Reviewed by Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D.
Randal Churchill's Catharsis in Regression Hypnotherapy focuses on two controversial issues in hypnotherapy. The first issue, regression, is fraught with the possibility of bringing about false memories. The second issue, catharsis, holds the possibility of re-traumatizing a client through abreaction. In spite of my doubts about the therapeutic value of the author's approach, I found the book well-written and worthwhile to read.
Churchill writes that the purpose of regression hypnotherapy is to "...transform unfinished stuck places that...constrict a client's life, and in the process the person can move on much more integrated, whole and alive." (p. 37) It is accomplished by taking the client to a memory of a significant emotional experience, then having the client intensely feel, express, and resolve the emotions, and engage in self-soothing and self-nurturing. Often, catharsis is a part of the process, signaling a release of pent-up fear, anger or sadness.
The author describes his procedures in detail. First, with the client lying on a mattress, he quickly induces trance and verifies trance via eye closure. Then he evokes ideomotor responses to communicate with the client's subconscious mind, asking if it is safe to proceed, checking for ecological concerns, and determining whether the memory could be better approached in an associated or a dissociated manner. Next, he uses an affect bridge to take the client back to an emotionally charged memory. He then asks the client to describe the memory, feel the emotions intensely and describe them aloud.
In Gestalt fashion, he encourages clients to speak out against remembered hurts and wrongs, talk back to antagonists, express outrage, and fight back by hitting and kicking pillows. Clients often scream and curse and cry. Churchill is no passive observer. He stays right with the client, coaching; "Hit him! Yell at him! Say I hate you!" When the emotions are spent, Churchill then tells the client to imagine holding, soothing, and nurturing that younger self, before coming out of trance.
Churchill cautions readers to avoid false memories by explaining to clients that no memory is accurate; a memory is a representation of an event, and can serve as a venue for psychological healing. He advises his readers to make neutral, non-leading comments and questions as clients regress. For the therapist's equanimity, he advocates a hypnosis session of relaxation, deep breathing, and guided imagery to achieve "grounding and centering" before working with a client. He recommends this same preparation for groups, prior to a classroom demonstration of regression hypnotherapy.
As to the problem of abreaction, Churchill makes the case that the therapist should fully explain the regression process in advance, proceed with the client's permission and understanding, and provide reassurances of safety and support to the client, throughout. In this way, the client can feel safe and cared for, even in the throes of strong emotion.
Most of the book is devoted to transcripts of classroom demonstrations with Churchill's hypnotherapy trainees. The demonstrations tackle presenting issues such as performance anxiety, depression, shame, phobia, panic episodes, traumatic flashbacks, road rage, and writer's block. In each instance the subject traces the difficulty back to abuse, trauma, or a distressing event or series of events.
Follow-up interviews contain glowing reports of relief and improved functioning. In many cases the subjects said that regression hypnotherapy worked, where other therapies had failed. Some detractors might say that since these subjects were his own trainees, the author might have "stacked the deck" for such success. Nevertheless, the transcripts make for instructive, fascinating reading and they show, verbatim, exactly how Churchill worked with each individual.
Churchill is founder and director of the Hypnotherapy Training Institute in San Francisco, past President of the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners, and has been practicing and teaching for over 40 years. He is a pioneering leader in Gestalt Therapy, regression, and advanced ideomotor methods. He has developed a process called Hypnotic Dreamwork and is the author of several books and articles on hypnotherapy.
For hypnotherapists who contemplate using regression hypnotherapy, I advise reading Churchill's cautions carefully. Consider that working with trauma and catharsis means tapping into highly charged emotions, and a client's most fragile sensitivities and vulnerabilities. Allow ample time for preparing the client, completing the work, and processing afterward. Check your own readiness for this type of work, and have a safety plan. Should your client express hesitation for the emotional intensity of this work, choose another method.
Personally, with a range of psycho-therapeutic strategies at my disposal, regression hypnotherapy would not be my first choice, because of its risks. I can say, however, that I liked the book because it is the most thorough one I've read on the procedures, cautions and considerations regarding this type of hypnotherapy.
Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. is a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist and Executive Director with the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists. She is an NLP Master Practitioner/Trainer with a counseling practice in Springfield Virginia: She has written The Weight Hypnotherapy and You Weight Reduction Program for practitioners. Her web site is . She recently produced a hypnosis CD entitled Discover Your Learning Genius.