Is there danger in hypnotic regressions?
As a hypnotherapist, I hear many people sharing their apprehension and even fear about hypnosis – everything from losing control and looking ridiculous to revealing information that they wish to keep private or re-experiencing pain and trauma that might ruin their lives. More than anything, people are concerned about uncovering information that will paralyze them with fear. Most of the worries come from a basic misunderstanding of hypnosis – how it works and its purpose, and so I spend a lot of time educating people and putting their minds at ease.
Hypnosis has long been used as a tool for memory recovery, whether it is a regression to recover memories from one’s childhood (seeing yourself playing with grandparents that have since passed), or from a recent past (figuring out where you placed the legal documents you have misplaced), or a past life (finding out how your past life story explains your current fear of commitment), or from a specific unusual event (remembering a contact with a non-human being). As a field, hypnosis emerged in the 18th century with the work of a physician Franz Mesmer. Since then, stage shows and media representations have shrouded hypnosis in such a cloud of mystery that some people began to view it as mere entertainment, while others see it as something dangerous, with neither view being particularly warranted. However, some concerns about hypnotic regressions (or hypnosis for memory recovery) are legitimate and deserve exploration. They are the creation of false memories, handling of potential distress, and discovery of traumatic information. Each of these is addressed below.
The concern about the creation of false memories is quite serious. It is based on the ability of the hypnotist to ask leading questions (questions that contain a suggested answer within them). For example, if the hypnotic subject says, “I see myself outside,” and the hypnotist responds with, “And do you see a tall person with big dark eyes standing next to you?” Such a question is likely to give the subject a visual image of a tall individual whether the person is there or not. Though this example is quite obvious, leading questions are often asked quite innocently and without any ill intent. They arise simply from the hypnotist’s natural patterns of speech. In daily life, we don’t use only open-ended questions and statements, such as “describe what you see… and what happened next… and how do you feel about that.” We often ask questions that verify specific information: “Did you see the stranger? Did he approach you? Were you scared?” These questions might be quite innocent in a regular conversation, but in a hypnotic situation, they may lead a person to a specific image or conclusion. So it falls on the person conducting hypnosis to monitor his or her speech. At the same time, not every closed-ended question is dangerous or inappropriate. When a person is in a deep, stable trance, an insertion of a potentially leading yet inaccurate suggestion will not break his or her reality. Instead, the person will simply say, “No. I don’t see it here…. No. that’s not how it is.” Trained hypnotists/hypnotherapists should be able to assess the state of their subjects and adjust their speech to ensure that the subject is as free from outside influences as possible.
Further, potential false memories carry different weight in different situations. Perhaps the greatest danger exists in memory recovery from childhood trauma or abuse. If not done properly, it can result in the subject assigning horrible false behaviors to the people that are still living. For this reason, evidence produced through hypnosis is not admissible in the US courts of law. As a hypnotherapist, I am very careful about these cases and often deny requests for recovery of suppressed memories of abuse, offering clients alternative therapeutic methods for dealing with childhood trauma.
The issue of handling potential distress mostly affects those doing the hypnotizing. In a regression, clients may face a distressing situation. In past-life regressions, they routinely go through the death of a body. The subject may report being aware of physical pain, sadness, fear, loss, or other sensations, which may frighten a person guiding the regression if that person is untrained. This, however, poses a minimal concern for a trained therapist. Several techniques are available to help hypnotic subjects deal with distressing sensations, and the impact of such experiences on the subjects themselves is typically very limited and fleeting.
The concern about the discovery of traumatic information is quite common. Many first-time hypnosis clients are worried about discovering something so upsetting that it will cause major trauma. “What if I find out that I did something horrible?” they say. “What if I learn that I had a terrible death?” And this is precisely the point at which the notion of hypnosis as entertainment must be left behind. I approach every regression as a potential for therapeutic intervention. My focus is on helping the clients expand their awareness, process and manage their emotions, release and heal any trauma that may arise, and move forward with a greater understanding of the situation. In fact, a shift from fear and anxiety to an understanding and acceptance is a very common outcome of the sessions. A trained hypnotherapist always aims to have the client leave feeling better than when he or she first came in. Therefore, fearing that a regression may plunge one into the depth of despair is unwarranted unless the hypnotist is untrained and approaches the regression as something fun to try for entertainment purposes.
Getting a regression done by an untrained neighbor is no wiser than asking someone who has never cut hair for a high-quality haircut. Though the information coming out in a session may be entertaining, hypnosis is not a game, and situations often arise that require therapeutic resolution and skillful handling. However, when working with a well-trained professional with whom you feel comfortable, a regression does not pose any danger and is likely to be profoundly enlightening and healing.