I am guessing that if you have an interest in hypnosis, at some stage you have seen someone with some sort of catalepsy – probably being elicited within an individual on purpose. At YouTube, you can see stage and street hypnotists doing this kind of thing a lot and it certainly convinces people that they are in hypnosis in one way or another.
So what actually is hypnotic catalepsy?
Catalepsy is officially defined in my big thick Collins English dictionary as “a state of prolonged rigid posture, occurring for example in schizophrenia or in hypnotic trances.”
Hypnotic catalepsy is a muscular rigidity that is usually produced in the arm, often in the eyelids and at other times in the fingers or even the entire body.
In days long gone, stage hypnotists or other performers would produce a whole body catalepsy in a volunteer subject and support the subject between two chairs. The stage hypnotist or an assistant may well then stand or sit on the subject’s body to prove the level of rigidity achieved in the body.
This is nowadays known to be a dangerous thing to do with the potential to cause detrimental effects. As such, in the UK, the 1952 stage hypnosis act disallows this kind of thing in modern day performances.
Some believe that signs of catalepsy can be relied on to a large extent as indirect indicators of hypnosis (both formally induced and spontaneous), and hypnotic catalepsy is still considered by many as one of the most basic features of hypnotic experience, because it is associated directly or indirectly with so many other of the so called ‘hypnotic phenomenon.’
(I say ‘so-called’ because there are many pieces of research that demonstrate that pretty much every single thing that people display in hypnosis can be replicated outside of the hypnosis through imagination and suggestion – though is a discussion for another day)
In 1981, Erickson and Rossi wrote about catalepsy in Experiencing Hypnosis: Therapeutic approaches to altered states and referred to it sometimes being used in a metaphoric sense in clinical hypnosis too. They refer to an “everyday trance” occurring in our daily lives as being a period of catalepsy where a person is daydreaming, self-absorbed, enthralled, captivated and so on yet at the same time they are temporarily immobilised by the intensity of their focus. It is an interesting notion which is often contested by hypnotists and hypnotherapists alike.
Maybe you have experienced what they are referring to or have seen others doing this; for example, sat perfectly still while captivated by a speech or sermon being given, or standing rigid in a fixed position while thinking or focusing elsewhere – your mind needed to focus so much elsewhere, the rest of you got rendered cataleptic!
In hypnotherapy (or stage and street hypnosis) if suggestions are given to the client and accepted by them that leads to a part of the body experiencing catalepsy, such as an arm (e.g., “Your arm is as stiff and rigid as a steel bar, feeling like it is solid, perhaps even like it is made of concrete – so much so that you find you cannot bend it”), then this is a demonstration of what we refer to as “arm catalepsy.”
Similarly, if suggestions are delivered to the client and accepted that “your eyelids are so rigid (or relaxed) that they feel locked tight shut and you cannot open them” is referred to as “eye catalepsy.”
Does what it says on the tin basically.
For many years, hypnotic catalepsy was thought of as a passive response by the client, some even thought it was a by-product of being hypnotised. Thoughts today differ, the demonstration of catalepsy tends to get perceived as an active and dynamic process requiring focus and proactivity by the client.
If you think about it, hypnotic catalepsy also implies an intense internal absorption to some degree, that then indicates a high degree of receptiveness to the hypnotist. As Barber states in his 1996 publication A brief introduction to hypnotic analgesia (pp. 3-32) this is why a client focusing intently in a particular direction may have the arm positioned by the hypnotist in one place and then leave it there because they are too engaged with other more immediate things in another direction – moving the arm becomes to much effort and/or less important and/or ignored.
Today, in clinical settings, hypnotic catalepsy is also employed as a means of inducing hypnosis and as a deepening technique. I have seen and heard hypnotists use suggestions such as “and you find yourself focusing on the sound of my voice to the point where your body becomes too heavy to move,” which could induce or deepen. And you can look at arm levitation inductions and Erickson’s handshake induction for further examples of catalepsy used for inducing and deepening.
Additionally, we sometimes encounter clients that require evidence that they are actually in hypnosis. So the experience of having an arm rigidly stuck out on front of them, virtually immovable is usually deemed as evidence of such.
Used in therapy sessions also, in his online indirect hypnosis programme, Stephen Brooks suggests that “A rigidity in the arm can also be used as an analogy in therapy, for example where a client has an inability to experience muscular contraction in situations such as bed wetting and spastic colon, or as a metaphor for correcting erectile dysfunction.”
Also, hypnotic catalepsy may be used, to assist a client who would benefit from a restriction of physical movement in order to aid recovery, such as during back injuries, bone breakages, or even when recovering from some kind of accident.
Ok, the key question today then… How do we achieve hypnotic catalepsy?
You can simply deliver direct suggestions to create catalepsy:
“Your arm feels and behaves as if it is a steel bar.”
“The more you try to bend it the more stiff and rigid and locked into place it becomes”.
“As you tune in to my voice and the words I am saying, your arm is more comfortable locked in that position.”
“Your arm feels and behaves as if it is made of concrete.”
You could also be indirect should you wish and encourage catalepsy at the same time as suggesting relaxation and stillness by suggesting:
“… as you engage in just relaxing, being aware of yourself, it feels good to just breathe and relax, doesn’t it? And your body knows how to relax deeply and be still and peaceful, and you keep on breathing in this relaxed fashion, enjoying this opportunity to just relax and be at peace… You may even choose to think of being in a special place, a favourite place or someone of your own creation inside your mind… Enjoying the sights, sounds and feelings of being in this place… Allow yourself to get really absorbed in enjoying that special place… Just breathing, relaxing and imagining being here in this special place of your own design… And as you do so, it is even more relaxing and comforting to allow your arms to rest heavily on the chair, allowing gravity to grown stronger and fix them naturally to the position they are in… Enjoying the sensation of them becoming so relaxed and heavy that you can’t even be bothered to move them at all and they remain right there in that exact position…”
Those with a direct disposition may find this a bit long-winded.
Of course, this can even be done non-verbally. The hypnotist or hypnotherapist may just pick up and hold the client’s arm in the air and position it accordingly. intimating that the arm remain in that position.
You can enhance this by being a model yourself for the outcome you wish to occur within the client. If you remain immobile and rigid for a period of time, the client is likely to respond the same way if you have good rapport and trust. If you hold yourself a certain way to show them, they’ll likely follow suit.
There you have it; hypnotic catalepsy!