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How hypnosis has helped people cope with the trauma of the Troubles

In a fascinating insight into treatments for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the conflict, clinical hypnotherapist Joseph Pond opens his casebook and reveals the steps that enable people to finally make peace with the past.

Mabel was afraid to go out. A woman in her late 50s, she had increasingly spent days on end indoors, until she only went out when it was absolutely necessary. Tom, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. He was a successful businessman who couldn’t stand to be at home. His problem was anger, and lots of it. Predictably, his marriage was failing and his adult children avoided him.

Mabel and Tom (not their real names) were both experiencing undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although neither of them realised it. Both of them knew of course that they had been through some difficult times, but both felt as though they had been able to move on.  See, it’s sometimes hard to recognise PTSD for what it is.

This is because it often takes time for the symptoms to develop after a traumatising event and so the emerging signs — which can include fear, anger, shame, guilt, depression, etc — are not always easily attributable to an initial event. It seems that humans have amazing coping mechanisms which help to maintain normality for some time. It is when these begin to fail that symptoms emerge.

I’m biased, but I think hypnosis is a particularly effective therapy to employ when treating symptoms such as those Mabel and Tom were suffering from, because it offers a safe and effective way to query a person’s unconscious mind in order to uncover the source of their current distress.

It turned out that Mabel had lived, as a young mother, along the peaceline during the Eighties. At some point during these years, someone had tried to throw what had appeared to be an incendiary device into her back garden where her daughter had been playing. It turned out to be harmless yet the panic she felt was real.

However, unknown to either of us at the start of the session, this was not the incident that required immediate attention. Under hypnosis, Mabel returned to a time when she was about three and nearly fell off a shed.

In most cases, the incident that caused the post-traumatic stress does not represent the first time a sufferer experienced horrible emotions such as terror or rage. In fact, it’s extremely common for an individual to come to me and say that they are suffering from a specific Troubles-related event, only to be brought by their unconscious mind to an earlier unpleasant moment of their lives that they had either forgotten or considered unimportant.

Tom was the person suffering from uncontrollable anger issues. During our initial meeting I explained to him that I thought the best course of action would be to regress him to the cause of his anger. He told me: “Don’t bother. I know what it is. I was attacked by paramilitaries when I was about 23. If there’s anything there, that’s it.”

But again, the session didn’t progress the way that either of us expected. I induced a sufficient hypnotic state and then asked Tom to “ride” the anger back to the very first time he ever experienced it. Needless to say, Tom didn’t go back to when he had been beaten by the men in the paramilitary attack. Instead, he went back to a much earlier event, when he was home alone, and some girls from down the street started bullying him in his own house. The little boy had been so scared that he had wet himself which, of course, made the taunting worse.

I’ve done a fair amount of work with soldiers who have been in conflict and it’s usually the same story. PTSD seems to me to be analogous with the way allergies work. The first time a person is stung by a wasp their immune system doesn’t know how to respond to it. It learns from that first event to produce antibodies to the venom. The next time that a person gets stung, however, causes an over-reaction to the wasp venom. Trauma seems to work the same way.

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Joseph Pond

The question arises whether “remembered” events such as these may indeed be false memories. After all, isn’t it possible for unskilled or unscrupulous therapists to embed suggestions in the minds of the people they’re working with? The answer is a simple “Yes”. When working this way, it’s so important to use language cleanly and carefully, so that I’m not inadvertently suggesting events that I may assume have happened.

I always explain to people that I can’t be sure whether an incident remembered during hypnosis really occurred or not. In most cases it’s clear to the client that the memory is real. However, sometimes the client’s unconscious mind produces surprising material with which to work.  Some clients — for whom this is part of their belief system — even bring up unresolved issues from past lives.

Janice was one such person.  She came to me because she was experiencing depression and didn’t want to take medication. Her father had been in a paramilitary organisation and was killed during the Eighties.

However, when I asked her to go back to the cause of the depression, she also found herself ‘remembering’ something unexpected. Janice went to a past life memory. We resolved the emotions from the past life and had a few other sessions of follow-up. When I last contacted Janice she said she was doing well and that our time together had been effective. Was her memory real or not?  Frankly, I have no idea. However, I explain to clients that, when working with the unconscious mind, one is accessing the part of ourselves from which dreams come. A friend of mine who had been grieving for a departed relative had a dream one night in which the deceased person appeared to them and told them not to worry. Upon awakening, my friend felt much better and was able to go through the grieving process more smoothly.

Had my friend really been visited by the spirit of their loved one or was her dreaming mind simply working out a way to help with the sorrow? Again, I don’t know but I don’t think it’s my place to know and it’s definitely not my place to impose my own personal beliefs upon a client.

In addition to the emotions already discussed, guilt is another common emotion that comes up when working with post-traumatic stress. Once a mother came to me whose son had spent years in prison for murder. Her main presenting symptom was a crippling guilt that she hadn’t provided — she felt — the necessary support her son had needed before he got involved in the conflict.

Whether it’s guilt, anger or depression, the process is basically the same. I asked the client to get in touch with their presenting emotion, follow the emotion back to the source and then resolve the emotion.

Of course, after we clear up the initial traumatising incident, it’s often necessary to do some work with the event that the client had thought was the problem. With Mabel, for instance, we did work on the time that someone threw what looked like a bomb at her little girl, but, as is typical, having resolved the earlier trauma, that event was easier and faster to work with and had much less emotion attached to it.

The most important part of this whole process is forgiveness therapy. I’ve written about this before and it’s too big a topic to get into here. Suffice to say, the most important person to forgive is yourself.

If you are stuck in a negative thought loop like some of the people described in this article, there’s a really simple trick that you can try. First of all, PET imaging scans of people with anxiety disorders clearly show an increase in blood flow to the left part of the brain. This is the verbal hemisphere of the brain, the part of you which produces self-talk and says things over and over again such as: “Oh God. I’m gonna die!”

If you can get a little activity going in the right hemisphere, you’ll balance things out a little and the strong emotions will decrease. Any activity that involves rhythm will do this. Something as simple as tossing a ball back and forth between your two hands will naturally tend to decrease feelings of panic, fear and anger.  All you do is note your panic levels, juggle the ball for about three minutes, then reassess your internal state. Most people will notice an improvement.

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