Shrink Rap: What is Hypnosis & Why We Should Learn the Skill

Shrink Rap: What is Hypnosis & Why We Should Learn the Skill

Hypnosis is a natural, normal state of consciousness, which we all go in and out of routinely throughout our waking hours. In the hypnotic state, we focus on one thing to the exclusion of others. If you have ever been reading a book, or watching a movie, or listening to a story, and you didn’t hear someone talking to you or calling your name, you were in a hypnotic state. When you drive from Telluride to Montrose, for example, you are most likely daydreaming and maybe had to check yourself occasionally to “wake up,” and figure out where you were exactly. This is an hypnotic state. The stage between waking and sleeping, when you just close your eyes for a few minutes, and then 20 minutes have passed when you open them, but you swear it’s only been a couple of minutes, that too is an hypnotic state.


With therapeutic hypnosis we use this state to achieve certain goals. I like to teach self- hypnosis using deep relaxation induction suggestions, with an accompanying recording for practice, to help my clients (and friends) learn to put themselves into a hypnotic state, and at the same time, help their bodies learn deeper and deeper levels of relaxation.

Once learned, one can use this therapeutic hypnotic state to reduce pain, anxiety, phobic responses, and stress related illnesses. Here are the primary issues to understand and the ingredients for success:

First, let’s look at an anxiety attack, or panic attack, or severe stress response. When we undergo stress, our bodies go into a fear response, or fight, freeze, or flight response. This is part of the autonomic nervous system: that part of our functioning that controls smooth muscle, glands, and organs… functions we used to believe were completely beyond our conscious control, or we believed were “automatic” responses. The autonomic nervous system is comprised of the sympathetic (fight, flee, or freeze) and the parasympathetic.

The sympathetic system is an “all or nothing” system: everything happens at once to maximize the probability that we will live if under attack. Major physiological and chemical reactions happen inside the body, all at once and immediately, when triggered. These reactions include: blood vessels in our extremities (arms, legs, hands, feet) constrict (shrink in diameter) rapidly (if I shield myself with my hands and arms, I probably won’t bleed to death if attacked there); vessels to vital organs dilate (expand in diameter) rapidly, pumping oxygen supply to insure major effective effort to these organs; (if I get attacked here, I’ll probably die anyway; with lots of blood and oxygen directed to the organs, I have the best chance of survival); adrenalin is released, and sweat glands open up: this produces maximum optimization of strength and effort, while at the same time, cools the machine (cold, sweaty hands); mucous membranes dry up (dry mouth, etc.); and we hyperventilate to supply enough oxygen for all the blood being pumped rapidly to vital organs (including the brain – so we might get light headed) for this massive effort.

I have also just described the symptoms of a panic/ anxiety attacks: we hyperventilate; our hearts beat rapidly; hands are cold and sweaty; and mouth dries up.

Conversely, during deep relaxation, our blood vessels relax (the temperature in extremities increases), and the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge. This is not an “all or nothing” system: when we have just eaten, our bodies focus on digestion; when we exercise, we focus on respiration and circulation, etc.

Many of our fears and fear responses evoke and are the result of a “conditioned response” from our bodies. A conditioned response is like Pavlov’s dogs salivating to a bell. A dog is presented with food at the same time that a bell rings; soon, the dog salivates just to the bell, without food. Our bodies have an amazing ability to learn, often just from one event – a miracle of evolution to help protect us. I may be in the forest and see a white fuzzy animal that looks cute, but which may bite me viciously when I approach. From then on, my body may react to every white fuzzy animal or toy, or the time of day, or the season and area of the forest. That is not a “cognitive” reaction, but rather a conditioned learned sympathetic nervous system response to threat. Obviously, some learned reactions might not be helpful to us, as we may have “mislearned” some things. These can be “unlearned,” through techniques such as hypnosis and systematic desensitization.

By learning hypnosis through deep relaxation, and through repetition, the body learns a deep relaxation response.

Practice makes this a new, conditioned response to the stimuli that are built into the hypnotic suggestion. Soon, by taking a couple of breaths, the body automatically relaxes. Then, by relaxation “through” the phobia or events that cause anxiety (systematic desensitization), we “unlearn” the anxiety response, and our bodies learn a new lack of fear, or relaxation associated with those events or circumstances. We can even “condition” or “teach” the body to produce a relaxation response when triggered by our anxiety. When our bodies calm down, our thoughts tend to calm down as well. When my body is reacting as if there were a saber-toothed tiger outside our doors, our minds tend to also think there must be a severe threat. Only part of dealing with trauma, phobia, and severe anxiety is cognitive and can be dealt with in psychotherapy. The other part is not cognitive, so we have to use other means to help the body let that response go, and learn a new more helpful response.

Hypnosis has been also used successfully during periods of war and crisis, when no medication was available, to allow some people to undergo surgery without experiencing pain, or to relax during child birth, and so on. About one in five of us are what we call “somnambulists,” or automatic “deep trancers.” The rest of us have to practice quite a bit to achieve the deep trance state.

The good news is that only a light trance state is necessary for therapeutic suggestion. However, to be unaware of pain, a deeper trance state is necessary. This is a tool that we can learn; with this skill, we can help ourselves deal with stress and pain, and we can help others in times of severe distress.

About Dr. Susannah Smith:

Dr. Susannah Smith, PhD

Dr. Susannah Smith, PhD

 Dr. Susannah Smith is a licensed practicing clinical psychologist and organizational development consultant, with offices in Telluride and Ridgway. If you would like to contact her, she can be reached at;; or 970-728- 5234.


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