Levels of Relaxation
One way to look at classic clinical hypnosis is as a relaxation phenomena. When you are completely awake, alert, and conscious your brain wave cycles can be up to 20 cycles per second (Hertz or Hz). This is the electric cycle of the brain as measured by an electroencephalograph or EEG machine. Wide awake consciousness occurs in a range from 14 to 20 Hz and is called Beta level awareness.
On the other end of the spectrum, true sleep, where you can dream, occurs at 4 Hz or less (down to about 1.5 Hz), and is termed deep Delta sleep.
Most of us have had the experience of doing something we really enjoy and losing track of time. We’ve also had the experience of being stuck trying to solve a problem, make a decision, or do something creative – only to have a Eureka! moment the next morning in the shower. As John Steinbeck said, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” This relaxed, creative state is Alpha level relaxation, at a cycle of 9 to 14 Hz. The hallmarks of Alpha are creativity and losing track of time. Think about it – creativity is not a rational process. Creativity occurs when an unconscious part of you sees connections and solutions which you did not see before and you have an “a-ha” experience.
Between Alpha and Delta is Theta level relaxation, 4 to 9 Hz. Most of us have had the experience of dozing off while watching TV or reading late at night. Anyone seeing you would think you were asleep, but you know you are really not asleep. Think of a husband snoring on the sofa while “watching” a ball game. Theta is the dreamy state of falling asleep (or the luxurious time waking up on a non-rushed morning). In this state cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, decreases. Feel-good happy neurotransmitters like beta-endorphins and serotonin, increase, providing a wonderful experience. Theta also involves being more emotionally open. Classic clinical hypnosis involves relaxation to this level.
It is important to note that hypnotic language can be used to promote emotional change at any of the levels of consciousness. The great hypnotist and physician Milton Erickson describes hypnotic work in the “ordinary waking state” many times in his writings (cf. Erickson & Rossi, 1975). It is also interesting to note that the word “trance” is used to describe both a relaxed Theta state and an ecstatic and energized upper Beta state (both of which provide experiences outside the normal range of emotional familiarity, and thus create greater suggestibility).