What Happens Within the Brain During Hypnosis?

Updated: Jul 3

Why Slowing our Brainwaves is Key to Hypnotherapeutic Success

The Existence of the Hypnotic State has Been Observed and Proven:

I've had many people ask me if the hypnotic state is real and the answer is yes! Since 1929 non-invasive medical imagery such as electroencephalograms (EEGs) have allowed us to measure and record electrical signals, otherwise known as brainwave activity, whilst contemporary advances, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have allowed neurophysiologists and neuropsychologists to observe that our brains behave differently whilst under hypnosis. We can now see in real time, the areas of the brain which ‘light up‘ when responding to stimuli, and which areas go 'offline' whilst in a hypnotic state.

How the Hypnotic State is Reached:

Our hectic, modern lifestyles often make it difficult for us to achieve a quiet state of mind where the brain can be emptied of unhelpful, worrying, self-limiting thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Hypnosis, with its associated state of deep physical and mental relaxation makes it one of the most useful non-pharmacological processes that we can harness in our pursuit of improving our mental health and changing the ways in which we live our lives.

All hypnotherapy sessions begin with an induction. Some practitioners like to use rapid inductions and you may have seen some of these techniques utilised by stage hypnotists such as Derren Brown. The 'handshake' technique or simply clicking your fingers and demanding sleep are fine, as long as the person up on stage is willing to go along with everything demanded of them, but this is not how hypnotherapy is conducted.

I'm not a fan of rapid inductions at all and prefer to give clients a thorough and relaxing hypnotic experience whilst they are working with me. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), and intermittent concentration techniques are my favoured approaches. Following an induction, a deepener then follows which guides us into a deeper state, hopefully to the alpha-theta border. After all, relaxation as you will see, is key to entering a reparative and meaningful hypnotic state.

Differing Levels of Brain Activity:

There are four types of brainwaves which we are concerned with during the process of hypnosis. These are beta waves, alpha waves, theta waves, and delta waves. The wave frequencies through which our brains fluctuate do not jump up and down randomly, they flow between the stages. As we go to sleep we go from beta to alpha, theta to delta, and when we wake, we reverse back up.

How do These Brainwaves Affect Hypnotic Depth?

Beta waves are produced during normal waking consciousness, the state in which we spend the majority of our day. During these times we are alert and utilising our neocortex, the centre of logic, rationality, and critical reasoning. In a beta state our brain is concentrating, learning, and analysing risk. We may be engaged in conversation, feeling fear or anger, or giving our full attention to a task, such as driving to somewhere we haven’t been before. When viewed on an EEG, beta waves are recorded as being in the highest range, between 15 to 40 cycles / second.

Alpha waves are slower than beta waves, between 7 to 14 cycles / second, and manifest during a less mentally aroused state such as when watching a film or resting. During this time the brain is more creative, more productive, more able to problem solve, and most importantly, more relaxed, thus being in this state can contribute positively towards our mental wellbeing. Known as "the gateway to the unconscious mind," alpha waves are present during meditation, mindfulness and when we have reached a light hypnotic state and it is in this state that our minds are optimally receptive to change; primed for hypnotherapeutic success. If we choose to relax further, we may enter into an even deeper state of hypnosis as our brainwaves continue to slow down.

Next arrive theta waves, ranging between 14 -8 cycles / second (sometimes lower). Theta waves are present during light sleep, dreaming, enhanced meditative states, and during moderate states of hypnosis. During this time, a feeling of deep serenity and calm is often reported. Daydreaming also falls into the theta range and is associated with the realm of our unconscious mind, the vast storehouse that holds all of our past experiences, feelings, thoughts, and learned behaviour patterns.

Think about it this way. You are driving along a road you know really well and suddenly you find that you’ve arrived at your destination. You wonder to yourself “how did I get here?” and in all honestly, you might be feeling a little bit worried that you don't remember anything about the last few miles you drove. This is something that happens to most of us and chances are you were in theta rhythm throughout. Your unconscious mind, fully programmed in the mechanics of driving and knowing exactly where you were driving to, just slipped into an alpha state, then further down into a theta state, allowing your conscious mind to just take a back seat for a while. It’s guaranteed that if a deer ran into the road or you came to a red light that your conscious awareness would kick back; your brain re-entering beta wave activity as soon as decisions needed to be made quickly.

Also consider this. Have you ever experienced a "brainwave," had a good idea, solved a problem, or reached a decision about something you’ve been pondering over whilst driving, in the bath, just before going to sleep, or upon waking. When you feel relaxed and your brainwaves slow, it leaves your mind free to indulge in the creativity that it cannot tap into in a beta state.

The alpha-theta border (from 7 - 8 cycles / second) is the most common state found in those undergoing hypnotherapy. This is the optimal range for rapid learning, visualisation, unconscious reprogramming, and as already stated, using the creative power of the mind. Here, you begin to consciously create your reality. You are aware of your body and your surroundings, totally in control, but at all times you remain profoundly relaxed.

Finally, the brain exhibits delta waves, associated with deep sleep and transcendental meditative and hypnotic states. These are the slowest brain waves, produced when we are in our deepest states of rest and detached awareness. As with sleep, they are linked with deep healing and regeneration. Delta waves fall into the lowest range of between 1 to 4 cycles / second.

How Deep Will I Need to Go for Hypnotherapy to be Effective?

Even a light hypnotic state (alpha wave) is effective, although most practitioners (including myself) prefer to work with clients experiencing a moderate trance state (theta wave) or (alpha-theta border). Whilst in this state, we are aware of, but not distracted by any noises we may hear either inside or outside of the therapeutic space. Around 80% of hypnotically responsive people are able to reach this depth of relaxation which in turn, affords greater suggestibility.

This is where a skilled hypnotherapist will move onto the next stage of your session, delivering targeted suggestions and various hypnotherapeutic interventions based upon psychological theories all aimed at unconscious reprogramming and goal attainment. As an added bonus, being in this state can allow you to face challenges, confront fears or phobias, or imagine and manifest positive future changes without feeling negative affect because your body and mind simply cannot be both relaxed and anxious at the same time.

How Deep is Too Deep?

The efficacy of hypnotherapy whilst people are in a delta or sleep state is the cause of much debate within the therapeutic community. Firstly, it is difficult for the majority of people to allow themselves to relax so far down, with only around 50% of hypnotically responsive people able to do so. Whilst some practitioners, such as myself avoid letting my clients fall into a delta wave or somnambulistic state, others argue that the very best work can be done whilst clients are in this deep level of trance.

The final stage of a hypnotherapy session consists of re-orientation. You are guided, slowly back up through the brain wave states from delta (at times), to theta, to alpha, and finally beta. At this time, it might take us a minute or five to fully re-awaken, but we will be fine to stand up, walk, or drive away from the session as soon we and the hypnotherapist feel it is safe to do so. It is also worth mentioning at this point, that you can never get stuck in a hypnotic state. Whether it takes a long time for you to re-orientate, or you fall asleep at night, listening to a hypnotherapy track, you will always wake up in a fully alert beta state whenever you decide that you want to!

Whatever state of relaxation we are able to reach, it is important to remember that we do not need to consciously remember everything that is said during session because it is the unconscious mind which is the target, and it is always listening. The key to successful hypnotherapy is the suspension of the conscious mind and the conscious critical faculty (CCF) which allows unhindered access to the unconscious mind and therefore the repressed or supressed material, learned behaviour patterns, and core belief systems which are the focus of our efforts. Under hypnosis, suggestions are planted and it is the transformation of these suggestion into action that is fundamental; and all of this happens at the unconscious level of the mind.

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