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[Lt. Col. Jeffrey Yarvis] I use a form of hypnosis called Heart-Centered Hypnotherapy. If people are familiar with hypnosis, it's an Ericksonian form of hypnosis. Milton Erickson was one of the early fathers, if you will, of the use of hypnosis in practice. I will say upfront that most people as soon as they hear the word hypnosis, they think of barroom shows and parlor tricks and losing control. What we do is the exact opposite of that. That even during this process, we will be talking to each other. They will be fully aware of what we're talking about. They will have the ability to control the descent into the hypnosis. They will have control over their body and the decisions we make. But what we're also doing is a multiple number of therapies under hypnosis. So we're using progressive relaxation. So we're already addressing the anxiety before we even get into the issue of maybe what caused traumatic stress. We're using rapid desensitization, so I tell people there's always a lot of first times in this therapy. So they might say, with these distortions, "I always am anxious, I can't relax, I never can keep my mouth shut." And in 10 minutes they're very relaxed, and they'll go, "That's weird, I'm actually really relaxed." And I'll say to them, "Look at your body right now. How do you feel right now?" And what's really cool—it's like they're watching themselves on TV. And they might say, he looks pretty upset, but I'm calm over here. The other thing about hypnosis is it's not something that we don't do ordinarily. I liken it to when we're driving our car, and suddenly we're in our driveway. But part of us knew we were in our car and paying attention to the road, and if somebody cut you off, you'd come back from that thought that you were having back to the car and put your brakes on, probably 99% of the time. And that's exactly how this process works. I tell a soldier, "I'm going to artificially induce that feeling. And you can come back to this holding environment or this office, essentially, anytime you want." And then I use military language to kind of make it make sense. "So once you're relaxed, I'm going to coat you in a psychological suit of armor." I use a series of what I call ego strengthening exercises to remind them of their strengths that have been transmitted to them perhaps by others—a great drill instructor, an awesome boss, perhaps a clergyman who made them feel closer to God, a loved one who told them positive things about themselves and helped them with esteem. And then we create a safe place. And this safe place in military language is like an intermediate staging base. And they're going to come to and from this safe place both inside therapy and outside therapy. So this is something they're going to be able to do without me, and that's really the goal of all therapy is to be independent of the surrogate or therapist. So inside therapy, they're going to leap from the safe place into other times they had these emotional situations or sense of loss of control. And this is the part that's really awesome about it. I don't know where it's going, and neither do they. And, of course, if I get to something that we haven't talk about, it's my job to create that safety net or pull them back. But instead of focusing on what people think because there are distortions associated with that, they focus on their affect. "Let's go to another time you felt this way." And if you look at post-traumatic stress as a war-induced trauma spectrum disorder, on this continuum or spectrum, it's like they're on a train ride, and their thoughts are zooming by like the scenery, and they stop the train at the relevant stations. And what I love about this therapy is we're not focusing necessarily on something bad. Maybe on this continuum there were some relatively benign incidents, but adaptations occurred at those times that have now generalized to situations they were never intended for. So say you were raped, and then we end up talking about a time you got lost in the supermarket. Something happened maybe in that supermarket that's relevant to the rape. Now I want to be very careful in saying that solving the problem in the supermarket doesn't mean we've solved the catastrophic issues associated with the rape. But we've now talked about what you needed in that moment, how to self-sooth, restoring a sense of control over oneself on a benign topic. And we've developed skills now, and we've developed a rapport between us in a sense of trust before we've talked about this heavy issue. And now they feel safe, and they understand also that this abstract process in the beginning is now something very tangible. And at the very end, they have the skills to do this to themselves. And so say it was something as simple as test anxiety, if they knew they had a test coming up, they could do these skills overtly before the test, and I could give them a series of homework exercises and rituals to follow, but the cool part of hypnosis is they also will do it subconsciously. So they'll automatically be doing it because what I'm going to do during the therapy is pause at times and do a series of exposures to the aversive stimuli in a very relaxed environment.
Posted on BrainLine May 14, 2013. Reviewed July 25, 2018.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Yarvis, PhD is the first integrated service chief of the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital. He is an assistant professor of Family Medicine and director of Social Work at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
Produced by Victoria Tilney McDonough and Erica Queen, BrainLine.