Hypnosis - Controversial Again

1996 NGH Convention
By Joyce Hansen, R.H.A.

Hypnosis as a professional practice has grown sub- sequentially in the mind of the public, yet from time to time old Svengali myths get resurrected, and the public again becomes confused and apprehensive. Once again hypnosis has become controversial, but in this case as an indirect result of the explosive growth of accusations made by adult children of sexual abuse (primarily by parents) occurring in their infant and /or child years. These claims are based on so-called "repressed" memories that surface many years later. Many of these adults have been counseled to rectify or see, some form of restitution through litigation of the accused as part of the therapeutic "healing" process. Defense litigation in such cases has raised impropriety and incompetency on the part of the therapist or practitioner using hypnosis and/or suggestive techniques to recover "repressed" memories which false lead the client to believe that their current symptoms are due to being sexual abused as a child.

To assure a first-time client about the efficacy safety of hypnosis, a properly trained practitioner takes the time to explain about the "mind-body connection," the mind's ability to enter into various levels of natural and altered states of consciousness and the ability to accept or reject suggestion. However, when it come to the larger controversy of "repressed" memories of childhood sexual abuse, even explanations that "all hypnosis is self hypnosis" and the practitioner initiating the hypnotic state is merely a "facilitator" in the process not a "controller" seem to get lost in the hated accusations of implanting false memories through incompetence.

The intent here is to restrict the discussion to the use of hypnosis as it is being practiced within the context of "repressed" memory and to focus on five aspects of hypnosis that have become controversial within the "repressed" memory controversy. They include hypnosis competency, the use of hypnotic age regression, the psychological utilization of hypnosis, the use of hypnotic suggestibility, and knowledge of memory performance. Extended issues of satanic cult abuse, multiple personality and other disassociative disorders, while relevant, will not be included in this discussion.

To begin with, hypnosis competency is not a matter of higher educational training but a matter of competent hypnosis training and supervision. States, nationwide, are beginning to legislate for consistency in training programs and professional guidelines which will prove beneficial to the overall practice of hypnosis. Just because someone id trained in hypnosis does not make them competent to deal with psychological trauma issues without further psychological training. Likewise, just because someone is trained in psychotherapy it does not make them competent to use hypnosis without advanced training. It is beneficial to both practitioners and therapists to be well versed in the psychodynamics and the hypnotherapeutic implications of what happens between themselves and their clients.

Initially, there was formalized training for handling "repressed memories." Treatment protocol came from therapeutic interventions with clients who had either always remembered their childhood sexual abuse or their memory returned unsolicited at a later point in time. The popular self-help book "Courage to Heal" with its infamous quotation of "if you think you were sexual abused, you probably were" set the stage for the condition of sexual abuse denial If a therapist suspected that a client had been abused, it became their challenger to override the "denial" so that the client could heal through confronting the awful truth, and one way to access this "truth" was to induce hypnotic trance. Did these practitioners and therapist know enough about what happens at the different levels of trance, or how confabulation can occur or how a suggestible stat can exist without formal inductions? Those using hypnosis for "repressed" memory retrievals are criticized for incompetency because they have misused hypnosis to create a greater trauma to prove the existence of "repressed" memories despite the denial of the client.

The second controversial aspect of hypnosis is based on using age regression to access "repressed memories." The use of hypnotic age regression has been a long-standing effective and acceptable technique in uncovering the initial "trigger" mechanism to particular behavior. (including fears, anxieties and phobias) and many psychosomatic conditions. However, hypnotically working with the memory of the "triggering" event does not require the memory to be authenticated or validated. By disconnecting the emotional attachment to the presented memory most of these conditions are easily resolved.

When age regression is used to recover "repressed" memory, the intent has been to move beyond the denial state and recover those memories that will validate the childhood sexual experience. Current statistical reports verify the extensiveness of contemporary child physical and sexual abuse, but records or corroboration of incidents from 20, 30, and 40 years ago are almost nonexistent. Therefore, the reliance of confrontation and hypnotic age regression became of paramount importance to many therapists wanting to access these "repressed" memories. Considerable public debate and criticism have been directed at those therapist who diagnosed childhood sexual abuse based on vague symptoms and intuition and who overzealously attempted to validate the "repressed" memories through age regression.

What these therapist have failed to comprehend is that the various dynamics of suggestibility, including suggestibility under hypnosis, can potentially stimulated imagination and confabulation into false memories. Further, imagination and confabulation are known to be attributes of the hypnotic process and serve their own purpose when the intent is to make the subconscious mind receptive to beneficial and positive suggestions, or to purposefully create hallucinatory images. To use hypnosis age regression as a primary source of sexual abuse memory retrieval is legitimately controversial and suspect when the very inherent nature of hypnosis is one of suggestibility.

The third controversial aspect is the psychological utilization of hypnosis. Many successful psychological treatments include a variety of different treatment modalities, and many psychological issues have been benefited from subconscious information generated through hypnosis when judiciously used to restructure conscious beliefs and feelings, including those of "remembered" childhood sexual abuse.

Hypnosis again becomes controversial when it is used to focus on recreating the psychological trauma state. Working on the premise that the body encodes emotional trauma and that repeated trauma becomes part of a cumulative body memory, therapist would use the trance state to not only remember the sexual abuse but to release the body memory as well through abreaction. Much criticism has also been directed at this form of therapy since some therapists have made their clients repeatedly abreact the same body memories. (as it is a purging of body and mind until there is no more). Abreaction may, of course, occur during the hypnotic state as an unsolicited event, and they do appear to release tension, but professional hypnotherapy has never endorsed repeated or purposeful abreaction.

The fourth controversial aspect is the use of hypnotic suggestibility through visualization and guided imagery. The techniques have also been used with progressive relaxation, meditation, and dream analysis to provide beneficial results to the body and the subconscious mind. But, there are therapist who have managed to corrupt the process by using visualization and guided imagery to lead the client into a very suggestive state which presupposes that childhood sexual abuse has occurred. Cases have been documented where the therapist have said things like - "Imagine you are in your bedroom, who's there with you?" "Where does he place his hand?" "Who else is was there?" "Why didn't your mother protect you?"

Only recently has the process of forensic hypnosis been introduced into the psychological process. The early notorious cases of sexual abuse arrest of nursery owner and staff in California and New Jersey have been overturned on appeal, when review of the investigative technique used by officials was proved to be suggestive, leading and coercive on children. Investigators must now follow formal guidelines in a forensic manner when interviewing children. The application of a forensic approach to al cases of sexual abuse will help to remove unintentional suggestibility and reduce the controversy of hypnotic suggestibility.

And the fifth and final controversial aspect in the knowledge of memory performance. There have been a variety of analogies used to explain the different ways memory functions. One such early description was a long term memory being like a record groove that becomes deeper and deeper each time that specific memory was brought to mind. A more current analogy, in keeping with the latest scientific research, is the one of memory fragments from various parts of the brain being reassembled into a memory image acting like the random access memory of a computer. However, even this analogy only captures the process it does not capture all the nuances, distortions and fabrications of memory.

Many practitioners and therapist believe hypnosis is a means to retrieve undistorted truthful and complete memory accounts via the subconscious mind. Once such memory accounts is retrieved including emotional abreaction, psychological resolution can proceed. Proponents of "repressed" memory argue that this kind of memory id different from other memory because it is, specifically, sexual abuse, trauma memory which creates this "repressed" state (which of course can only by successfully relieved through their particular protocol).

Current memory research suggests that memory is reinterpreted, reassessed and reassembles each time it is brought to consciousness rather than a sequential series of images. Numerous experiments have yet to substantiate the existence of a "repressed" state where memory can be fully, and accurately recovered many years later in such great detail. Yet, each side of the memory debate tries to interpret the latest memory study as a defense for their position. Therefore, at this point in time, valid research is still pending and the "repressed" memory state is theoretical.

In terms of hypnosis, there is no question that memory can be manipulated. This is the position the legal courts have taken regarding what is called "hypnotically refreshed memory," and this has been the primary defense against claims of childhood sexual abuse based on the use of hypnosis. Hypnotically, imagination can be stimulated to create almost lifelike experiences with corresponding physical responses. Such suggestibility must also be realistically considered in the creation of potential false images of sexual abuse when a practitioner or therapist is seeking confirmation based on their judgment of denial or when a client has already been made suggestible by media, the conversations of others, or personal fantasy.

In summary, the application of hypnosis for the verification of "repressed" memories cannot be anything but controversial. In all fairness to all parties concerned, corroboration of accusations is imperative when possible and when it is not, healing should therapeutically proceed. It serves no ethical purpose to use hypnosis to witch hunt for the real or mythical abuser.

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