Working with Trauma | Hypnotherapy
Written by Wes Nielson,
in Section Mental Health
Working with Trauma | Hypnotherapy
“Rob, I need a hypnotherapy session with you!” Something about the tone in Jamie’s voice caught my attention. Jamie was a good subject for hypnotherapy but despite what I thought were good sessions, Jamie still held onto problematic behaviors that, based on my past experience, should be abating by now. Although we did get a lot of relief from some traumatic past experiences, Jamie still wanted to hold on to behaviors she needed to move past. Consciously or unconsciously these behaviors benefitted her somehow. “What happened?” I asked. “I got really triggered while I was helping shovel snow off the sidewalk to the school,” she replied.
Jamie was well-schooled when it came to noticing “triggers.” Filling out “Trigger Sheets” began shortly after Jamie arrived and continued on almost a daily basis. Over time, Jamie learned how to be more mindfully self-aware when upsetting stimuli produced a negative physiological response. Jamie learned that in order to begin the process of resolving negative feelings, she first needed to recognize them as opportunities for growth. Learning to identify and accept feelings non judgmentally, is a vital part of the healing process. Paying attention to upsetting stimuli is not usually something a teenager does. They are usually quite unaware, since most of their energies are mobilized to distance themselves from any uncomfortable feelings that might present themselves. That was very true for Jamie when she first arrived. She worked on trigger sheets begrudgingly at first but was starting to show improvement.
Jamie went on to explain how she had used a scarf to secure her hat so it wouldn’t fall off while she was outside. She started noticing her hat move farther back on her head the scarf begin tightening around her throat more. Suddenly, she started feeling panicky. This intense feeling persisted throughout the rest of the day. That was all I needed to hear. With that explanation I quickly proceeded to set up a time for us to meet.
Over thirty plus years of using hypnosis to alleviate trauma, I have seen my clients experience dramatic resolution of issues as well as the acquisition of greater insight. I was quite interested in what results I might get by using hypnosis to help Jamie resolve the trigger she described to me. The trick was to get to the source and a strong trigger like Jamie’s had a high likelihood of a successful therapy session. With a successful regression, the strength of the trigger would either be significantly reduced or completely resolved. I had a gut feeling something important would emerge in the upcoming session. I started reflecting about other times students came to me after having something trigger them. It wasn’t just being triggered. Something about the way they approached me told me they knew it was something important. Such was the case with Jamie, hence my strong gut feeling the upcoming hypnotherapy session with Jamie could be quite valuable in helping her overcome some of her struggles.
As she was accustomed to do, Jamie quickly entered the hypnotic state. I gave instructions for the unconscious to select a “yes” and a “no” finger and I soon had finger movement indicating yes or no respectively. Termed ideomotor signaling, these responses are both automatic and unconscious. I then asked the unconscious if it was okay for Jamie to remember the cause of her upsetting feelings during her shoveling snow. The “yes” finger slowly lifted. I proceeded with the regression. Jamie soon began describing feeling like she couldn’t breath and feeling very scared. She proceeded to describe a litany of different sensations as she slowly and gradually became more aware. Jamie described feelings of pressure on her lungs, feelings of confusion and a desperate attempt to understand what was happening and then started realizing that she was “very little.”
Jamie had just completed a recent psychological evaluation and I remembered something I read in the history of her early childhood. When Jamie was in her infancy, she was diagnosed with sleep apnea. Her tonsils were enlarged to the degree that they were blocking Jamie’s airway, which resulted in a tonsillectomy during her infancy. I found myself witnessing from a very emotionally intimate position what Jamie was going through.
The session ended with an ideomotor response that indicated Jamie understood this well enough to start the process of “letting the feelings go.” I spent the remainder of the session facilitating the catharsis that the unconscious mind agreed to. I could tell that Jamie was successfully resolving much of the trauma. Her automatic and deep breaths evidenced a substantial release of the feelings the infant inside of her had held onto for so long. When the session ended Jamie looked peaceful and stated that she felt better. I knew there was more to do however. My observations of Jamie over the previous months of her stay with us had me convinced that many of her problematic behaviors, clearly rooted to the trauma we had just worked on, now served other purposes. Jamie had learned that she could benefit in other ways by these behaviors. However, I felt optimistic that we had broken through what was blocking Jamie’s progression. Forward movement could now begin.
After the session, I started thinking about a time when I had the girls on a hike in the Uintah Mountains near here. We were going up a pretty steep hill when Jamie suddenly panicked after starting to feel short of breath. We were probably all feeling short of breath at that point. Jamie, however, had a major “come-apart,” probably the most dramatic one I have ever witnessed. It now made sense. I started reflecting on Jamie’s intense fear of being “out of control.”Jamie had an unusually strong stubborn nature, and she was invested in keeping a wall around her. I made the remark soon after Jamie’s arrival that Jamie was like a tangled garden hose. Every time someone would go through the work to straighten her all out, she would tangle herself back into a tight clump. Jamie often struggled with conflicting thoughts and feelings to the point she was mentally tied up in knots.
In my experience conducting regressions, I find my work analogous to the game of pick-up sticks. The subject’s unconscious mind knows what is needed to work on first better than the hypnotherapist. I respect the mind’s wisdom. In fact, I marvel at what we all know unconsciously. Sometimes the most important past experience surfaces first. At other times, events need to be processed before the client is ready to work on what might be considered the most important issue. In this case, after the session, I had a strong gut feeling that Jamie finally got to that most important pick-up stick.
The next session lasted approximately three hours. I had two reasons for this session. First, I wanted to further desensitize any residue of emotion left over from the first session. Secondly, I wanted Jamie to continue to gain insight into how many of her behavioral problems stemmed from this sensitizing period of her life. Desensitization can be accomplished in several ways through the relaxed state of hypnosis. The state of hypnosis is innately very relaxed. The parasympathetic nervous system takes over. This is often referred to as the “relax and renew” state.
My main strategy for further resolution of negative affect was through the use of “circle desensitization.” I established a safe place for Jamie to go to in her mind and alternated between reviewing the negative feelings and safe feelings. Each time we reviewed the upsetting elements of this memory, the intensity of feelings lessened.
The session ended after Jamie reviewed her problematic behaviors. She was able to connect many of her issues to her traumatic experience during infancy. Jamie realized that if she started to feel uncomfortable because she was be breathing harder due to physical activity, she could comfort the infant inside her and let her know there was nothing to worry about.
I felt encouraged when several staff, not knowing about the sessions, made comments about significant improvement in Jamie’s behaviors and attitudes. The news confirmed my intuition that our session initiated a breakthrough for Jamie. Shortly after this second session I observed what seemed to be attention-seeking behavior in Jamie during the karate class I teach. Jamie appeared to be really struggling with her breathing as she moved back and forth in the gym. Jamie wanted my attention focused on her. Jamie’s behavior in the karate class felt different from the fear and panic of her early childhood session.
I arranged for another session of hypnosis to go to the cause of these feelings. The session led us to a sensitizing moment when Jamie’s mother birthed twins and now needed to divide her time among her children. Jamie’s need for her mother’s attention started with her being the frightened infant who couldn’t get air into her lungs. Without really understanding why, she desperately needed attention. Long ago Jamie resorted to negative behaviors as a means to keep attention on her. This insight, along with further desensitization of her fears from this session has brought even greater progress.
Jamie might need more sessions to really put this to rest. Then again, maybe we have done enough. One thing for sure, I will definitely comb through this memory a few more times just to be safe. As this is a recent experience, time will tell how much help it gives Jamie. I predict, in fact I intend, significant change for Jamie.