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Hypnosis for Writing

Hypnotherapy Writer's Block | Dr. Steve G. Jones

Introduction

As professional writers well know, writing is tough work! Oftentimes, words don’t flow freely, but may become stuck or jumbled before ever reaching the page. There are various predictors of good writing, such as inspiration and creativity, that may need an extra nudge. The question is: How do writers break through their own mental barriers (e.g., writer’s block) and release their congested ideas? Research suggests that hypnotism may hold promise as an approach for writers. This encouragement is primarily evident given the positive impact of hypnosis on key predictors of writing success such as, self-confidence, self-discipline, learning, and creativity. In addition, the effect of hypnotism on reduced anxiety has implications for writers whose negative self-talk or stress may serve as a barrier of creative expression. Anecdotal evidence, often provided by successful writers themselves, represents added support for the notion that certain aspects of hypnotism may be beneficial to writers. This article will dive into the processes and challenges involved in professional writing, and the promise of hypnotism as a way to enhance inspiration and productivity among writers.

The Writer’s Most Dreaded Adversary: Writer’s Block

Writer’s block is the author’s worst nemesis. It is a situation in which words become elusive, entangled or just plain stuck. A writer tormented in this way may find him/herself unable to produce original content for years. Indeed, “Suffering has driven great writing, and problems with writing, notably writer’s block, have caused great suffering”.[1] Writer’s block, or ‘the midnight disease,’[1] is a serious challenge for many writers— who have a great deal to say about its causes and solutions. For example, some writers believe that writer’s block occurs when the unconscious mind is trying to communicate to the writer that his/her written words are lacking in some way. American novelist and poet, Erica Jong, describes writer’s block as stemming from worry about being judged.[2] In this case, the writer may become stymied by fear of failure. Augustin Burroughs, popular author of works such as ‘Running with Scissors,’ describes writer’s block as analogous to a medical symptom (e.g., pain) that serves as an alarm buzzing in one’s ear, compelling the sufferer to discover its cause. Burroughs further explains that stretching and physical therapy are the only ways out of it. For a writer, physical therapy equates to the act of writing itself; therefore, Burroughs suggests that blocked writers’ keep on writing in order to identify the deeper and truer ideas lurking below the surface.[3] Similarly, best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert notes that blocked writers must continue to write, rather than attempting to wait-out the block. For Gilbert, addressing a block in this way means maintaining “trust that creativity is always trying to find me, even when I have lost sight of it.”[4]

Causes of Writer’s Block

Authors often describe writing as involving a variety of psychological and emotional process that operate at both conscious and unconscious levels. For example, in her chapter on writing and creativity, Jane Piirto[5] notes various key process that drive writers to create, such as inspiration and motivation—both of which are essential for practicing creative expression. While inspiration is a requisite for writing, locating it can be a daunting endeavor. Inspiration has been described as a “timid beast that comes to your open hand once you’ve fallen asleep having given up trying to coax it from its hiding place.”[4] Writing is a mysterious and solitary undertaking, as it requires making peace with immense ambiguity. There is an inner struggle that comes from working through a forest of words, not quite knowing where each path is may lead. Writers must be willing to plow forward with no guarantee of success. Having the inspiration to continue to write despite its many challenges involves spiritual, non-cognitive processes that occur at subconscious levels.[5]

Tapping into Inspiration and Creativity with Hypnosis

Mesmerism

“The act of writing has been called the waking dream by many writers; this has to do with the sense of being in a trance that envelops the writer while writing.”[5] Considering the intuitive and subconscious activities involved in writing, there is reason to believe that hypnosis may be helpful for remedying cognitive constipation and unleashing creativity. With its ancient roots, hypnosis itself is not a new concept. A hypnosis-like approach was originated by Franz Anton Mesmer during the 18th century. Physicians even used hypno-anesthesia (i.e., hypnotic trance instead of anesthesia) during amputations and other types of surgery.[6] While this application of hypnotic trance (i.e., ‘mesmerism,’ aka ‘animal magnetism’) received a great deal of criticism during the early 19th century, famous writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne took a particular interest in mesmerism, which was sometimes noted in their literature. Poe believed mesmerism had the power to connect mind and body.[7] Hawthorne and Poe may have been onto something.

Hypnosis and Flow

Whether it is conducted by a hypnotherapist or the patient him/herself (i.e., self-hypnosis), hypnosis uses deep relaxation and suggestion to impact perceptions, feelings, thoughts and behaviors.[8] From a sociocognitive perspective, hypnotism is believed to affect a state of deep absorption in an activity (i.e., flow). The idea that the hypnotized individual is able to achieve a state of focused attention is supported by advanced medical research.[8] Sociocognitive researchers further suggest that individuals with a well-developed imagination or proneness for fantasy, may be more susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. Writer’s block has been conceptualized as a challenge of rigidity (i.e., failure to use a new tactic, despite the repeated lack of desired outcomes).[1] Hypnosis may help individuals to break out of such patterns. For example, by functioning as active participants in the hypnotic experience, individuals can advocate for desired expectations and move toward creative and effective solutions.[8]

Hypnosis, Flow, and Athletic Performance

Research also suggests that mindfulness-based approaches may have positive benefits for elite athletes.[9] Mindfulness basically involves a type of awareness in which a person pays attention to his/her feelings and thoughts in the moment, and without judgement. It is an openminded and totally accepting way of responding to thoughts (i.e., cognitions).[10] It has been proposed that mindfulness-focused interventions may be effective for improving athletic performance. More specifically, such approaches are thought to enhance flow states (i.e., the sense of feeling “in the zone”) among athletes while performing. Flow involves the positive experience of complete absorption in an activity that is both spontaneous and effortless.[12] As the ability to focus and avoid distraction is essential during sports,[13] a flow state is optimal for athletes. Writers also strive to achieve flow, which can be quite a challenge given the many perceptions, feelings, and thoughts (both conscious and unconscious) that occurring during the writing process. Distraction and negative thoughts may interrupt a writer’s ability to get in the zone, and therefore achieve a deep and focused level of attention while drawing from one’s imagination and memory. Since hypnotism has be found effective for attaining these types of goals (i.e., deep concentration without distractions) in various areas (e.g., sports), it follows that it also may offer a promising approach to help writers to achieve flow.

Research Support for Hypnosis and Writing

To-date, empirical research supporting the use of hypnosis to help professional writers is a limited, but expanding, area of inquiry. Walsh, Mehta & Oakley[14] examined whether hypnotism-induced suggestion could induce automatic writing among highly suggestible individuals. Automatic writing is what happens when you hold a pen or pencil to a piece of paper and just allow your hand to write. In this particular study, participants were hypnotized and told to write the rest of a sentence that had been partially written. The researchers found that hypnotic suggestion was associated with changes in the ownership, control and awareness of important aspects of the automatic writing. While this study’s focus is primarily aimed at understanding neuropsychiatric disorders, the finding that hypnosis was able to predict an individual’s control over and awareness of his/her automatic writing processes has implications for the impact of hypnosis on writing.

Hypnosis and the Mechanisms of Writing Success

Hypnotism for Stress and Anxiety

There is good reason to believe that hypnosis may influence several areas that are critical to successful writing. Anxiety and stress are particularly dreaded experiences for writers, since they can cripple motivation and creative flow. Hypnosis has been used widely within the mental health field and there is some evidence that it represents a promising treatment for anxiety.[15] For example, Fisch, Brinkhaus, and Teut[16] systematically reviewed high quality research studies in which the impact of hypnosis (also referred to as hypnotherapy) was examined in relation to perceived stress. The researchers found nine studies that met their inclusion criteria, six of which showed positive evidence for the effect of hypnosis on reduced stress.[16] Among these six studies, most participants were medical students and the hypnosis techniques generally involved either group-hypnosis alone or in combination with at-home self-hypnosis. Hypnosis techniques involved imagery exercises, deepening exercises and suggestions following hypnosis.[16] According to these studies, hypnosis was associated with the following outcomes:

  • Reduced stress and burnout, and increased well-being among an adult community sample
  • Reductions in irrational thinking and stress among teachers
  • Reduced stress among secretaries
  • Decreased negative feelings among volunteers, especially those with positive expectations
  • Reduced distress and anxiety among first-year medical students.

Additionally, hypnosis has been found to help patients deal with dental anxiety.[17] Along with this research, studies specifically addressing the effect of alert-active-waking hypnosis (i.e., covert hypnosis) have reported positive results with respect to:

  • Anxiety about Surgery (i.e., perioperative anxiety)[18]
  • Social phobia[19]
  • Anxiety related to sports competitions and medical procedures[20])

Imagery is also linked to reduced performance anxiety among elite golfers.[21] When it comes to sports, imagery basically involves visualizing one’s goal (e.g., a golf shot) and how to achieve it (e.g., buy using a particular swing technique). Hill et al.[21] reported that athletes who used such visualization dealt better with their anxiety and were less likely to choke (e.g., freak-out while under pressure in a way that is inconsistent with desired goals). In fact, all of the golfers who dealt well under pressure used imagery—a technique that is frequently used as part of hypnosis. Additionally, a recent research review has suggested that hypnosis is a useful tool for treating depression,[22] which is a notable finding for writers—who write far less while depressed.[2]

Hypnosis to Increase Self-efficacy and Self-esteem

Doubt and low self-efficacy (e.g., belief in one’s ability to get moving and get things done) represent potential blockers of creativity. Writers may be plagued by self-doubt, feeling that they are wasting time with words no one will ever want to read. Clearly, writing challenges are often purely psychological; generally indicating fear of criticism.[2] Mindfulness approaches actually have a long history of use for enhancing sports’ performance by helping to increase positive beliefs and confidence among athletes.[23] Along these lines, sports psychology research suggests that hypnotism is related to increased self-confidence among athletes across a range of sports.[24] Certainly, by altering unkind self-appraisals so that they are replaced by positive self-talk; athletes and writers alike will be better able to approach difficult tasks with optimism and confidence.[23] For example, in a study by Mosevich, Crocker, Kowalski and colleagues,[25] self-critical female athletes received a self-compassion-focused mindfulness intervention and were then asked to complete a series of writing assignments. The researchers reported that the self-compassion treatment was associated with decreased rumination and self-criticism over writing “mistakes.” Considering these findings, mindfulness approaches—such as hypnotism, that promote positive cognitive restructuring and increased self-compassion, hold promise for minimizing self-doubt among writers. Such approaches may also improve writers’ perceived capabilities, thus raising self-efficacy.

Hypnosis and The Self-discipline of Writing

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”[26] This quote, which is sometimes simply stated as “writing = ass in chair,” refers to the absolute tenacity that is required by great writers. Regardless of talent, imagination or vocabulary; oftentimes the most difficult aspect of writing is simply making oneself do it. Writing takes immense self-discipline. As Augustin Burroughs reminds us, the only way to overcome self-doubt is to keep on writing; as the solution to writer’s block occurs while writing—often mid-sentence.[3] But how does one force such discipline in the face of overwhelming self-doubt? Writing is not the only behavior that may be hampered by a lack of discipline—there are many others (e.g., healthy eating, exercising, quitting smoking, etc.). Fortunately, there is some support that hypnotism is effective for increasing self-control in many such areas, which provides hope for writers interested in using hypnosis to maintain disciplined writing schedules.[27] [28] [29]

Hypnosis and Learning

Writing is a learned behavior that can be improved by teaching techniques that tap into the imagination and other cognitive processes. Along these lines, hypnoteaching has been studied as a possible approach for improving writing skills.[30] Hypnoteaching is an educational approach that seeks to impact both the conscious and subconscious mind. Focus on the latter is based on the idea that unconscious processes involving memory, creativity, and motivation are important for learning. In this educational approach, teachers help students to become relaxed and in an increased suggestive state such that they are more open to learning. Teachers are empathetic and engage in positive affirmations of students while creating need-based lessons. The objective is to create a relaxing environment for students so that they are more motivated to learn. Hypnoteaching has been associated with increased writing achievement among high school students.[30] Similarly, hypnosis has been associated with improved exam scores among general psychology students;[31] and with improved acquisition of Spanish words taught as a foreign language.[32]

Hypnosis for Creativity in Writing

In the book ‘Hypnosis Developments in Research and New Perspectives,’ research studies were examined in relation to various qualities believed to relate to hypnosis and suggestibility (e.g., creativity[33]). Among the results presented is the idea that hypnosis and aspects of imagination are closely related. Therefore, the nature of a person’s creativity and imagination may impact his/her susceptibility to hypnotic suggestion.[34] In addition, using hypnosis to remove a person’s conscious will from a task (e.g., writing) may uncover more authentic creative processes.[33] There is also support for the idea that mindfulness approaches aimed at increasing positive thoughts help to increase creativity.[23] Despite the lack of research on creativity and hypnosis, “creativity and hypnosis are seen to share similar characteristics, implying that hypnosis has the capacity to affect creative output.”[35] In her effort to learn more about hypnosis and creativity, Regan[35] examined relevant research and found support that the two are indeed associated. We are only beginning to learn about the degree to which creativity and hypnosis are linked, as well as how much this relationship is dependent upon other factors such as personality traits.[35] At present, an indication as to how much creativity might be enhanced via hypnosis is most evident given anecdotal evidence, as described below.

Anecdotal Evidence for the Use of Hypnosis to Improve Writing

Some of the most fascinating support for the benefits of hypnosis and hypnosis-related approaches on writing may be in the form of anecdotal evidence from writers themselves. Although anecdotal evidence is considered the least scientifically reliable form of evidence, I’m including it here because I feel that it will add some insight.

Mesmerism, while not quite the same as hypnotism, has some hypnosis-like qualities. For example, while mesmerism is a non-verbal technique focused on energy, both hypnosis and mesmerism do involve having a patient achieve a trance or trance-like suggestible state. Nowadays, hypnotists typically also include language and sometimes visualizations along with trance states in order to help clients with a variety of challenges. Therefore, mesmerism may be thought of as a component of hypnotism. The trance states induced by mesmerists have been linked famous authors such as Charles Dickens and the great Victorian poet, Lord Alfred Tennyson—author of such well-known prose such as: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”[38] What is especially interesting about Tennyson is his use of mesmerism while creating his poems. In fact, Tennyson is known to have authored many famous works during deep trance states. Of course, we don’t know exactly what was going through the mind of Tennyson when he composed his many lines of prose, but it is reasonable to suggest that the deep state of consciousness helped him to concentrate deeply without emotional or other types of distractions that might block his creative processes. Like Tennyson, many writers today might well benefit from such a deep mental state. And, with the added components of hypnotic suggestion and visualization, it’s encouraging to imagine the degree of creative expression that just might be possible.

In Piirto’s chapter “The Creative Process in Writers,”[5] the author, who is a creative writer herself, takes a close look at many of the creative processes, motivators, and other activities that surround writing. Digging into archival research, Piirto reviews creativity studies described by theorists and writers. In doing so, she unveils some interesting aspects of creativity that relate to hypnosis. For example, Piirto cites early creativity researcher, Donald MacKinnon,[36] who noted the importance of research addressing “introspective accounts by creators, hypnosis, a study of incubation or unconscious processing…”.[5] Similarly, early work by Frank Barron [37] is described, including the author’s interest in preconscious and unconscious intentions.[5] Clearly, creativity researchers have taken an interest in unconscious processes for many decades. Piirto also lays out the five core attitudes she deems most important for creative individuals, which are described as follows:

Creative Writing and Risk-taking

Renowned writers have taken great personal risks by expressing their ideas in writing. For example, Piirto notes writers who continued to create despite possible reprisals by the Nazis. It is not difficult to expand this idea, given many famous writers who have produced controversial work even in the face of danger (e.g., Salman Rushdie, Ayn Rand, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and many more). There are also other types of risks in writing that are a bit less dramatic. Namely, any writer who dedicates a great amount to time and energy to writing with no guarantees of positive reviews or financial success is taking a big risk.

Creative Writing and Group Trust

Piirto also describes the importance of group trust to writers, noting that early authors attended readings and took great interest in the opinions of critics, colleagues, fellow writers, and family members. Today, there is no shortage of writers’ meet-ups and other groups designed to facilitate trust and support from others. Of course, the degree to which a writer responds to criticism is also important and requires a strong sense of self, which may be strengthened through hypnosis.

Creative Writing and Self-discipline

Lack of self-discipline can destroy a writer; as creativity and productivity require many hours of simply sitting with pen-in-hand (or hands on keyboard). Helping writers maintain a high level of discipline through suggestion, relaxation, and visualization has the potential to enhance the necessary motivation to keep on writing day after day.

Openness to Experience

Writing is undoubtedly an intellectual pursuit that requires openness to many types of ideas and perspectives. Writers are perpetual students; as, otherwise, what could they possible have to say that would be of much value? Expanding one’s mind—which may be aided by the use of hypnosis—is essential for those who wish to create meaningful work.

Writing and Tolerance for Ambiguity

When it comes to writing, dealing with ambiguity is a painful necessity. As Piirto explains: “Most writers live in a state of ambiguity, especially in the early stages of their composition process. Some have stated they know the first sentence and the last sentence, but getting there is an ambiguous process.”[5] After all, how many of us would dedicate weeks and months to a construction project with no real indication of what the building will look like once completed? Additionally, writers often find themselves overcome with self-doubt as they are lost in ambiguity. Continuing to work despite a tangled darkness of words and negative self-appraisals takes a great deal of self-discipline—a difficult situation for any writer which may be greatly alleviated through hypnosis.

Writing, Imagery, Incubation and Meditation

Along with the five fundamental attitudes noted above, Piirto also notes a number of additional constructs and behaviors that are important for creativity, as well as related to hypnosis. First, Piirto [5] describes imagery as the sensory pictures that precede imagination. In some ways, creative writing is entirely dependent upon imagery, as a writer creates the story in his/her mind and puts it on paper. It is likely that imagery is enhanced through the dream-like trances so many famous writers have described as fundamental to their creative processes (e.g., Charles Dickens and Lord Tennyson). Second, Piirto notes that incubation is important for writers because it occurs at an unconscious level, allowing an individual to delve into creative processes without trying too hard—which can often get in the way of authentic creativity. And finally, meditation is noted as important because it “feeds the spiritual nature of writing.”[5] Meditation, which generally involves deep breathing, relaxation, and sometimes even trance-like states (i.e., components of hypnotism); enables the writer to tune-out distractors and zoom-in on the deep-level aspects of the imagination that are so crucial to creating. Overall, Piirto’s chapter [5] provides a rich source of information on creative processes in writing. Many such processes occur at unconscious and/or deep levels of thought that are similar to those occurring during hypnosis. Moreover, development of the core mental and emotional attitudes needed to promote creativity (i.e., self-discipline, risk-taking, group trust, tolerance for ambiguity, and openness to new ideas) may be greatly enhanced with the use of hypnosis.

Conclusion

Writing is an arduous and sometimes even painstaking endeavor. Writer’s block is particularly troubling and is generally the product of self-doubt—usually due to fear of judgment. Writing is immensely challenging because it requires, not only skill, but also inspiration, motivation, imagination, insight and intuition. Professional and famous writers use various tactics to deal with writing-related challenges (e.g., continuing to write when blocked, and perhaps even writing about the block). Of course, dealing with writing issues is not always straightforward, since there are various unconscious processes involved in writing. Approaches that reach these deep-level mechanisms may hold promise for writers. One such technique is hypnotism. While research investigating a potential relationship between hypnotism and writing is still emerging, there is some evidence supporting a link between hypnosis and mediating factors that impact writing. These factors include:

  • Anxiety and Stress
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-discipline
  • Creativity
  • Learning

By helping individuals to improve in these areas, hypnosis may represent an innovative way for writers to channel their creativity and inspiration, and to ultimately produce meaningful material. More research on how professional writers may benefit from hypnosis is needed, as it is an exciting area with the potential to transform tangled ideas into works of beauty and brilliance.

References

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