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Mar 6, 2023

What IS Hypnosis?

Transcending Old Myths

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 States.

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:

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 impressive.

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 didn’t.

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 doing.

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 costly.

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 automatic responses.

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 opinions.

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 clinical hypnosis!


Rhonda, Michael, and David