Hypnosis for The Treatment of Trauma
I want to cover the basics of how hypnosis can be a powerful tool for trauma. In order to understand it, we sought the opinion of certified clinical hypnotherapist M. Scott Fraser.
“One way that hypnosis can be helpful with trauma is by helping someone go back through the event and re-experience it without all of their usual negative emotions associated with it,” says M. Scott Fraser, a certified clinical hypnotherapist who has been working solely with military veterans for over 10 years at his practice in Temecula, CA. “It doesn’t erase or repress memories — rather we teach an individual how not to react on an emotional level so strongly anymore. So when that event comes up in the future there’s less of a trigger to activate the strong emotions.”
Why is this an issue? Why is someone immediately triggered when they remember something traumatic? To answer these questions, we first need to understand our brain and how it works. “We all have a default emotion system,” explains Fraser. “In other words, you go in with negative emotion and the brain assumes you are going to experience those emotions for a period of time unless something happens to change that connection between your amygdala and your prefrontal cortex. The brain does this because it’s trying to save energy — think of it as being like an old car that needs frequent maintenance in order for it to keep running well.
“But if you can reprogram the brain to do less work remember everything, then you save energy,” continues Fraser. “Once we bring that down, the trauma does not get triggered as quickly or as strongly and it doesn’t take them back to those same emotional level.”
For example, an individual has had a significant trauma in life. Let’s just say that they have been beaten up in a fight. Then, every time they are in a fight (even if it’s only verbal), they are triggered and they remember the trauma. This is due to the association between pain, aggression, and their original trauma. In this case, we can use hypnotic suggestion to remove that association. But what if there are other triggers?
Triggers For Traumatic Memories
“Many people get triggered by certain people or situations,” says Fraser. “I’ve heard people say they have been at restaurants where they had a bad meal and then relived the trauma — all because they touched the same knife, fork or glass.” A combat veteran who has been trained to be on guard would most likely be triggered by a car backfire, making it seem like a gunshot since it’s during wartime. The veteran would immediately react because they have been trained to do so, so their body is wired that way.
In these cases, the hypnotherapist can help the individual go back through the trauma and re-train their brain during the hypnosis session. This can help them to remember that they are not in danger at this moment and they can let go of this reaction. “Activating any part of your brain is a very energy intensive task,” says Fraser. “We’ve been told by many research studies you have different areas of the brain where energy expenditure is more than other areas — i.e., you use more energy when figure skating than when writing an article. In a combat situation, soldiers have to reprogram the entire brain because they’re trained to react in certain ways. So when they switch that off, they need to do the same reprogramming with hypnosis.”
Hypnotherapy Helping With PTSD
Because of this, hypnotherapy has proved to be very helpful with PTSD. “I frequently see people who have been sexually assaulted or abused and may have been triggered by their own feelings at that time,” explains Fraser. “However, it is an extremely common trigger for many people.”
For example, there is a 12-year-old girl who saw her mother killed by someone she trusted and was bounced from one foster home to another as an infant. When she became an adolescent, she moved to a new home with different people and this was very distressing for her. Whenever she was triggered by someone who reminded her of the individuals at her previous foster homes or the murderer, she would be triggered into a state of terror. She had nightmares about being killed in many different ways, so for an entire year, she didn’t sleep well at all.
“We used hypnosis to help her go back through the important things that happened in her life and take away their emotional impact,” says Fraser. “Then she could go to bed and not worry about being killed any more. It brought her out of her trauma faster than just doing talk therapy.”
The Four Step Trauma Protocol
Now that we understand how hypnosis can help with PTSD, let’s look at a powerful tool Fraser has developed: the four-step trauma protocol. The first step is to get the person into an alpha state. “Hypnotic induction helps the brain to rest and be open to suggestions,” says Fraser. “We have very specific techniques to put people into a state of decreased arousal, or alpha brain wave state where they are relaxed and in a light trance. With hypnosis, you can control their brainwaves in a way that they are very receptive to suggestion. So they are open and receptive to us.”
The next step is to have the person become aware of positive events. This can be done by going through the trauma without any defense mechanisms or barriers with hypnosis and then helping the individual remember positive things that happened during the trauma. “You’re helping them pass through the defenses without activating them,” says Fraser. “But you don’t want to dwell on it or force it — that would make them feel trapped.” It also helps if they’re motivated enough to really get this started because they’re going to benefit from it faster than someone who’s not motivated at all.
Then the third step is to use imagery. This is about putting them in a different place. “If you are going through an assault, you’re going to be very fearful,” explains Fraser. “You may think ‘I’m not going to survive this’ or ‘I’m not going to get out of this alive.’ If you go into a hypnosis session and try to visualize yourself getting out alive and invincible, it’s extremely difficult.” The therapist will ask them to imagine themselves in the place that they want themselves to be at that time instead of what they fear might happen.
The fourth step is reintegration, which helps ground a person. It allows them to bring their ego back into the picture and remove any of their defenses. “For a trauma survivor, one of the biggest problems is that the brain is no longer the same as it was when it was younger,” explains Fraser. “When we are in our adult life, we have certain defense mechanisms in place for protection or survival. We’ve been told by our parents, teachers and other people what’s right and what’s wrong; that’s where our ego comes from. But when someone has been through a trauma, they are on guard constantly — they can’t trust anyone because they’re always worrying about being attacked. This can be detrimental if they continue in that state of mind since they’ll never get over their trauma.”
The four steps are all part of the same process and make up Fraser’s four-step trauma protocol. The first step happens in the clinic, the second step happens at home, the third step happens at a safe place and then the fourth is done at home. “Hypnotherapy makes a great deal of difference for people with PTSD,” says Fraser. “It activates areas of the brain that can change their behavior and it is not invasive — you are controlling their own brain. It can help them with any type of trauma they’ve been through, not just PTSD.”
If you are suffering from trauma please call us anytime.