A great many people see stage shows or movies and come to the conclusion that being hypnotized must include some profound and dramatic sensations. Perhaps they have seen a hypnosis stage show participant become so physically rigid that the hypnotist can put them between two chairs and stand on them with no apparent effort of discomfort to the participant. It certainly seems like it would have to include some very strange feelings.
But, as with many things in life, appearances can be deceiving. The most common sensation reported by hypnotized people is simple relaxation. Everyone has experienced the state of hypnosis thousands of times, at least unofficially. For example, have you ever been so engrossed in a book or movie that someone had to call your name several times to get your attention? Or, have you ever been driving and missed a turn because your mind was somewhere else? At those times, your brainwaves were identical to someone officially in hypnosis.
Research has shown that the brainwaves of a hypnotized person are much closer to the waking state than sleep. It is common for a hypnotized person to be aware of their surroundings, and to be fully aware of what a hypnotist is saying to them. That is particularly true for the first few times someone goes into trance.
As an interesting historical note, the term “hypnosis” was coined by James Braid, a Scottish researcher, in the 1830’s. He based it on the name of the Greek god of sleep, because people in hypnosis look as though they are asleep. Their faces relax, and they tend to become very still for extended periods of time. Braid decided later that people in hypnosis were in a state closer to the normal waking state, and renamed the phenomenon “monoideaism”, a term which obviously never caught on.
One way of thinking about going into hypnosis is that it is a learned skill. And, with practice, we can go into more and more profound states of hypnosis over time. Which brings up another interesting point, hypnosis is not an all or nothing experience. It is possible to be anywhere along a continuum from a very light hypnotic state, to the deepest of trances in which the person will develop anesthesia without any suggestions from the hypnotherapist. The deepest states of hypnosis can be very useful for someone who needs surgery, but who is allergic to chemical anesthesia. However, in such a deep state of hypnosis, the person will tend to be unresponsive to suggestions. So, when it comes to changing behaviors or shifting emotional responses, the deepest states of hypnosis are all but useless.
Someone in a light to medium trance will demonstrate the responses typically associated with hypnosis: following suggestions, and imagining more vividly than they usually do. Those kinds of experiences can open the person to making some amazing changes for the better, such as eliminating a fear, or a habit like smoking.
So, again what does it feel like to be hypnotized? As was mentioned above, the most common sensations reported in hypnosis are simply relaxation. It is also possible for someone to have some amazing experiences, like sensations of floating, or of heaviness, or a variety of some other very pleasant feelings. This writer once got into hot water with someone who has had some very unusual experiences in hypnosis, because he wrote that hypnosis in and of itself has no special feelings. Because she had had such dramatic experiences, she thought that everyone experiences hypnosis that way. It was necessary to explain that someone may be hypnotized without odd or unusual feelings, although such feelings and experiences may spontaneously arise.
It is certainly possible for someone experiencing official hypnosis for the first few times not recognize that he or she is in trance. The sensations and mental alterations my be too subtle to recognize as different than everyday consciousness, although the hypnotist can see the telltale signs of trance: relaxation of the facial muscles, the slowed breathing, and complete stillness, or reduced and slowed movements of the body, that indicate a light hypnotic state. The person may also have some preconceptions about “feeling hypnotized” that are mistaken, which can cause him or her to reject the experience as hypnosis. That is why most hypnotherapists offer a brief introduction to hypnosis before beginning a first session. During that introduction the most common misconceptions about hypnosis are addressed. Then the client can experience the full benefits of his or her session without needing to wonder, during, or after the session, whether or not he or she was hypnotized.