- Use of positive self-talk and hypnosis can help people calm themselves.
- The exploration of the subconscious can help with emotion regulation.
- Open-ended questions allow people the freedom to better share their thoughts.
As part of building rapport with my patients, I often ask open-ended questions about topics they find of interest. I believe that we should be able to help our patients clarify their thoughts and feelings about any topic they may choose to bring up.
The following case illustrates the richness of information that can be elicited when we facilitate our patients’ ability to take us in the direction of their choice.
An Angry Child
Eleven-year-old Mark (not his real name) came to see me for an evaluation of his propensity to become angry. He explained that he would become angry when his schoolmates bullied him or talked behind his back. On one occasion, he hit a 13-year-old on the bus, because this teenager was bullying him. A month later, Mark sent threatening messages on a phone to a peer who had teased him. He then confronted this peer physically on the school bus.
The police showed up that evening at his home and explained that if he were older he would get into big trouble for similar behavior. He was punished by having his phone taken away for a month, having lunch detention at school, and being suspended from the school bus for half a year.
His mother described Mark as “always” angry, even as a baby. He had started therapy at the age of 4 because he hit kids in preschool and hit his kindergarten teacher. In second grade, he was caught trying to escape from school. When the principal tried to restrain him, he kicked her in the face.
Mark was a twin. He told me that he wanted to become a professional soccer player, runner, or musician.
I told Mark that he could learn to calm himself with the aid of hypnosis techniques.
During our first session together, I suggested that he had the ability to control his emotions. Immediately thereafter, and before I taught him any self-regulation tools, he was able to control his temper better and ignore his irritating classmates. I then taught him how to use positive self-talk, which helped him become even calmer.
At the next session, I instructed Mark in the use of hypnosis to further calm him. He learned to relax by imagining that he was on a Norwegian cruise (which was his choice for a relaxing place), and how to trigger his relaxation response with a hand gesture. With the use of hypnosis twice daily, Mark reported that he was calmer still, and had no further difficulties at school.
I taught Mark how to use finger motion as a way of allowing his subconscious to express itself by moving different fingers to indicate "yes" or "no." I asked the open-ended question, “Do you have any advice for Mark?” The subconscious responded affirmatively and then Mark said his subconscious told him to stop playing video games while he does his homework.
Mark expressed that he didn’t particularly like that advice, and I explained to him that the subconscious often conveys information that is in the best of interest of the patient, even if the patient would rather not hear it.
An Unexpected Turn of Events
At his next appointment, Mark was accompanied by his father. He reported that he had behaved well as he was able to better control and express his emotions. He said that he had cut back on his video game playing while doing his homework. In answer to my question, his subconscious again stated that he should only play video games after he completes his homework.
I asked whether his subconscious wanted to tell Mark anything else. The subconscious indicated “yes,” with a finger motion, and Mark said the subconscious wanted to talk about a ghost.
I didn’t expect such a response, but I went along with it. “Is this a ghost of a relative?”
The “yes” finger rose.
“Do you have relatives who have passed away?” I asked Mark.
“Both of his grandfathers have died,” answered his father.
“Is this the ghost of one of Mark’s grandfathers?” I asked the subconscious.
The “yes” finger rose.
Through further questioning, we established that it was the ghost of Mark’s paternal grandfather, who had died when Mark was 3. He did not have a message for Mark, but rather for Mark’s father. The message was that the grandfather was worried about the health of Mark’s grandmother, who was still alive. Mark’s father appeared a bit tearful when he heard this.
Mark wanted to ask the ghost a question. “Are you in heaven?”
The “no” finger rose.
Mark looked a bit alarmed, because he is Catholic, and the alternative to heaven is not good.
As his counselor, I figured out the questions that would help Mark feel better about the situation.
“Are you here with us now?" I asked.
The “yes” finger rose.
“Are you visiting from heaven?” I followed up.
The “yes” finger rose.
Mark appeared relieved. In answer to further questions from Mark, the subconscious indicated the grandfather was happy and pleased with Mark’s growth and maturation.
We discussed that Mark appears to be quite spiritual. His father then told a story that Mark had shared with his parents when he was 3 years old:
Mark had explained that before he was born, he and his twin had lived on a star. His twin wanted to be born but Mark wanted to stay in the heavens because he liked being there, and wanted to be somewhere that was green. The following year, it became green in Mark’s birthplace and he agreed to be born with his twin.
Allowing Mark to explore his subconscious idea of the presence of his grandfather’s spirit may have allowed him to express concern about his grandmother’s health, provide emotional support to his father, feel better about himself, and calm himself about his grandfather’s absence.
The switch from using the fingers to interact with Mark's subconscious to interactions with the ghost occurred seamlessly and without additional preparation. I have observed similar easy transitions with many other patients whose subconscious introduces another imagined entity into our discussions.
My input regarding the grandfather’s location was important for Mark to interpret his subconsciously derived information in a positive way. Without my input, Mark might have concluded that as his grandfather was not in heaven and in a bad place, which could have caused Mark to become distressed. This demonstrates why a patient’s exploration of psychologically sensitive material can benefit from the presence of a supportive, experienced therapist.
More information about hypnosis and the subconscious and their use in helping children is available in the 2021 book "Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center," by Ran D. Anbar. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.