Trance Phenomena: what actually happens when you’re in hypnosis?

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What trance phenomena are you likely to experience when you go into hypnosis? And what is a trance anyway?

On this page I want to delve into what actually happens in hypnosis and highlight the things that you might experience when you visit a hypnotherapist or see a stage hypnotist’s show.

I hope this article helps you recognise that trance phenomena already plays a part in your everyday life.

Find out what I mean by exploring the wonderful world of hypnosis and trance…

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Image: MK Hamilton

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What is a trance?

Before we go on to explore trance phenomena, it makes sense to try to understand what we mean by the word ‘trance’.

I’m not going to talk about trance mediums, whirling dervishes, or shamanic rituals (though these all involve trance). No, what I’m referring to on this page are the every-day trances that we all go into naturally.

The thing is this…

Whenever our attention is narrowed down to one thing – to the exclusion of everything else – we can be said to be in a trance.

For example, when playing a sport, a computer game, or musical instrument you might experience being ‘in the zone’.

Then there’s reading, listening to music or a story, daydreaming, or doing a hobby such as gardening or painting. During such activities it might feel as if you ‘lose yourself.’

And, of course, it’s so easy to become entranced by emotion, such as anxiety, fear, anger, depression, love, and the like. All these things narrow your attention, locking you into a certain state.

So, trance can be defined as a focus of attention where everything else fades into the background; one thing becomes the predominant focus.

The ‘official’ definition of trance

However, the Cambridge Dictionary (1) defines trance as…

“A temporary mental condition in which someone is not completely conscious of and/or not in control of himself or herself.”

Let’s break this down into 3 distinct parts…

  1. Yes, it is a temporary mental condition (we usually go in and out of trance – it doesn’t last forever)
  2. Yes, it would appear that we are not completely conscious in trance; this doesn’t imply being unconscious but that our actions are driven more by the unconscious mind rather than the conscious mind
  3. It would appear that the person in trance is not in control of themselves.

Whole debates have been had around this last point. Is the person in control or are they controlled by the hypnotist/hypnotherapist?

Rather than getting into a lengthy discussion about control issues, I’d like to focus more on everyday trances and ask you this…

Who controls the trances you already experience in your life?

Everyday trances and waking REM

Going in and out of trance states is completely natural. It is an everyday occurrence so we don’t need a Svengali-type figure to ‘put us under’. We do it ourselves, though this is usually outside of our conscious awareness.

We all get ‘triggered’ by things and our attention becomes narrowed, resulting in us ‘going inwards’. And going inwards is one way of describing trance.

This is because whenever our attention mechanism is focused for a minute or two our brains will assume we’re in some kind of dream state, handing over control to the unconscious mind. (2)

And this is what trance is: when we enter trance we enter the REM state. And we now know that going into REM occurs not only when we sleep but also during waking hours.

The trouble is, much of this waking trance is negative in the form of fear, worry, anxiety and negative thinking.

Early childhood trances and conditioning

Much of the work I do is in helping people de-hypnotize themselves from old trance states. For many of us, such trances – and their accompanying emotions, thoughts and behaviours – were formed in childhood.

Much of this is established in an attempt to deal with a difficult and/or confusing situation. It starts out as a conscious coping mechanism. But repeated often enough it then becomes automatic, meaning that when you’re in that trance, you feel the accompanying feelings and resultant behaviours. In effect, you’re then on autopilot.

For example, if you suffered sexual abuse as a child, you might have consciously dissociated from the experience to help alleviate the suffering. This was a perfectly good defence strategy at the time.

However, now – as an adult – you might find yourself dissociating automatically whenever the memories of abuse are triggered in some way. In other words, the dissociation now happens without your conscious choice.

In the magnificent book, ‘Trances People Live‘, author, Stephen Wolinsky, points out the ways in which we develop a repertoire of trance phenomena, starting early in life.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how trances still shape your life get your copy now. It’s one of the best books on the subject and is included in my list of Books to Change Your Life

trances people live: best books about trance and hypnosis

What happens when you go into a trance?

So what’s likely to happen when you go into a trance?

Below is a list of common trance phenomena, behaviours that can occur when you go into a trance. Remember, with trance what we are really talking about is the REM state, where the dreaming brain takes centre stage.

This is why hypnotherapy – when performed competently – works so well. We work with the REM state to make modifications to your internal ‘software’, changing the trance phenomena you experience in the real world.

RELATED CONTENT: How hypnosis can help you overcome performance anxiety

Some trance phenomena can be wonderful, such as age regression to a positive memory. However, much of the time everyday trance phenomena is negative. This is where the problem lies.

As a hypnotherapist, one of the main things I’ll do is to help you master – and modify – your own trances.

So, let’s look at the list of things that can happen when you go into a trance. I wonder how many of these phenomena you already experience?

Age Regression

Age regression occurs in nearly all problems that people bring to a therapist: depression, anxiety, phobias, addiction etc. Most problems have a long history to them.

Indeed, much of our lives are not lived as adults; we remain stuck in childhood modes of feeling, thinking, and behaving.

Because of this, age regression seems to be an inevitable part of trance because the brain is always pattern-matching, using the past as a reference point.

Current problems are matched to what happened before and if there are unresolved memories we can all too easily become hypnotized by the resulting emotions, feeling like a little kid again.


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Age Progression

Whenever we’re focusing on the future – in a negative or positive way – we are projecting ourselves forward in time.

The ‘What if…’ trance can be a common cause of worry, the leading cause of depression.

RELATED CONTENT: How to break the cycle of depression

Our imaginations get so involved in these future scenarios that they seem to take on a reality of their own. This is why it’s so important to be careful about the way you use your imagination. It really can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.

Both age regression and age progression remind us that much of our lives are spent time travelling; we’re seldom completely in the present moment.

Dissociation

Losing ‘presence’, disconnecting from our bodies, floating away in our imaginations, lost in fantasy, are all attempts by the young child to deal with difficult, confusing, and traumatic situations.

Dissociation was learned as a way to cope with uncomfortable feelings but might now occur automatically, forming the basis of a variety of Dissociative Disorders (3).

It can feel as if you are living like a ghost to yourself, never fully embodied, never fully present, never fully alive. One of my clients described it as ‘living in Limbo Land.’

Post Hypnotic Suggestions

Another phenomenon of hypnosis and trance are post hypnotic suggestions. These are words and phrases we hear from others – usually parents – or our own internal commentaries that co-exist with other trance phenomena.

For instance, in a trauma situation – which is naturally trance inducing – you hear words or tell yourself something (as you try to make sense of what’s happening). Those words – and the meaning and feeling attached to them – can embed themselves deeply into your unconscious mind.

RELATED CONTENT: How hypnotherapy can cure PTSD and other traumas

We are meaning-making creatures and can be traumatised not only by the events in our lives but by how we make sense of those events – the story we tell.

This highlights the need to be very careful about what you say to yourself (or hear others saying) when in trance. Remember, trance (the REM state) is nature’s optimal programming state. What you say and hear can stick like glue because you are more suggestible when in a trance.


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Positive and Negative Hallucinations

A positive hallucination is when you see something that isn’t really there. This happens a lot in stage hypnosis where the participant imagines he’s dancing with a beautiful woman when in reality he’s holding a broomstick.

A negative hallucination is when you don’t see what is really there. We’ve all experienced looking for a lost object but only later, when we go back to look again, do we see it right in front of our eyes. Think car keys. That’s negative hallucination – not seeing what is really there in front of us.

Both positive and negative hallucinations are common in trance because when we are locked into our own version of reality we’re unable to see a different perspective.

This is why it’s pointless trying to argue with someone who is angry. They won’t be able to see your point of view because their anger trance blinds them to a different opinion.

I won’t get into a political debate here, but you can see how trance plays out in divisive politics all over the world. No one can see others’ points of view anymore.

trance phenomena: perceptual distortion. Fractal optical illusion image with Buddha shape in centre
The shapes in this image appear to move. But are they?

Sensory Distortion

Along with both positive and negative hallucinations, it is common for your other senses to become distorted when in trance.

A mild ache can become an excruciating pain. A gentle hum in the ears can sound like a jet-aeroplane. However, such symptoms can be alleviated in trance if it’s used correctly. Indeed, hypnosis for pain control has a long history. (4)

In trance, your hands, arms, and legs can feel very heavy and yet, at other times, they can feel light. Indeed, if you’re a good hypnotic subject it’ll be quite easy for you to experience hand levitation.

Catalepsy can also occur, where the body or limbs remain in a fixed position.


Are you a therapist? Would you like to learn how to induce hypnotic phenomena such as hand levitation and catalepsy in your clients?

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The good news is that through the correct use of trance, sensory distortions can be undone – pain can be alleviated or even removed entirely. Indeed, there are many instances of trance being used as a natural anaesthesia. (5)

Sensory distortions occur often in stage hypnosis; we’ve all seen the guy eating an onion but believing it is an apple.

And Derren Brown showed a good example of creating a drunken state in a completely sober student

Time Distortion

Another trance phenomenon is time distortion.

An embarrassing moment can seem to last forever as we long for the ground to swallow us up. Watching sport or a movie will distort time, depending on the quality of what we’re observing. 

A good game or film will seem to pass very quickly whereas a 0-0 at the football will have us looking at our watches, longing for the final whistle as time drags by agonisingly slowly.

You can lose yourself in a good book and the whole afternoon disappears. Often, clients have reported after an experience of hypnosis that it felt like it lasted only five minutes, when in actual fact it lasted a good thirty minutes or more.

Amnesia

When in trance, especially when age-regression is involved – and it nearly always is – we tend to forget some things, especially our skills and resources.

All our acquired knowledge and wisdom gets buried somewhere, and we can appear foolish when, say, giving a presentation or making a speech. Of course, forgetting some things can be very useful, allowing you to move on in your life.

Remember, these trance phenomena happen autonomously, and amnesia can be very confusing when it happens all by itself.

Indeed, it is my belief that trance phenomena play a significant role in dementia.

Hypnotic Dreaming and Fantasizing

We all daydream and, indeed, used in the right way this can be very good for us. The imagination is one of our most powerful resources when used correctly.

Daydreams and fantasies, however, can be used as escape clauses, taking us away from what we should be doing. They can be seen as a form of denial where we lose ourselves in imaginary worlds rather than dealing with life here and now.

Such activity usually starts in childhood in the form of imaginary friends or dreaming of a time when things will be better or imagining we are super heroes or someone famous.

In time, the fantasizing takes on a reality of its own and we lose the ability to clearly discern the difference between what is real and what is purely imaginary. I’ve seen this a lot in things like insecurity in relationships where imagined infidelities seem more real than reality.

Psychosis

And several steps further along the ‘fantasy spectrum’ we get into psychotic states, where the boundaries between reality and imagination are very much blurred.

The person suffering from psychosis lives much of their waking hours in the REM state – in a waking dream – unable to know what is real and what is imaginary.

But even psychosis – which is a deep trance state – can be alleviated with the skilful use of hypnotic techniques and a healthy therapeutic relationship. Milton Erickson, one of the pioneers of the use of therapeutic hypnosis talks of this in Uncommon Therapy…

uncommon therapy: the psychiatric techniques of Milton H. Erickson by Jay Haley

Unity Consciousness

Lastly, I’d like to add a word or two about what I think is the ultimate trance state – the experience of unity consciousness or ‘oneness’.

But whereas most trance involves a narrowing of focus of attention, unity consciousness opens you up to All That Is.

This is where your consciousness merges with a Bigger Reality (otherwise referred to as God, the Tao, The Supreme Identity, Great Spirit, call it what you will). Subject and object combine. Duality ends.

Stephen Wolinsky refers to this as a ‘no-state-state’ but I suspect that the REM state is somehow involved in experiences of mysticism. We seem to switch over to right-hemisphere dominance, out of the ‘known world’ of our egos and into a mythic, archetypal realm.

It’s almost as if during such moments we experience the ultimate pattern-match: God consciousness. Everything becomes One Thing.

RELATED CONTENT: Find out about my personal experience of oneness – the ultimate trance state

How to change your own trances

So, these are some of the things that can happen in trance.

I really hope that the info on this page helps you identify the trance phenomena you are already experiencing in your life, those times when you ‘zone out’ (dissociate), forget something (amnesia), or feel like a child again (age regression), for example.

Remember, it is you that created these trances many years ago. It had a purpose back then, but has since become automatic.

The reassuring thing is that, with the right help, trance can be used skilfully to create a better reality for yourself, free from negative phenomena and behaviours.

This is what hypnotherapy aims to do and I speak more about this in my free ebook where I also explain how hypnosis cured me of my 10-year problem in only two sessions.

DOWNLOAD YOUR COPY NOW

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If you’d like to leave a comment about this article please do so below. I’d appreciate reading your thoughts about it.

You might like to check out my FAQ page to get all your hypnosis questions answered.

If you’re a therapist and are interested in how to use hypnotic phenomena with your clients check out the courses in my therapists’ resource section.

And if you’re interested in one-to-one hypnotherapy (in-person or online) find out about a Free Discovery Session.

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Notes and further reading

(1) Cambridge Dictionary https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/trance

(2) From the book The Human Givens – a new approach to emotional health and clear thinking

(3) For more on Dissociative Disorders

(4) For scientific research into the use of hypnosis for pain control

(5) Hypnosis used as an alternative to anaesthetics

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2 thoughts on “Trance Phenomena: what actually happens when you’re in hypnosis?

  1. DominionCinemas says:

    “Wow! This article on trance phenomena had me completely captivated from start to finish. The way it explained the various states of consciousness and the incredible power of the human mind was truly eye-opening. I appreciate how the author provided practical tips and techniques to explore and unlock the potential within ourselves. Thank you for sharing such insightful and thought-provoking content. Keep up the fantastic work! Best regards, Gary Ford.”

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