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Tracking Symptom Inductions

by Michele Ritterman, PhD

We usually think of hypnosis as something induced in a client by a therapist. But hypnosis is a naturally occurring phenomenon as well. It occurs in all human interactions, especially those that are intimate. Once we are aware of this fact, we see symptoms differently. They can be suggested by others and received by our clients unconsciously. To learn how to begin to observe these naturally occurring phenomena, we need a few new terms and concepts. This first paper is part of a series about the concept of tracking trance inductions wherever they occur and then countering them.

This brief paper is about part one: on Tracking Symptom Inductions. It introduces therapists and others to the idea that it is helpful to observe sequences of interaction between intimates--couples or emotionally intertwined pairs of any combination, and multiple family members. In these observations therapists and lay people can learn to track exactly when one or more people enter into a spontaneous trance state. Just like any other trance state, this trance-in-interaction is ratified by the therapist using observable psychophysicological phenomena such as automatic behavior, changes in rates of respiration, fixed gaze, spontaneous arm levitations, etc.

There are many reasons this tracking of natural trances is important. If we just look at symptoms diagnostically, we never rule out situational variables. This way of beginning to think about symptoms--as something suggested, even if unintentionally so--enables us to first rule out situational variables before we needlessly label someone with a condition they might not have if they didn't get certain messages from others or if they were taught how to immunize themselves against those suggestions.

The other good reason to start to track suggestions made to clients and their unconscious reception of those suggestions is that it helps us avoid the problem with typical trances that are induced by hypnotists alone with a client: these inductions do not train the client to enter into the therapeutic trance at their exact moment of need.

Clients need to be able to shift into the new trance state, the one that evokes different phenomena, spontaneously and at the right moment in their daily lives. The right moment for the therapeutic trance to occur is sometimes exactly when the negative trance occurs naturally. The client may learn to relax and float down a river in the therapy room with his hypnotist, but when his wife insults him, he may not be able to shift to that pleasant state at that moment, but instead he may get the racing heart or high blood pressure that threaten his health. Timing is of the essence in multiple person hypnotherapy. Otherwise, as with meditation, a client may learn something from hypnotherapy but may not automatically apply it at exactly the right moment.

The client needs to learn to apply his new states of consciousness or new suggestions, within the naturally occurring sequences of his/her life in which the otherwise negative suggestions affect them. Those negative suggestions (whether intentional or not) are often from intimates or from others who have power over the individual, such as a boss or a co-worker. With the method proposed in this paper, the counter-induced trance will be introduced into the natural physiological sequences of the individual, but ALSO within the natural interactional sequences of relationships for the client. For example, in working with partners, couples become each others good hypnotists.

The third main advantage of this way of thinking is that we first can rule out situational or suggestive processes BEFORE we would conclude that a person is defective, damaged or sick, whether narcissitic, borderline ADHD, depressed, or phobic. In this way we avoid needlessly labeling someone has suffering a condition or chemical defect when they may simply be reacting to destructive situations and relational events.

Let's look at three case examples to begin to consider this model in this little paper. Afterwards, I will write in more depth about his matter and later about counter inductions.

To begin to see how we can entrance one another for better or worse, let's look at worse, which relates to the induction of symptoms. A mother says to her suicidal daughter, "We are a lot alike, you and I. But why do you need to kill yourself and I don't need to kill myself. I understand you want to kill yourself. But why?" The daughter shifts from a cheerful state to despair almost immediately. She shifts--without being aware of it- to the state of consciousness that automatically suggests she try to take her own life. None of this is "visible" to the family who has only the intentions to help the girl.

Instead of diagnosing the girl as depressed, we can see here that it is possible that she is highly suggestive to negative embedded suggestions her mother makes in most of her mother's efforts to comfort her. "You need to kill yourself." "You want to kill yourself." We begin to consider the impact these embedded messages could be having for the young woman. If the mother stops interacting that way with her daughter and the daughter learns not to pick up a plethora of negative messages about herself from the mother, could she feel happier? A wife says to her husband who is sitting calmly next to her in a session, "Bill, you are so unhappy. You are always down around me. You never smile at me. You never do what I want anymore. I am so tired of how passive aggressive you are." The husband automatically feels resentful rather than curious about his wife's feelings. He turns away, withdraws, sighs and folds in on himself, losing himself in a negative reverie. The couple is stuck or locked into a negative rapport. How can they shift together to a shared positive state? Labeling each of them, diagnosing or even medicating them are less likely to teach the wife to ask differently for what she wants so that she becomes a better hypnotist for her husband or to teach the husband ways to not turn away automatically, but reach out for his wife, spontaneously, at just that right moment.

That will be the subject of a next paper. One last case example to close with. A couple comes in complaining about their sex life but they are shy to discuss it. Now that we know the problem they want to talk about, the can talk about whatever subject they like. Other subjects will metaphorically address this underlying issue. She says she baked him a platter of Christmas cookies and there were many varieties. She'd prepared all day. He walked in the door, saw the platter, raced over with enthusiasm and began downing some of them. She wanted to kill him and he felt absolutely baffled. What did she want him to do? Ignore the cookies. If we looked at details about the man and woman, we could see how she might call him a narcissist and he might see her as borderline, offering and then withholding. What if we just look at the hypnotic sequence. What is making her suggestion to him unclear? We suggest the wife let the husband know AT JUST THE RIGHT MOMENT how much she would like him to ADMIRE the cookies. What if the husband trusts that the wife does want him to enjoy the cookies, but that she needs him TO SLOW DOWN, APPROACH MORE SLOWLY and ADMIRE THE COOKIES before he touches them. Different way of thinking and observing. Think about it!

This couple went home and made love after the cookie story sequence of interactions was countered.

All rights reserved by Michele Ritterman, PhD. Used with permission.

Using Hypnosis in Family Therapy (Jossey-Bass, 1983; current publication available from ZeigTucker)
Stopping the Clock (1995 Psychotherapy Networker)

For more information, please visit her website:

Posted: 07/22/2009

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