Mindfulness, Metacognition and Hypnosis: August Research Snippet

Mindfulness, Metacognition and Hypnosis

August Research Snippet

Donald Robertson, NCH Research Director

Apologies for the absence of a July Snippet but here’s August’s a bit early as compensation.  Following our previous snippets on meta-analyses, finding research online, and treatment outcome studies, etc., we’ve recently looked at attempts to combine mindfulness research and hypnosis in the treatment of depression.  This is a popular area so I thought I’d continue in the same theme by looking at, arguably, the most important recent article on this subject.  In 2006, Steven Jay Lynn collaborated with the Buddhist teacher Lama Surya Das, and two other researchers, in an attempt to explore the possibility of combining elements of Buddhist mindfulness meditation practice, cognitive therapy, and hypnosis, drawing on recent research in cognitive psychology.

Mindfulness versus Thought Suppression

Over the past couple of decades, enthusiasm for mindfulness meditation techniques derived from Buddhism has flourished among cognitive-behavioural therapists, inspired by the early success of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s meditation programme for stress management.  Meditation and acceptance strategies have been used to counteract the tendency of many clients to try to suppress, control, or “fight” distressing thoughts.  Lynn et al. refer to the recent study by Wegner and his colleagues, which found that when people tried to deliberately suppress a thought there was evidence of a “rebound effect” in which they subsequently experienced more intrusions of the thought than a control group who were simply asked to think freely about the same thing.  Other studies have found evidence that emotional suppression can inhibit memory and problem-solving and increase physiological signs of nervous arousal.  Lynn and his colleagues report that of nearly a hundred subjects who were asked to keep their minds blank while listening to hypnotic suggestions, only one reported any success. 

Where thought-control strategies backfire, mindfulness and acceptance have been seen as offering an alternative way of responding to distressing experiences.  Lynn et al. follow other contemporary cognitive-behavioural therapists in contrasting non-judgemental mindfulness and acceptance with the unhealthy suppression of thoughts and feelings.  (However, they fail to mention that experimental studies on this “rebound” effect in thought suppression have produced some mixed results – q.v. Clark & Beck, 2010, for a more detailed review.)  Lynn et al. also cite a 2003 meta-analysis of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and stress reduction approaches by Baer, which found a mean effect size of 0.59 (a medium-sized treatment effect) for this approach across various emotional problems and medical conditions.  In other words, it probably works, but the effects are comparable to those of other therapies and not dramatically superior to them.

Mindfulness & Metacognition

Lynn et al. appeal to a cognitive model combining elements of Adrian Wells’ influential metacognitive theory and Lynn and Kirsch’s own “response set” theory to explain the mechanism underlying mindfulness meditation and its relationship with hypnosis.  Contrary to Beck’s earlier cognitive therapy model, Wells introduced a focus on the notion of “metacognition”, thinking about thinking, or beliefs about beliefs.  According to this model, negative automatic thoughts aren’t particularly unhealthy in themselves, but rather they become so because of our attitude toward them.  In plain English, whereas Beck’s original cognitive therapy assumed that negative thoughts play a central role in the development of emotional disturbance, Wells points to the fact that many people experience lots of negative thoughts without becoming upset by them, whereas patients with severe emotional disorders appear to be unusually disturbed by individual negative thoughts and worries.  Mindfulness meditation, likewise, can be seen as an attempt to adopt a more detached attitude toward our stream of consciousness, and thereby to modify our thinking about thinking, i.e., to see automatic (spontaneous) thoughts as relatively transient and harmless, rather than important and dangerous.  Indeed, Beck has recently assimilated many aspects of Wells’ metacognitive approach into his revised cognitive therapy for anxiety (Clark & Beck, 2010).

Curiously, Lynn et al. don’t mention the fact that Wells’ metacognitive model raises serious problems for hypnotherapy because it suggests that the assumptions often made by hypnotherapists about the “power of thought” risk reinforcing maladaptive (metacognitive) assumptions held by many clients, i.e., the assumption that thoughts (including suggestions) are inherently powerful, whereas Wells teaches his clients that ideas are only as powerful as we believe them to be and we can learn to dismiss them as “mere thoughts”, lacking any real power or significance.  Likewise, Lynn et al. cite the recent research by Twohig (2004), which found that by repeating a negative thought to oneself one hundred times, like a mantra or autosuggestion, subjects made it seem less believable rather than more so, as some hypnotists might assume.  To borrow Wells’ terminology, hypnotism itself can be seen as a set of metacognitive beliefs rather than an altered state of consciousness or “hypnotic trance”.  The belief that autosuggestions are powerful when phrased in certain ways and the strategy of attending to their meaning for a prolonged period, to the exclusion of distractions, are ways of “thinking about thinking” (metacognition), which it’s the aim of most “hypnotic inductions” to instantiate.  In a sense, mindfulness meditation can be seen as a kind of “de-hypnosis” or “counter-hypnosis”, which aims to develop a metacognitive mind-set that weakens the hold of certain thoughts or suggestions, e.g., “Imagine that you are transparent, and disturbing thoughts and emotions cannot penetrate you or have any power to control your actions” (Lynn et al.), which contrasts sharply with typical preliminary hypnotic suggestions to experience certain ideas (suggestions) as powerful, controlling, and deeply penetrating into the mind, etc. 

Combining Hypnosis & Meditation

Lynn et al. summarise the relevance of hypnosis to mindfulness training as follows,

  1. Suggestions can be used to motivate clients to persevere with meditation practice on a regular basis.
  2. Suggestions can be used to generate a patient mind-set, so that when the attention naturally wanders this is seen as normal and accepted.
  3. Suggestions can be given about acceptance of things that cannot be changed.
  4. Hypnosis can be used to help people avoid identification with thoughts and feelings.
  5. Hypnosis can help clients to become more tolerant of unpleasant feelings.
  6. Clients can be hypnotised to perceive negative thoughts as transient and unimportant.

They specifically recommend the use of the following hypnotherapy techniques in conjunction with mindfulness meditation, which generally involves exposure to aversive feelings and events in CBT,

  1. Mental (“covert behavioural”) rehearsal of previously avoided situations.
  2. Cue-controlled relaxation to help facilitate exposure to feared situations.
  3. The use of hypnotic desensitisation to facilitate mental (“imaginal”) exposure .
  4. The use of hypnotic regression or reliving as a form of imaginal exposure to traumatic memories (as in PTSD treatment).
  5. The use of suggestion to help clients tolerate the discomfort and repetition of exposure therapy.

They add that the most basic use of hypnosis in combination with mindfulness-based CBT would be in the use of suggestion to directly develop an ongoing state of mindfulness.  As Lynn et al. emphasise, virtually all modern researchers now take it for granted (following several well-known studies) that hypnosis does not necessarily entail any form of relaxation, although it is frequently accompanied by it.  The same applies to meditation and Lynn et al. refer to a recent EEG brain imaging study in which subjects trained in relaxation showed markedly different brain activity from those trained in mindfulness meditation.

Negative Reactions

As an aside, Lynn et al. also note that a considerable body of research demonstrates the existence of transient, relatively superficial, negative reactions following standard hypnosis, i.e., things like headaches, feelings of nausea, anxiety, etc., in up to 29% of subjects.  This is comparable to the rates of negative responses reported by control groups who are simply asked to sit with their eyes shut, without being hypnotised, for the same amount of time.  However, similar negative reactions are also reported following meditation training, and may even be more frequent, being reported in up to 63% of subjects.  Hence, we might say that although negative reactions can occur following hypnosis it may be as harmless (generally speaking) as common meditation or relaxation techniques.

 

References

Lynn, Steven Jay; Das, Lama Surya; Hallquist, Michael N.; Williams John C.             (2006).  Mindfulness, acceptance and hypnosis: cognitive and clinical perspectives.  IJCEH, 54(2), 143-166.

Clark, David A.; Beck, Aaron T.    (2010).  Cognitive Therapy of Anxiety Disorders: Science and Practice.

Hypnosis, Meditation, Problem-Solving, Depression (June Research Snippet)

June’s Enhanced Research Snippet

Hypnosis, Meditation, Problem-Solving, & Depression

Donald Robertson, NCH Research Director

For a bit of a change, this snippet is about a proposed protocol for treatment of clinical depression, based on existing evidence-based interventions.  I reckoned the subject needed a bit of background explanation so apologies if it’s a bit longer than usual!  It’s difficult to avoid jargon when talking about state-of-the-art stuff but I’ve tried to explain briefly what some of it means.  Email me with any questions, though.

research@hypnotherapists.org.uk

There’s been growing interest recently in the relationship between cutting-edge, “third wave”, approaches to cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and hypnotism.  Some of these new approaches place particular emphasis on cultivating particular states or attitudes of mind, such as acceptance or mindfulness, rather than the disputation emphasised in early cognitive therapy.  There’s also increasing emphasis on the role of attention in psychopathology and psychotherapy.  These are both, obviously, factors which can be related to hypnotherapy, which specialises in inducing particular states of mind and shifting the allocation of attention.

A June 2010 special edition of the International Journal for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (IJCEH) was dedicated to the subject of clinical depression, edited by Michael Yapko, who is well-known as a specialist in this particular area.  This follows on the success of Assen Alladin’s recent randomised controlled trial (RCT), which provided evidence that cognitive hypnotherapy could compete with standard cognitive therapy in the treatment of depression, and may be superior on some measures.  (The treatment of clinical depression by ordinary hypnotherapists is considered inappropriate by many experts but this research can probably be applied, to some extent, to the treatment of subclinical symptoms of depression of the sort more commonly encountered in hypnotherapy.)  The article by Lynn et al. (see below) was of particular interest because it outlined proposals for a third-wave cognitive-behavioural approach to hypnotherapy for depression, with scripted examples. 

Lynn et al. focus in particular on the central role now ascribed to morbid “rumination” in the maintenance of depressive symptoms.  They provide proposals for combining thee specialised treatments with modern hypnotherapy.

  1. Rumination-Focused Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (RFCBT)
  2. Cognitive Control Training (CCT)
  3. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)

Full details of the hybrid protocol can be found in the article referenced below.  However, to illustrate their approach, I’d like to elaborate briefly on one small aspect of this multi-component treatment approach.

Lynn et al. refer briefly to the use of problem-solving methods which are near-universal in CBT.  However, they could have also mentioned the fact that Problem-Solving Therapy (PST), an approach originating in the 1970s, has received growing support recently from treatment outcome studies as a stand-alone intervention for clinical depression.  (This is an area of special interest to me at present.)  Now, as far back as the 1940s, Lewis Wolberg had discussed the use of problem-solving methods within hypnotherapy, from a cognitive-behavioural perspective.  Wolberg, an eclectic psychotherapist, combined elements of behavioural psychology with rational persuasion psychotherapy, an early precursor of cognitive therapy, in his Medical Hypnotism, one of the best-known clinical hypnosis textbooks of the period. 

Problem-Solving Therapy (PST), in its modern form, has the merit of being a very brief and simple approach, with a well-rounded evidence-base.  It’s simple enough to combine well with hypnotherapy to form a brief hybrid treatment.  Lynn et al. go for a more complex mixture, as mentioned above, but their modified problem-solving plus hypnosis, might be viable as another stand-alone intervention.  I’d strongly recommend that you check out the third edition of the core text, Problem-Solving Therapy: A Positive Approach to Clinical Intervention, by D’Zurilla and Nezu, for a thorough description of PST methodology.  Problem-Solving methodology is derived from experimental studies on problem-solving, decision-making, and related skills, and focuses on helping clients to become more skilled and confident at identifying and solving their own problems of living, of whatever kind.  It’s based on the observation that clients, especially depressed clients, tend to complain of feeling overwhelmed by various problems of living and helpeless to start tackling them.  Essentially, the method is divided into five basic components,

  1. Problem Orientation.  The client is trained to adopt and maintain a positive attitude toward solving their problems, and the key components of this mind-set are explored with them.
  2. Problem Definition.  The client is trained to identify relevant problems and define them objectively with reference to appropriate goals and key obstacles.
  3. Brainstorming Alternatives.  Osborn’s principles of brainstorming are employed to systematically develop a wide variety of alternative solutions.
  4. Decision Making.  Cost-benefit analysis and other methods are used to evaluate proposed solutions and rank them in order of suitability.
  5. Solution Implementation.  An action plan is developed and tested out in practice, followed by systematic reflection on the observed consequences, and possibly re-iteration of the process above.

That’s it in a nutshell, but read the manual above for a proper description.  PST seems to benefit a wide range of clients but it’s been especially linked to the treatment of clinical depression where there is clear evidence of a correlation between depression and problem-solving deficits, in the first place, and evidence from treatment outcome studies that PST can be broadly equivalent to standard cognitive therapy or antidepressants, although delivered in a very brief format, over about six 30-minute sessions. 

Anyway, Lynn et al., propose the following ways in which problem-solving can be facilitated by hypnosis, and I would suggest that these can be integrated with standard problem-solving methodology to form brief hypno-PST for depression, or related issues,

  1. Age regression is used to regress subjects to times in the past when problem-solving was done better and prevented morbid rumination happening.
  2. Suggestions can be given for increased perception of the key features of problems to be solved.
  3. Imaginal rehearsal in hypnosis can be used to test out different proposed solutions and evaluate their consequences.
  4. Imaginal rehearsal can also be used to develop skill and confidence in implementing the chosen solution.
  5. Self-talk (autosuggestions such as “I can do this!”) can be rehearsed during hypnosis, to enhance coping skills in relation to solution implementation.
  6. Hypnotic age progression can be used to have clients envision a future time when they have already solved their problems and to retrospectively identify steps they might have taken to do so.

They also mention that brooding can be overcome by use of direct suggestions (which could be recorded on a CD) to develop a positive problem-orientation or problem-solving mind-set.  I would observe that there’s some reason to believe that problem-orientation is the most important part of the whole methodology and that hypnotic suggestion could serve well as a simple way of helping clients to feel more positive and confident about tackling their problems of living, and to see them more objectively, from a realistic perspective, rather than being threatened or overwhelmed by problems.

Lynn et al., as I have done, are merely commenting on existing evidence-based methods and speculating about protocols which could combine them within a hypnotherapy framework but we can probably look forward to other treatment outcome studies, like Assen Alladin’s, which attempt to provide direct evidence for the efficacy of such multi-component hypnotic approaches. 

Reference

Lynn, S., Barnes, S., Deming, A. & Accardi, M. (2010). Hypnosis, Rumination, and Depression: Catalyzing Attention and Mindfulness-Based Treatments. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 58(2), 202-221.