Today, Rhonda and I interview Dr. Michael Yapko, a clinical
psychologist and expert in clinical applications of hypnosis.
Michael D. Yapko, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist residing
near San Diego, California. He is internationally recognized for
his groundbreaking work in applying clinical hypnosis, especially
in the active treatment of depression. He has taught in more than
30 countries across six continents, and all over the United
He has been a vocal critic of the medical model of depression
and instead advocates for a social perspective, suggesting the
problem is less in your biochemistry and more in your circumstances
and perspectives. His YouTube lecture on “How to Recover from
Depression” has now been viewed nearly 5 million times.
Dr. Yapko is the author of 16 books, including his newest book
for professionals called Process-Oriented Hypnosis, and
his classic hypnosis text, Trancework (5th edition).
His popular general audience books include Depression is
Contagious and Breaking the Patterns of Depression.
His works have been translated into 10 languages. He is also the
Chief Content Advisor for MindsetHealth, a digital
hypnotherapy mental health app. More information about Dr. Yapko’s
work is available on his website: www.yapko.com.
On the personal side, Dr. Yapko is happily married to his wife,
Diane, a pediatric speech-language pathologist. Together, they
enjoy hiking in the Great Outdoors in their spare time.
Michael’s first experience with hypnosis was as an
undergraduate psychology student at the University of Michigan. He
went to a clinical course on the topic of hypnosis which featured a
live hypnosis demonstration. The demonstration subject was a woman
who was suffering with intense chronic leg pain following a
traumatic auto accident three years earlier. The relentless pain
had disabled her and greatly impacted her life on many levels.
Michael said he listened to her sad story in skeptical awe,
unable to imagine what the hypnotist could possibly say to someone
suffering so much that would be helpful to her. He was deeply
absorbed in observing every nuance of the interaction wondering
what help hypnosis might offer in such dramatic circumstances.
The initial phase of the interaction was simply a series of
suggestions for relaxing and focusing her attention. He gradually
offered suggestions to visualize the pain as a dark, viscous liquid
that could flow down her leg, out of her foot, into her shoe, and
then spill out onto the floor as a “harmless puddle of pain.” And
it was gooey!
After re-alerting her from hypnosis, she became tearful and
reported that she was pain-free for the first time in almost three
years! The change in her appearance was both obvious and deeply
Observing this dramatic demonstration of hypnosis for reducing
chronic pain was a transformative experience for Dr. Yapko. He
literally thought in that moment that hypnosis had remarkable
potentials and that he would dedicate himself to learning all he
could about the intricacies of hypnosis and its merits in a wide
array of clinical interventions.
The demonstration blew Dr. Yapko’s young mind and led to a
50-year career practicing, studying, writing about, and teaching
clinical hypnosis to health care professionals worldwide. Although
he has recently retired from active clinical practice, he continues
to offer trainings and says his fascination with hypnosis is just
as strong as ever today.
There are a number of striking areas of overlap between
Michael’s use of methods of clinical hypnosis and traditional
Cognitive Therapy. For example, he routinely uses the Experimental
Technique, and gives experiential homework assignments to help
patients “see” or discover something that they have not previously
seen or realized that would be helpful to them.
This can be important when treating patients who hold rigid
beliefs that can become the basis for emotional distress. However,
the types of experiential experiments Michael suggests are
sometimes more ambiguous in their purpose, and are sometimes more
paradoxical, but all are designed to lead the patients to a shift
in their mindset.
In one example, Michael described a severely depressed woman
who felt like a victim and constantly compared herself to others
she actually knew very little, if anything, about. Then she felt
terrible about herself because she was convinced that everyone else
was happy and had beautiful, problem-free, ideal lives and she
She had developed unrealistic perceptions of other people on
the basis of little or no actual data. These thoughts made her
miserable and she was convinced she was the only one who had been
singled out for misery.
Of course, we can see many of the familiar cognitive
distortions, including Mind-Reading, which is assuming, without
evidence, that we know how other people are thinking and feeling or
how their lives are going. For most people, this process is so
reflexive and unconscious they don’t realize what they’re
As Michael said, “too often people think things and then make
the mistake of believing themselves.” To her detriment, this woman
had never tested her assumptions about others.
Michael’s view was similar to that of cognitive therapists,
that there would need to be a change in her way of reaching
unfounded conclusions if she was going to feel better about herself
and her life. But what kind of experiment, or exercise, could he
assign to help her discover that her thinking WASN’T always correct
Telling her to “stop doing that!” would not likely help her.
Instead, Michael did a hypnosis session with her and oriented her
to the idea that forming interpretations or conclusions without
evidence is a reliable path to making mistakes that can be
Then Michael gave her an easy assignment that had the potential
to make obvious how readily she formed conclusions without any
evidence. He encouraged her to go on a hike in a state park near
San Diego. The trail he wanted her to go on is called the Azalea
Springs Trail, an easy three mile walk. The trail’s name suggests a
beautiful trail with flowers and flowing springs and sounds like an
awesome, inspiring experience.
But in reality, the hiking trail goes through barren desert
brush, eventually leading to a clearing. In the center of the
clearing, there’s a rusty pipe sticking up out of the soil with a
small amount of water dripping out. A sign attached to the pipe
reads, “Azalea Springs.”
All the expectations of an abundance of beautiful azaleas and a
lovely flowing spring naturally exploded in only a moment! When she
read the sign and realized how far off her expectations were from
the reality, she suddenly “got it” and burst out laughing.
She learned in a powerfully memorable way that our expectations
are not always the way things are. Subsequently, having absorbed
that powerful learning, she regularly caught herself making
assumptions about others and using them to build them up and tear
herself down. This hurtful pattern changed dramatically, giving
rise to a much happier and more satisfying life.
Michael also uses the Survey Technique, which is common in TEAM
therapy. He described a shy man who desperately wanted to be
married and fantasized living in domestic bliss in a house with a
picket fence. But he was convinced that no woman would ever be
interested in him because he’d been hospitalized for two weeks for
depression 15 years earlier.
Again, he was rigidly fixated on this unfortunate idea, which
he believed to be absolutely true. Michael first conducted a
hypnosis session that introduced the idea that “someone can be very
sure…and very wrong.”
Hypnosis often makes it possible to loosen the hold of
unhelpful ideas and shift to a more useful perspective. This is
because people in hypnosis process information differently than
when in their usual frame of awareness. Having a rational
conversation with someone is quite different than guiding someone
through a hypnotic experience which can create possibilities that
rational conversation alone simply can’t.
Hypnosis is all about focus and Michael describes how people’s
problems are often problems of focus: they focus on what’s wrong
and miss what’s right, or they focus on the unchangeable past and
miss positive future possibilities. Those of you who are familiar
with CBT or TEAM may recognize these distortions as Mental
Filtering and Discounting the Positive.
It’s important to appreciate that hypnosis is NOT the therapy.
Rather, it’s a vehicle for delivering therapeutic ideas and
perspectives at a deeper level that can give rise to more adaptive
Following hypnosis Michael gave his patient the assignment to
generate a series of general questions that he’d be interested in
hearing women answer. Michael included the following question as
number 7 on his 10 question survey:
“Would you consider dating, getting involved with, and even
marrying a man if you knew he’d been hospitalized for two weeks for
depression 15 years ago?”
Michael then convinced him to go to the local mall and
randomly stop women and ask them to respond to some survey
questions he was researching. He could tell a number of women that
he was conducting a brief survey and would appreciate getting their
Although he got many varying opinions, he was shocked to
discover that the vast majority of women said it would NOT be an
issue. He had built his misery around a belief that had no bearing
on how women actually felt.
Once again, although Michael emphasizes the value of hypnosis,
his therapy techniques have some overlap with Cognitive
Therapy. He promotes the idea that the shifts in both physiology
and cognition that take place during hypnosis can provide a
multi-dimensional foundation for amplifying the effects of
virtually any type of psychotherapy.
In fact, in his classic text on hypnosis, Trancework
(5th edition), Michael cites numerous studies that show that
hypnosis can enhance therapeutic outcomes for Cognitive Therapy.
And why not? After all, every therapy utilizes suggestions in one
form or another!
Michael emphasizes the importance of psychotherapy homework
between sessions which is also key in TEAM therapy as well as
Cognitive Therapy. He will not give patients the room to “skip” or
“forget” to do their homework assignments and uses hypnosis to
build their curiosity and willingness to explore new possibilities
by carrying out assignments.
He described different factions in the world of hypnosis. Just
as there are different approaches to psychotherapy, there are also
differing views about the nature of hypnosis. For example, some
experts promote the idea that hypnosis is an intrapersonal (within
the person) phenomenon, a “fixed” or unchanging trait the person
may have. They use “suggestibility tests” to assess whether and how
responsive the patient might be to hypnosis.
Michael and other experts view hypnosis differently, seeing it
not as a fixed trait a person does or doesn’t have, but rather as a
product of many different factors, including the patient’s
expectations, the context in which it is being applied, the purpose
for which it is being applied, and the quality of the therapeutic
relationship that involves empathy and trust. He also believes that
almost everyone has the capacity for hypnosis, but different people
clearly have different aptitudes, or innate skills, for
experiencing various aspects of hypnosis.
For example, some people may have a greater capacity for pain
reduction or elimination, while others may have a greater capacity
for vivid visual imagination and fantasy, and so forth.
Hypnosis provides an opportunity for people to discover their
hidden strengths and talents. Can you imagine what it does for
someone’s self-image, Michael asks, when they discover through
hypnosis that they have untapped abilities they can use to handle a
situation skillfully that previously had overwhelmed them?
In fact, this is what draws Michael to hypnosis: the way it can
empower people to discover and use more of their untapped innate
resources. This is the exact opposite of the unfortunate myth
perpetuated through hypnosis stage shows and Hollywood productions
that somehow hypnosis diminishes people’s sense of control.
That’s very important, so I’ll repeat it. The myth-based view
is that hypnosis makes people obedient to the powerful hypnotist,
who is often painted as a Svengali type of character. But in
reality, hypnosis can be used to help make people more powerful,
more autonomous, and more independent. Just the opposite!
Michael has authored 16 books, including nine on the clinical
applications of hypnosis. His latest book, entitled,
Process-Oriented Hypnosis: Focusing on the Forest, Not the
Trees, focuses on how, and not why, people generate their own
problems and can be obtained at Amazon.
Thanks so much for listening! And thanks so much, Michael, for
sharing your wealth of experience and giving us the latest scoop on
Rhonda, Michael, and David
About the Podcast
This podcast features David D. Burns MD, author of "Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy," describing powerful new techniques to overcome depression and anxiety and develop greater joy and self-esteem. For therapists and the general public alike!