When we hear the term “hypnotherapy”, most of us immediately think of people on a stage squawking like chickens or some such absurd behaviour, while an audience roars with laughter. But if you have followed the news online, you might have been disturbed by the story of a headmaster in Florida, America, who hypnotised his students, tragically precipitating the suicide of one of them. Is hypnotherapy dangerous? How can it aid us in our personal development? I went to chat to Juan van Wyk, a clinical psychologist qualified in Heart-Centered Hypnotherapy to try to understand the process a bit better.

“A hypnotic, trance-like state,” according to Juan, “is actually a very natural state that we find ourselves in for most part of our days.” For example, if you have to go and buy milk from the shop, you get in your car and start driving and suddenly you find yourself in the shop’s parking lot. “Wow, how did I get here?” you wonder. You were actually in a hypnotic state. You didn’t make any mistakes because you were still very much aware of everything going on around you.

Children very often find themselves in a hypnotic state. When they are playing a game outside and you keep on calling them to come in, it’s as if they do not hear you. Actually they do hear you, but they are simply not focusing their attention on you. Should you decide then to walk up to them and tap them on the shoulder, they might jump with fright. They were so focused, so concentrating on whatever they were doing right then that they are almost mesmerised.

A hypnotic state is, therefore, actually a state of deep relaxation and heightened concentration.

Many people do not know this but in a hypnotic state we are still very much aware of our surroundings – it is just that the noises and occurrences around us don’t bother us. Our energy is focused and undivided so that when we hear a sound outside our immediate focal area, we do not consider whether we should react to it or question whether it is dangerous. In a hypnotic state, we are not putting energy into these kinds of interpretations and analyses. Rather we focus on ourselves and our inner experiences.

In a hypnotic state we are completely relaxed and within our bodies, which makes it possible to become more aware of ourselves and our inner workings.

Normally the therapist would use an eye fixation, breathing or visualisation technique to help the client relax. The most typical, well-known method is that of the swinging pendulum. This is followed by deepening techniques in order to take the client deeper and deeper into relaxation.

It is very important to realise, however, that in this state we are also very susceptible to suggestion – and this is an aspect that stage hypnotists often misuse for the sake of entertainment. If we think of a typical hypnosis show, it usually starts with a prescreening of sorts in order to determine how susceptible the audience is. The stage hypnotist may ask the people in the audience to press their hands together and may suggest that their hands start to feel more and more tightly “cemented” together until they can no longer separate their hands. After that people can still choose whether or not to go on stage. Those who do go are normally already prepared to participate. When a person walks up to the stage, he or she has already given his or her informed consent. So the person is already susceptible. Add a bit of peer pressure, and suggestion and the hypnotic, trance-like state gets used to entertain the audience.

The problem is that in this kind of setup we never know what story may emerge from a participant. We do not know what psychological triggers we are dealing with. For instance, Juan shares, once a hypnotist did a show in which he made the men on the stage go into labour. Afterwards one of the men, very distraught and emotional, asked the artist: “But where is my baby?” It just so happened that this man and his wife had been struggling for some time to have a child.

These are the very real issues that tend to surface while a person is in a hypnotic state and they should rather be dealt with in a safe way. This is the domain of hypnotherapy where respressed issues are dealt with by a skilled and trained therapist in a way that will contribute to the individual’s healing.

Juan says hypnotherapy is very powerful especially regarding people struggling with addictions or anger management. In the latter case, a person might find him or herself sometimes turning into an Incredible Hulk but after a bout of extreme anger not being able to understand why they reacted this way. A skilled and qualified psychologist trained in hypnosis will then guide the client back to the time he or she first felt this intense anger.

Hypnotherapy therefore uses a hypnotic state specifically to help a client regress into the past and remember events or occurrences that have to date been inaccessible to him or her. Another example may be that of a person who has been molested and unknowingly started to believe that he or she is inherently bad and somehow deserved what happened. Juan explains: “These are often the type of convictions and emotions that we tend to carry around with us without knowing where it all began. Under a relaxed, focused hypnotic state it is possible to go back to where it began and rectify it. This leads to a transformation in the rest of the person’s life.”

The trained hypnotherapist or clinical psychologist’s biggest role is to ensure that the space is kept safe for the client. It isn’t advisable for us to try to delve into our unconscious minds by ourselves. Often when we cannot remember certain traumatic details there is a very good reason for this. It is, after all, a very subjective experience. Should we perhaps become hysterical or afraid, we need someone who can guide us through it, or even bring us back when we dissociate – an out-of-body type of experience where for a little while it is as if we have disengaged from the world and gone into hiding somewhere in our psyche.

Now, you might be wondering, why would you want to go into your painful past and recall things that you would rather forget? What is the point of going into the past? Shouldn’t bygones be bygones; shouldn’t we let sleeping dogs lie – as the expressions says. Most of us will do anything to avoid our pain. However, we are not aware that our pain, if not dealt with, keeps travelling with us wherever we go. “This is because,” says Juan, “we have to understand that the past is very much still the present. There is no concept of time in the psyche. Therefore as an adult you might be walking into your angry boss’s office, he criticises you and suddenly you are right back as that little Grade one kid in the headmaster’s office.” But if the inner child that we all carry along with us could be soothed and helped to heal . . . if we could go back to that experience, rectify it and change the conviction that formed during that incident, the unhealthy behaviour brought on by the conviction can be changed because the conviction fueling the behaviour would no longer be there.

Done correctly, hypnosis can help to change behaviour by changing the subconscious convictions that influence and limit what we do.

Through hypnotherapy, we can also release the energy from a past trauma that has become part of the body’s cellular memory. Our bodies are made out of cells and these cells have memory. Although we might have moved on from a certain traumatic experience, our body still remembers. If this emotional energy isn’t released emotionally and physically, it can lead to chronic illnesses. In Juan’s work, for example, the client is given a pipe to hit against the ground. “This is nothing to do with aggression – it is about shifting and releasing traumatic energy in the body,” Juan says.

In Juan’s practice he focuses very much on the connection between mind, body and spirit. He looks at the thoughts and emotions that present themselves, but also releases the energy in the body. Then he looks at how all of this ties into our spirituality. Juan explains spirituality as that which gives us meaning, creates a sense of unity with ourselves, others, the Earth and the Creating Force behind it all. Hypnotherapy can, if done correctly, reconnect us with ourselves and everything around us by helping us to restore meaning in our lives.

Juan has his own practice at the Genesis Wellness in N1 City. If you would like to make an appointment with him, you can contact him at 021 595 0052 / 021 839 5529.