Watch your language!

This article is a bit different, starting out as something of a soap-box piece, but bear with me because it’s relevant to hypnotherapy - honest.

I wrote it because over the last six months or so a spate of stories online and in the press got me thinking about the names and labels we put on things, and how it affects the way we view them. These stories were about girls (and sometimes even beauty parlours!) called Isis. (a)

What's in a name?

Now, as I understand it, Isis was an Egyptian Goddess, whose name meant 'throne', linking her to the power of the Pharaoh. She was "the ideal mother and wife as well as the patroness of nature and magic. She was the friend of slaves, sinners, artisans and the downtrodden, but she also listened to the prayers of the wealthy, maidens, aristocrats and rulers". (b) Isis shed tears for her murdered lover Osiris which flooded the Nile each year, making Egypt rich and food plentiful.

What an inspirational name to choose for your daughter. 

Except it turns out that it isn’t because, thousands of years of history notwithstanding, girls with this name are being ostracised and tormented at school because it's now associated with terrorism.

Jokes were made about the dog in Downton Abbey being 'killed off' because it was called Isis but this isn't a joke. Businesses can be (and have been) renamed or even closed because of this association, but these girls are pretty much stuck with it. Many, I'm glad to say, seem to be proud of their name and are going public to say so, but there must be some to whom this is a source of stress and anxiety.

I have no intention of going into the politics of terrorism, or the idiocy of those involved in this kind of bullying. The point I am trying to make is that labels matter and this is where the hypnotherapy comes in and I climb down off the soap-box.

Relaxation or hypnosis?

At around the same time as I really began to notice these stories, another item came to my attention. It's not new but I hadn’t come across it before.

There has been lots of discussion about the links between relaxation and hypnosis. It’s a perennial favourite on many discussion boards and often brings about a heated debate. Scathing comments have occasionally been made about those who do relaxation passed off as hypnosis. Although, as it turns out, it can be - depending on the label you put on it.

Way back in 2005(c) Balaganesh Ghandi and David Oakley at UCL’s Hypnosis Unit did a study which showed that if you carry out a standard hypnotic induction on people, whether they enter a more suggestible state or not depends on how you describe the procedure beforehand.

Those taking part were tested for suggestibility before and after the induction. Half of them were told it was a hypnotic induction to help them into trance. The other half were told it was a relaxation exercise to help them into a relaxed state. The word used for the state in the induction itself was 'absorbed'.

Those who believed they were simply being relaxed showed no real differences in suggestibility between their normal state and the relaxed one. Those who were told they were being hypnotised were significantly more suggestible after the induction. This difference seems to have been solely down to the label they were given.

Ghandi and Oakley said that the context, along with the individual’s 'perception … beliefs and expectations' matter more than 'the intrinsic properties of the induction procedure itself'. So if you and the client both think what you're doing is hypnosis, it probably is.

Hypnotic Language

As far as I am concerned, however you choose to define trance, the point of using it for therapy is that people respond more readily to suggestion when they are there.

As therapists, we are generally aware of issues like using clean language to avoid leading the client into mistaken assumptions and so on, but this tells us we must be even more careful than that. Even the words we use to describe what we do matter.

Sometimes we use words like relaxation to reassure clients with fears or anxieties about being hypnotised. Many inductions and explanations of hypnotherapy omit words like 'hypnosis' or 'trance' in favour of 'relaxation', maybe because we think it's less emotive or has fewer negative associations.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be so worried about naming what we do. After all, it’s what the client has come for.

Being upfront and saying 'this is based in relaxation, it's going to feel really good, but it is also going to guide you into trance' would seem to improve your chances of getting your client into the suggestible state where you can help them the most.

And to be fair, my own experience tells me that my clients appear to reach much the same state whether I use relaxation or any other kind of induction.

So over to you. What do you think?


Author: is Senior Tutor At Yorkshire Hypnotherapy Training, which offers multi accredited hypnotherapy practitioner training in Wakefield and York, along with taster days and foundation levels. Debbie has written a chapter on working with IBS in The Hypnotherapy Handbook, aimed at students and newly qualified hypnotherapists and also offers supervision and continuous professional development (CPD) for those in practice. Please contact Debbie to find out more.


(a) you can do a search and find many of these, but here's a typical example:
And if your name actually is Isis, read this and find out how kids can cope with being called anything - even Donald Trump!