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Active Aging

Hypnotherapy in Later Life: Part 3

Spiritual Deepening

The conscious mind serves to protect our personality from accepting harmful judgments. Sometimes those judgments are positive, such as when a caregiver is told “but you’re doing a great job” when a request for help is refused. Sometimes judgments are opportunistic, such as up-selling by a car dealer. But mostly they are negative. “Children should be seen and not heard,” “You’re not pretty,” or “Nobody will ever love you like I do.”

While the protection of the conscious mind is admirable, it comes with consequences. The most potent negative messages program our body to ignore its needs. Whether we’re overweight or simply robust, “you’re fat” implies that we should eat less. To avoid weakening of the organism, the subconscious must suppress the influence of the conscious mind on the body. We become divorced from ourselves.

The power of hypnotherapy is in re-establishing those lost connections. That is possible only upon a grant of trust by the client that allows the hypnotherapist to bear witness to their subconscious landscape.

The figure presents the main features of that landscape. The conscious, reasoning mind explores the world, systematically building experience. When transitioning through sleep or during dangerous situations, that information is passed through to the subconscious mind that is concerned with doing and being. “Doing” is expressed through the body; “being” is the province of the soul.

While I introduced the conscious mind as the gateway to the world, that does not mean that it is the most direct route to the subconscious. This is evident when confronted with a trauma. While some among us will try to analyze the situation, others will act immediately to control the physical environment, or we may turn first to a higher spiritual source for strength and guidance.

These tendencies account for the richness of the wellness industry. Therapists and life coaches cater to those that analyze; doctors and chiropractors cater to those that seek a physical control; faith healers and reiki masters cater to the spiritual. Working in the gaps between these disciplines we find acupuncture (body and soul), psychiatry (mind and body) and organized religion (mind and soul). But as the figure illustrates, the subconscious mind links all aspects of the self, and so a multidisciplinary approach may be most effective.

For emphasis: in the modern era the virtue of the analytical disciplines is in creating a bulwark against harmful messages from society. Comparing hypnotherapy and psychotherapy, psychotherapy has the cachet of science. For those seeking spiritual depth, however, that comes with a prejudice against spiritual experience. Modern physics has no model for the soul (a problem that I have tried to solve elsewhere). This is a 20th century insanity driven largely by the terror of industrialized warfare. With psychology resistant to direct engagement, hypnotherapy is the best discipline for those seeking to deepen their spirituality. Hypnotherapy is also accommodating of religious orientation: It doesn’t seek to guide, but only to bear witness as the client seeks harmony.

Given that the modern world drives us to analyze and do, how do we know when we have reached the soul, the fundament of being? A survey of the great theologies reveals these precepts: a receding of concern with concrete outcomes and a growing seeking after harmony between the mind and body; a sense of the world entering into us rather than the projection of the self into the world; and a growing confidence that limitless love is the foundation of reality.

These principles have a long track record in supporting people seeking healing. Spiritual deepening facilitates life review.

In our modern society the greatest obstacle is overcoming materialism that encourages most of us to ignore spirituality – even if “scientific thinking” does not cause us to reject it outright. The strategies for overcoming such resistance are subtle, beginning with a survey of moments of inexplicably deep connection to the self and others. To protect against identity confusion, those experiences must be anchored with love. Love preserves and amplifies virtues in us witnessed by others and protects us from corruption. In Cheryl O’Neil’s Therapeutic Imagery, those truths are established as a foundation before undertaking any hypnotic work.

But the end goal of spiritual deepening? That is informed by a simple precept: spirituality is the negotiation of the boundaries between “I” and “we.” It is a process that can occur only in community, ideally among those seeking similar aims. When that condition is lacking, conflict arises. As a core principle, then, spiritual deepening requires inner peace, our next topic.

Part 1 || Part 2 | Part 4

Active Aging, Specializations

Hypnotherapy in Later Life: Part 2

Life Review

While philosophers make much of reason, the most complex parts of the mind evolved to help us create communities.

Community starts with the family – we look at our parents’ faces and find comfort or distress. Sometimes those responses are instinctive: when we smile, blood is forced into the brain and we feel happy. Perhaps intuitively we understand then that it is good when our parents smile. They are happy and reward us with their attention.

But other expressions seem arbitrary. Why make a raspberry, for example?

Well it turns out that not everybody does. Thus comes the problem of community: we wander away from the family and encounter other ways of relating. Rather than a raspberry, another person may snort to show disdain. It is the social center of the brain that allows us to see past the differences to build trust.

Eric and Joan Erickson studied personal growth to social maturity. Their “Stages of Development” recognize that what we learn at an earlier stage supports our success at later stages. In the early stages, however, society expects us to accomplish each stage by a certain age. That means that even if we have not mastered an earlier stage, we will be forced to move into the larger social setting as shown in the table. It’s expected of us.

Age Partner Issue Success
0-1 Mother Will the world provide for me? Trust
2-3 Parents Can I control myself? Autonomy
4-5 Family Can I control my environment? Initiative
6-12 School Can I succeed? Industry
13-22 Peers/Father Will society accept me? Identity
23-35 Lover/Spouse Can I be emotionally responsible? Intimacy
35-55 Workplace Can I be socially responsible? Generativity
55-65 Society Does life have meaning? Integrity

When the shift to larger concerns occurs too soon, we can feel like an alien, like we “don’t fit in.” Sometimes that’s not bad. We’ve all heard of children that were “precocious” – mature beyond their years. But most often it’s a problem for us – we say and do things that are inappropriate, making others uncomfortable and suffering their rejection.

The fulfilled life closes without regrets. Most of us muddle through, surrounding ourselves with people that don’t mind our quirks. At every step we do the best that we can and often find friends at hand when we need help. When that doesn’t happen, we are left with a trauma – and the regret that comes with it.

A good way to think about trauma is a muscle cramp. We strain against some force (like a heavy weight) and the muscle contracts until it gets tired and stops. If we are forced to hold the muscle at that position (perhaps by our own stubbornness), eventually it begins to cramp. Because the muscle tissue tears during a cramp, the effects can last for weeks or even years. During that time, we shift its burdens to other muscles. Those muscles become stronger, but that very strength can cause twisting of the posture that can itself become disabling.

I had several muscle injuries when I started yoga in my fifties, and posture problems to go with them it. While it was painful and frustrating, with discipline and patience they have healed. I learned to relax the compensating muscles so that my posture straightened, and then stretched and strengthened the original muscle.

Having done this work, I find that I move with greater grace and dignity. People stop to tell me how wonderful my posture is.

I spend all this time on muscle cramps because as regards social growth a similar opportunity is available to seniors after retirement. With the pressures of daily life behind them, they can revisit painful experiences in the past and apply their adult wisdom to heal them.

This is the opportunity of life review. The first goal is to prevent social trauma from affecting the choices we make in the present. But as the earliest social traumas ripple down through the rest of our lives, they affect our intimates as well. Our traumas infect others, and theirs infect us. Life review branches out to encompass others. Guided by the Stages of Development and other frameworks for personal growth, we attain insight that leads us toward forgiveness.

On my own journey, I eventually realized that all the people who hurt me were “doing as was done unto them,” looking all the while for someone strong enough to show them how to heal.

Retirement living also drives social change. We leave work and search for new ways to serve our community. Friends and partners retire, move away to be with family, or leave us behind when they die. No longer finding satisfaction is maintaining a large residence, we seek to simplify. One side-effect is to find ourselves in close contact with others in facilities designed to stimulate the formation of new friendships and romantic interests.

In recognition of these facts, Joan Erickson suggested a ninth stage of development in which all the earlier stages were revisited. That occurs in retirement. What better opportunity to revisit old wounds and gaps to heal and strengthen our spirits? And find deeper fulfillment in the years that remain! A sensitive and compassionate therapist bears witness to those capacities, ensuring that we recognize and celebrate new growth.

The power of hypnotherapy is always to give courage to the subconscious mind that seeks safety. With gentle and persistent encouragement, it comes forward to reveal depths of experience that are known to few, as we’ll consider in our next post

Part 1 | Part 3

Active Aging, Specializations

Hypnotherapy in Later Life: Part 1

Marvelous Opportunity

Most clients seek hypnotherapy to correct behaviors that limit success. In later years, that motivation shrinks – we don’t have to stand up in front of an audience or look good in a bikini. So why would a senior client seek hypnotherapy?

Certain reasons still apply. Smoking cessation therapy comes up often. Hypnosis for medical recovery is also common. But while many other conditions become less pressing with age, benefits arise that are only available to those with the time to invest in themselves. These include life review, deepening spirituality, and cultivation of inner peace. These bring the elder a new kind of power – the power to guide others toward those same goals.

Sadly for the growing number of Americans pioneering life with cognitive decline, those opportunities gradually slip away. Recent studies indicate that better nutrition and sound sleep can slow that loss. Sleep is particularly important, and here hypnotherapy can help by reducing anxiety as the pioneer begins to lose control over their world. We understand language before we speak and interpret expressions and gestures even earlier. Those capacities remain until the end and can be used in hypnosis to encourage change even when the rational mind has succumbed to confusion.

In this series we’ll consider the benefits of hypnotherapy in each of the areas outlined above. In this first post, however, I’d like to emphasize how hypnotherapy changes when working with seniors.

As aging progresses, we become more vulnerable and thus more sensitive to unfamiliar settings. For this reason, elderly clients may prefer at-home sessions or sessions over Skype. Remaining in the comforts of home, their energies are also preserved for the important work done in the mind.

That work must include exercise of the mind’s capacities. The brain is designed to continually adapt to a changing world, and that includes clearing away unused circuitry. For this reason, deafness is followed by loss of speech comprehension. Conversely, reading of novels appears to help preserve long-term memory better than reading of magazines. Rather than simply moving from one experience to the next, then, activities should be planned to ensure that all sensory and thinking processes are exercised.

The crux of the matter, however, is that life does simplify with age. Retirement not only relieves us of challenge but also orphans the thinking patterns that were unique to the workplace community. Conserving those patterns requires rechanneling into new experiences, and such channeling is always done in dreams. Hypnotherapy can help to focus dream process. With elderly clients, dream therapy is therefore an emphasis.

Along with a shift in attention to these needs particular to elders, the hypnotic process often must be adjusted. Arm-raisings favored by 20th century pioneers may be uncomfortable to seniors. The usual fallback is visual focus, but declining eyesight may frustrate that as well. For elderly clients, then, the hypnotist will use conversational methods: confusion, pacing and leading, and imagery. When deafness or failing comprehension frustrates even that, still the language of expression and gesture remains – and that is sufficient for hypnosis.

Once the therapist enters trance with the client, of course, the magic of hypnosis is that new channels of communication open as trust is solidified. We’ll see that cropping up again and again as we consider in detail the unique benefits of hypnotherapy in later life.

Part 2

Book Reviews

A Mind for Sickness and Health

Any serious student of the healthcare industry eventually comes to realize that the diagnoses of greatest concern change over time. In the 1800’s, neurasthenia (bad nerves) was common. Today we talk about “stress” – and use very different methods to manage the problem.

In rationalizing these trends, we invoke the march of medical progress and changing social circumstances. In her book “The Cure Within,” however, Anne Harrington argues that in the area of psychosomatic complaints the trend has as much to do with the narratives we use to explain health and sickness.

I loved this book for several reasons. First, Harrington takes a positive view of those that struggled to understand how the mind affects the body. Each progressive step is rooted in the intellectual context that preceded it and treated as an honest attempt to improve public wellness. Secondly, Harrington captures not just the intellectual history but also the methods used to promote evolving methods. This is valuable insight when evaluating the integrity of a practitioner. Finally, the chapters on suggestion and hysteria are the most lucid history I have read of my discipline – hypnotherapy.

The impetus for this book reflects a disturbing fact: while clearly attitude and lifestyle affect our health, science has yet to elucidate the mechanisms in a way that benefits patients. Even so, patients flock to alternatives to “scientific” methods. Harrington explains this as a reflection of the narratives that we tell ourselves about our relationship with healing.

Initially those stories were religious, and early attempts to explain mysterious recovery were “scientific” explanations for the significance some attached to faith. People educated to the authority of a priest were easily swayed by Mesmer’s talk of “animal magnetism” and accepted his domineering attitudes. In our modern era, those traumatized by surgery and drugs idealize a gentler “Eastern” perspective on health – including practices that in most cases were cultivated for Western consumption.

Harrington proposes six narratives, each of them still active in modern society:

  1. The power of suggestion – largely the use of hypnosis.
  2. The body that speaks – illness as an expression of suppressed trauma.
  3. The power of positive thinking – from religious faith to self-control.
  4. Broken by modern life – the popularization of stress as a cause of illness.
  5. Healing ties – the important of community.
  6. Eastward journeys – rejection of Western medicine.

Harrington points out that as each of these narratives came into force, the diagnosis of illness changed. The influence of culture on health is bolstered by cross-cultural comparison – at menopause, Japanese women retain their cultural standing, and do not have hot flashes. But it causes me to wonder how much our current epidemics (asthma, cancer, dementia, diabetes) are aggravated by messaging that verges on propaganda. Are we being programmed to sickness?

Harrington does trace out the increasing rationality of our explanations for the influence of mind on health. The most solid are the ability of the brain to sustain the fight or flight response. The resulting effects on the body are well known – higher blood pressure, tissue damage, exhaustion, and immune suppression. What frustrates, however, are the uneven results from attempts to help patients learn to sustain homeostasis – the “feed and breed” state in which our body musters the energy to heal.

Harrington tends toward the opinion that we don’t understand mind-body dynamics, a conclusion that led her to offer her perspective as a historian. After the reading, however, it seemed to me that there were at least three factors that could help us to control variation, and therefore develop more effective strategies.

First, stop appropriating military studies for civilian use. While the persistence of shell shock after WWI was a useful tonic to Freud’s sexualization of psychology, in general the military experience is neither typical nor consensual.

Secondly recognize the importance of practitioner sophistication. An example is support groups for breast cancer patients. At the end of her chapter on healing ties, Harrington shares a disparaging comment from a participant. The original pilot study, however, was led by Irvin Yalom, one of the most sophisticated psychologists of the era. Given the hypothesis that cancer is driven by stress, increased longevity must deal not only with the pressures of surviving treatment, but also touch on the problems that created the stress. Yalom would have been capable of guiding such dialog – patients without such support might be expected to find less value in the process.

Finally we have the maturity of the patient. For positive thoughts to be expressed consistently, the patient must have mental discipline not typically in children. We tend to assume “maturity” in those that attain their majority, but even so there are levels of maturity. This is given in religion: Harrington offers a comment from the Dalai Lama that even he had experienced only “three of six” meditative states. Catholic sacraments explicitly recognize evolving maturity. Here I offer a hypnotherapist’s perspective on maturity.

Of course, Harrington did not set out to offer solutions. Her goal was to record the history so that we might make more informed decisions regarding the opportunity we have to achieve health by managing our attitudes. In laying out the internal logic of these narratives and documenting their evolution, Harrington brings coherence that will help us avoid ceding authority that we should reserve to ourselves. Do whatever, but recognize that you as a mind-body unity are at the center of the system you seek to heal.

Basics, Mind Management

The Ethics of NLP

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a discipline developed by Richard Bandler and Eric Grinder. If you think of computer programming as “cyber-linguistic programming,” you’ll get the gist of NLP. Assuming that the mind is an information processing device, NLP proposes a model of how the mind receives and filters information, and then provides methods of communication that allow us to hack the program.

NLP was popularized in the 1990s by Tony Robbins, whose Unleash the Power Within seminars use a form of group hypnosis to encourage people to cast off their self-limiting beliefs. During business networking, I have encountered life coaches, mediators, sales people and hypnotists who testify to have mastered these practices in seminars typically lasting a week or so.

A characteristic moment from Robbins’ seminar illustrates the technique. Tony may start “you like me – want to get the most out of this weekend.” Through emphasis, that innocuous sentence embeds the suggestion that “I like him.” The suggestion is obscured by the pause between “you” and “like,” and so may be discarded by the conscious mind when the sentence is completed. But the emotional effect lingers on in the subconscious, and subsequently affects our behaviors.

I could elaborate the NLP model, but I hesitate for ethical reasons. That caution was codified by Milton Erickson when founding the America Society for Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). All members must be licensed clinicians with a degree in mental health. (That’s right: I don’t qualify for membership.)

This is significant because Erickson was one of the clinical luminaries that Bandler and Grinder studied to develop the communication patterns that give NLP its power. Erickson’s caution is illustrated in a published paper that applies those patterns to his own work: “Transcript of Trance Induction with Commentary.”

The value of the paper is not just in its elucidation of the techniques that would be adopted in NLP, but also for what it reveals about the context in which those methods were developed. Erickson was an academic researcher, and coaxed many of his patients to serve as experimental subjects before beginning therapy. This was because Erickson felt that successful therapy required the application of “hypnotic work” that was accessible only after twenty or more hours of conditioning. But the experimental subjects were not limited to patients. Erickson and his wife also hosted weekend gatherings in which friends and colleagues were encouraged to explore hypnotic experience.

“Transcript…” is interesting on its face because it shows how skillfully and gently Erickson went about bringing his subjects into hypnotic experience. But for the concerns of this post, the important point is made near the end of the session. Erickson takes the subject into an age regression. The commentary reads:

Her hand didn’t point, so then I started narrowing down. Have her point with her left hand. When she failed to do that, I knew how deep in the water I was. I was out of contact with her.

The problem is in having convinced the subject that she was about eighteen years old, severe trauma would occur if she awoke in that mental state in a room with people who related to her as a thirty-year-old – not least her husband.

NLP techniques are powerful in part because they bypass the conscious mind – but that in itself is why they are so dangerous. The subject changes their behavior and doesn’t understand why. They begin to fear that they are losing their grip on themselves, and so that they might begin to express their worst tendencies. The mind turns against itself and may break.

As I summarized in a prior post, Erickson was extremely sensitive to this vulnerability, and eventually began to try to dissuade practitioners from application of his methods of speaking. Paraphrasing, his observation was

Do not believe that you can adopt my manner of speaking and thereby achieve the same therapeutic results.

I believe that he left silent the stronger caution: that in fact, the subject can be harmed when linguistic methods are applied with neither psychological understanding nor compassionate intuition. (This is not a hypothetical: I have interviewed a client who was so affected.)

Some confirmation of this caution is found in Hammond’s “Handbook of Hypnotic Suggestions and Metaphors.” Hammond summarized the collected wisdom of the ASCH, and in surveying research on the effectiveness of techniques for formulating suggestions, reported studies that showed NLP was of marginal therapeutic value.

For those of us without clinical degrees, Cheryl O’Neil’s Therapeutic Imagery program, the culmination of the lay hypnotherapy program formulated by Dr. John Kappas at HMI, is a safe practice. The therapeutic method facilitates self-improvement through gradual reconciliation of conscious and subconscious perspectives. The pacing of the process is under the full control of the subconscious mind, whose over-riding concern is to preserve the subject’s well-being.