September 9

3 Strategies for Working with Intense Emotions in Hypnotherapy Sessions

Emotional Release Work


I have had clients “come undone” during the pre-hypnosis intake process, during the hypnotic induction phase, and immediately after dropping into a scene during regression hypnosis. So what do you do when it happens?

Realize that some clients are carrying a heavy load of unprocessed emotions inside that can surface in sessions.  As a hypnotherapist, you need to be prepared for when a client goes into overwhelm.  And you need strategies for when a client gets intensely triggered. The following three strategies will help you respond immediately to their distress.

1. Get them out!

Your first strategy – Get them out.  It’s that simple.  Speak calmly and firmly.  Tell them to open their eyes and look at you.  And make eye contact.  Then, once they’ve calmed down address what just happened. 

Ask them – What just happened?

If your client starts freaking out, or they’re spiralling out of control, get them out.  If you start freaking out you are in over your head.  Get them out.  Somebody needs to be in the driver’s seat of your session.  And it had better be you! You can learn more abut managing an abreaction here.

2. Be here now.

Even if you’re feeling scared - do not show fear.  This will only add to the client’s anxiety.  It takes courage to face those uncomfortable feelings.  Your clients borrow that courage from you.  So remain calm.  Speak calmly and firmly.  And bring the client back into the here and now.  Then, gently address what just happened.

3. Manage the intensity.

You don’t have to get them out.  That’s just a fallback position.   You can manage the intensity of energy as it’s coming up.

If you’re not sure what to do, then the right thing to do is to get the client out and deal with whatever came up.  Then, you can decide how to proceed from there. But if the client dives into an event from the past, or bumps into a pocket of feelings and starts to abreact, you can keep them right there and manage the intensity.  

To manage the intensity you need to step in and take charge.  The way to do that is to PAUSE the event.  Then, let the client know that you’re in control.  You’ve got things handled.  They’re okay. What’s bringing up the emotion is that an image came to mind.  The image plays like a movie.  And it’s coming on too fast and strong.  This is what puts the client into overwhelm.   You need to stop that.  

To stop the overwhelm pause the event.  Freeze-frame the image.  Then deal with it. You can learn more about managing intensity here.

Your first priority should always be to provide safety.  

Providing safety is working with the Subconscious Mind’s Prime Directive. Pausing the event gives the client a sense of control over what’s happening.  This makes it safe for the client to face what’s there.  Just say “PAUSE.” Or “Everything stops!”  Then, reassure the client that they’re right where they need to be.  

That feeling that is bubbling up to the surface is the reason they came to see you.  And it’s coming to the surface to be healed. You can help your client with this by stepping in and manage the energy.  Right there.    Simple enough, right?

It’s all about who’s in charge of the session. 

When a client gets intensely triggered,  they don’t feel in control of some area of their life.  And that can surface in unexpected ways. If it catches you by surprise - you can always get them out.  If you don’t have enough information, yet, to confidently proceed with the session, you can always get them out.

You can always get the client out of the intense reaction.  Then, then deal with what just happened in the here and now.  But if you’re confident that you can manage the intensity of the energy coming to the surface, then by all means, grab hold of the reins and go for the gold.  

You’ll get amazing results when you can work with high intensity emotions. The key is to simply make it safe for your client to face what’s there. Then,  use one of the following two approaches to safely manage the energy of the event, based on the intensity of feeling and the client you’re working with.

1. A Generalized Approach

A generalized approach is working with the bigger picture.  This allows the client to step back from the situation.  Stepping back allows some distance from the energy of the event which provides more safety.  A generalized approach allows you to get an overall view of the situation.  For example, you can take a picture.  

Ask the client to take a snapshot of scene and describe it to you.  You can get a panoramic view of the situation.  Or you can make it a movie.  To provide more safety, you can project it onto a movie screen.

Treating the scene as a movie gives you control over what’s happening in the movie.  You can pause it.  You can slow motion through the scenes.  You can move through the event frame by frame.  This approach provides safety by dissociating the client from the image.  And it creates a sense of control over how it’s happening.

Another technique you can use is to just freeze-frame the image.  Then, ask the client to give the image a title.  Give the image a headline.  Like a newspaper headline, it could be a name or a title such as “shocked” or “the first step is a doozie.”  The headlines could even be a sound.  

This is especially effective when dealing with a traumatic image or working with a Child at a pre-verbal age.  For example, the title of the pictures could be “ugh” or “zzt” or “eek”.   You can then release the energy associated with that label. 

The word or phrase or sound associated with the image holds all the meaning represented by the image. So, this approach gives you a way to bring down the overall charge of the experience and make it easier for the client to face more of the details.  It can also make the specifics of the event more available which you can then deal with one by one.

2. A Focused Approach

Instead on working on the overall theme of the event, you can pick one small aspect of the image to focus on.  Chunking things down and working with one little thing at a time is a very effective way to teach your client that they don’t have to deal with everything all at once.  That’s what’s overwhelming them.  It’s too much all at once.  

Instead of trying to deal with everything all at once, you can segment the event.  Work on it piece by piece.  This approach is called “titrating.”  Just pick one perception or one thought or feeling and focus on that.  Clear that.  Get some relief around that.  Then, move to the next aspect.  Much easier.

The problem in any traumatic event is that it all happened too quickly.  Segmenting an event, in this way, is a baby-steps approach that allows you to slow things down.  This makes it safer to move through the event.  It teaches the client that it’s safe for them to face their own thoughts and feelings.

Segmenting is a way to build confidence in the client.  They realize they can do this work for themselves.  They can face what’s there.  And they can get some relief.  So, you’re working toward the positive and building their sense of possibility.  That’s what will motivate them to get through it.

We take in information from our environment through the five senses of the body.  So, pick a perception.  For example, you can focus on what they are seeing.  Or hearing.  Or smelling.  Or feeling - especially how those things make them feel in their body.

Examples of perceptions:

  • The look on someone’s face
  • The words they are hearing
  • The tone of voice
  • The smell of smoke
  • The feeling of being slapped in the face
Focus on a Thought

Thoughts are the pictures we create in our minds.  Thoughts include the things we pictures in our mind as well as the words we use to describe them.  So focus on what they’re saying to themselves about what’s happening.

Examples of thoughts:

  • “I’m not wanted”
  • “I can’t breathe!”
  • “No way out!”
  • “Stuck!”
  • “I’ll die!”

It’s the thought that’s causing them emotional distress.  The thought is based in the perception.  It’s the decision they’re making about what’s happening.  It may or may not be accurate.  Regardless, it generates an emotional response.

Focus on a Feeling

Feelings are sensations in or on the body.  And emotions generate sensations in the body.  So pay attention to things feelings in the body such as:

  • Tightness or pressure in the body
  • Choking
  • Nauseous
  • Heart-pounding
  • Itching
  • Emotions like fear, anger, guilt, sadness

Validate success

Any measure of improvement can be used as proof that change is happening now.  The client needs to know they’re moving in the right direction.  So, validate every improvement.  

Bring their attention to every shift for the better.  And teach your clients to take ownership of their successes.  If you don’t, the client may be tempted to just dismiss them.  

Some people have all-or-nothing thinking.  So, instead of thinking, “Wow! That feels SO much better!  They think, “There’s still something there.  So nothing worked.” That is only going to hold the client back.  

You can stop black-and-white thinking in its tracks by validating increments of change. The way to put an end to all-or-nothing thinking is to quantify change.  To quantify change you need to establish a benchmark.  

To establish a benchmark begin with a Subjective Unit of Distress (SUD).  Ask the client, “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the worst it’s ever been, how bad is that feeling?”  This gives you a way to measure how much change is occurring as you process the aspects trapped in the event.

As you incrementally move through the event, releasing the thoughts and feelings tied to perceptions, you’ll notice the client shifting energetically.  They’ll breathe deeper.  Or yawn.  Or visibly relax.

These are all signs that they’re releasing some of the pressure.  S,o when the client shows signs of having released something, that’s a good time to take another SUD.  Ask the client, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much of it is left?”

Quantifying change helps the client recognize that change is actually happening.  But what if you forget to take a SUD at the beginning?  No problem.  You can always perform a “retroactive SUD.” 

Just ask the client how much distress they were in before you started.  Then, take a SUD on it NOW. If they started at a 10 and now it’s a 6.  That’s a 40% improvement.  That’s something worth celebrating!  Cool, huh?

The key to creating change is to make it safe for the client to take the next step. The way to do that is just show the client that they can take things one step at a time.  Then, validate the following two things.

  1. Validate where they’re at
  2. Validate any change that has occurred

Validating where they’re at makes it okay for them to allow themselves to be there.  Validating any change that has occurred makes it okay for them to allow more change to happen.

So, that's it. If your client goes into overwhelm, you can always get them out.  If it seems like too much for them, or it’s too much for you, just get them out.  Bring them back into the here and now, and deal with what just came up.

You don’t always have to get the client out.  You can take charge and pause the event.  This will bring down the intensity.  You can then use a generalized approach or a more focused approach to process the perceptions, thoughts and feelings associated with that emotion.

You can use segmenting to make it safe for your client to take the next step.  You can measure the level of intensity using a SUD.  And then validate increments of improvement to build confidence in your client.  And by working incrementally you can guide your client, one step at a time, right out of the problem into the light of a new day.

About the author 

Wendie Webber

With over thirty years of experience as a healing practitioner, Wendie brings a broad range of skills to her approach to regression to cause hypnosis. She combines a gentle, yet commanding way of presenting with a thorough, clear and systematic approach to helping healing practitioners to make sense of regression hypnotherapy.