contradicted the verbal ones. He also began to have “body memories” of the muscular activity of his own body. By concentrating on these memories, he slowly began to regain control of parts of his body to the point where he was eventually able to talk and use his arms again. His doctor recommended exercising his upper body only so Erickson embarked upon a 1000-mile canoe trip to build up the strength to enable him to attend college. His adventure was challenging but by the end of it he was able to walk with a cane, even though he still didn't have full use of his legs.

Erickson’s career spanned more than 50 years during which he conducted extensive research on suggestion and hypnosis. In 1957, he and a number of colleagues founded the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and Erickson served as the Inaugural President. He also established the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis and served as its editor for 10 years. During the 1950s and ’60s, Erickson published, travelled and lectured extensively, both domestically and abroad, continued to conduct research, and was in high demand as a practising psychiatrist. In the 1970s, restricted to his home by his physical condition, he still conducted teaching seminars for professionals on an almost daily basis and continued seeing patients. When he died on March 25th, 1980, at the age of 78 in Phoenix, Arizona, Erickson left a written legacy of more than 140 scholarly articles and five books on hypnosis which he co-authored.

Erickson used language in an artfully skillful way, which resulted in his clients taking whatever meaning from it was most appropriate for them. He made great use of storytelling and metaphor to generate emotions in people. Myths and fairytales are great examples of metaphorical stories which can be used for healing. Telling a story about how someone else solved a particular problem can indirectly help someone to generate new solutions within their own mind. Many people unconsciously block positive change by getting frustrated if the results aren't immediate. Stories and metaphors which highlight the importance of allowing time for change are particularly helpful in clearing such blockages. A great analogy is that of a ketchup bottle. You can shake the bottle furiously, turn it upside down and thump it but nothing comes out. What you don't realise is that the internal process has already started and that it just takes time for the effects to show. All it takes is one final shake for the sauce to come gushing out all over the place.

Erickson was a master of using such metaphors to stimulate change in a client. The conversational methods he pioneered are key to the approach to therapy used here at Phoenix, thanks to the training I've undergone from Thom Shillaw and Stephen Gilligan - both students of the Ericksonian method. The conversational approach is particularly effective with resistant or sceptical clients because the change work is done without the person even realising they're being worked on - like when Thom sorted my back pain on the day we first met. Hypnosis and storytelling are among the many tools within the arsenal we deploy at Phoenix to help clients achieve real and lasting change in areas ranging from stress relief to phobia cures, smoking cessation and weight loss. We can also teach you powerful and simple self-hypnosis techniques which you can use on yourself, completely safely, to promote healing and positive development. To find out more, check out our website or drop us an email at

* Always consult your GP or another qualified healthcare professional if you're experiencing unexplained pain.

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