Last week at college, hypnosis was used as a case study for doing a theological reflection. In the course of the discussion (and subsequent discussions) it emerged that many Christians don’t know that much about hypnosis and are confused about what it is and how to approach it.
Red Twin is a Christian who is also a clinical psychologist. Though she doesn’t consider herself an expert in hypnosis, she did have to confront the issue of how to think about hypnosis as a Christian when she encountered it as a therapy tool in the course of her training and clinical practice. We’ve asked her to do a guest post to help us to start sorting out this issue. She’s happy to discuss and clarify, so feel free to make comments and ask questions.
Will you make me cluck like a chicken? Can you make me rob a bank? Isn’t that demonic – Satan can enter your mind that way. These are some of questions that are often levelled at me when I mention hypnosis. And they’re good questions! Hypnosis like any form of medical or psychological care, is open to abuse. It also has a chequered history of controversy based on myth that has rarely been rebutted by qualified professionals. For this reason, people often respond with scepticism at best, and fear and derogation at worst.
As Christians, our faith must always inform our practice, so it would be worth investigating what the Bible has to say on this issue. But first, let’s move away from myth and get our facts straight.
What hypnosis is NOT:
What you see on TV is not clinical hypnosis, it’s stage hypnosis, and it’s illegal. In Australia, federal law governs the use of hypnosis, and only doctors, dentists and psychologists are allowed to use it. What you see on television is an imported product from countries which do not restrict its use, in which highly suggestible people are handpicked from the audience to be embarrassed for the amusement of others. There’s a core element of hypnosis, but it’s closer to pulling a rabbit out of a hat, via theatrics and sleight of hand, than it is to clinical hypnosis, which is utilised by trained professionals. TV hypnosis is unprofessional, unethical and illegal.
What hypnosis is:
An altered state of consciousness, characterised by “focused attention, which is used to enhance positive changes in mind and body.” (More info here.) People who are in hypnosis are sometimes described as being in a trance state. Contrary to popular notions, trance is a naturally occurring state in all human beings. I wonder if you have ever been driving and arrived at your destination and wondered how you got there? In all likelihood, you were in ‘trance’ and your attention was so focused on your thoughts, that other parts of your consciousness were directing your driving. Daydreaming is also an example of trance – your thoughts become so absorbing that you don’t notice your surrounds or your activity. This is exactly the same phenomena in hypnosis – we just harness it towards a person’s therapeutic goals. Because it is a naturally occurring process, everyone can be hypnotised, but some people will have a greater capacity for hypnosis than others, depending on their own level of creativity, and ability to become absorbed in an experience. It will also depend on whether a person resists the task. No one can be hypnotised against their will – you have to allow it to happen. When I first started my hypnosis training at uni, I was suspicious and spent many hours going through the motions of induction to hypnosis while internally resisting it. I had to be actively willing to engage in hypnosis before it was possible.
The issue of control is one of the most common myths of hypnosis. It is true that a practitioner of hypnosis (the therapist) has great influence during the process, but this is true of all psychotherapy, which is why it is so strictly regulated. I strongly recommend researching therapists before engaging with one, to make sure that you can fully trust that person. Despite the therapist’s influence, and the client’s greater suggestibility, the client never relinquishes full control. Each phrase the therapist utters is considered by the individual, and the person still has to make the decision to allow or resist the suggestion. And a part of the brain, which we refer to as “the silent observer” constantly monitors the individual’s experience, and takes action to re-alert the individual if anything untoward occurs. The first time I was ever hypnotised, I found it to be unfamiliar and distressing. I was hypnotised for only a few seconds before I re-alerted myself. Moreover, as an extra safety measure, ethical therapists will give the suggestion to re-alert if anything contradicts their beliefs and values. Of course, this requires that the individual knows what they believe.
Christian perspectives: for and against
The biggest objection to hypnosis is built on the very shaky ground of Deuteronomy 18:10-11, which says:
Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD….
But none of these things comes even close to hypnosis! This passage warns against assigning power to pagan gods and occultic practitioners. Hypnosis is simply utilising a state of consciousness that already occurs. A far more substantial argument, worth serious consideration, is that the fruit of the Spirit includes self-control. This is one of the reasons that drunkenness is condemned: because people lose control of themselves. However, as we have already seen, in hypnosis people never relinquish full control, and they remain conscious and aware of their behaviour – if you were unconscious, you would be asleep and could not participate in the activity of hypnosis, which is where the benefit occurs!
And there is no contact with spiritual forces. This idea comes from people who fear that hypnosis tears down any barriers the individual might have and opens them up to spiritual attack. They claim that hypnosis leaves the way clear for demon possession. However there is not a single shred of empirical evidence that supports this, despite several attempts to support such a link. The strongest argument for this viewpoint is that some mannerisms such as fluttering eyelids and amnesic episodes, are evident in both hypnosis and demon possession. But that is like claiming that an avocado and an eggplant are both black pear-shaped vegetable, so if you run out of eggplant for the moussaka, an avocado is an appropriate substitute. Or arguing that incense should not be used in traditional forms of worship, because Muslims use it in wedding ceremonies. Just because hypnosis and demon possession share outward similarities, there is no reason to imply they are the same process.
It is true that aspects of hypnosis can be used as a component of occultic practices. However that is a problem with the purpose it is used for, rather than the practice per se. Moreover, the Bible records multiple events where prophets and apostles entered into trance (e.g. Numbers 24:4, Daniel 2:19, Acts 10:10, 11:5, 22:17, Revelation 1:10), and where this was used by God. Like alcohol, sex, and women braiding their hair, hypnosis should be viewed as a gift from God, which can be abused, or it can be enjoyed and used to help others for his glory. This again emphasises the falleness of humans (and therapists!), and highlights the importance of careful selection of an ethical and trained therapist.
Uses for hypnosis
- Pain management: this is one of the best researched areas, with the most dramatic results. Using hypnosis, people can produce a number of analgesic and anaesthetic effects, which have been invaluable for sufferers of burns, chronic pain, and which provide alternative options for surgery and childbirth.
- Mental health: hypnosis is often used as a component of treatment for anxiety, depression, trauma and stress. In this context, hypnosis is not a therapy on its own, but is rather a therapeutic technique, as part of a larger intervention.
- Habit change: e.g. smoking, weight loss etc.
- Sleep problems
- Confidence building and self-esteem: similar to mental health, hypnosis is used as part of the larger psychological process, to reinforce work done outside of hypnosis. This works in much the same way as a physiotherapist who gives their patients muscle exercises to repair an injury. It is one clinical intervention that can be employed as part of the overall process.
- NB: One of the reasons that the practice of hypnosis is restricted to doctors, dentists and psychologists is the rigour with which these professionals research all interventions, including hypnosis before employing them. You can be confident with these professionals that they are only using hypnosis if it has been tried, tested, peer-reviewed and there is consensus that it is effective and ethical.
There are lots of misinformed, reactionary, and unreliable articles on the internet regarding hypnosis. For further information, and expansion of a biblical point of view, I recommend this website , and for a more in-depth treatment of the topic, the seminal work in this area is by Dr John Court, in a book titled Hypnosis, Healing and the Christian.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.