What is an “Abreaction” in Hypnosis?

An abreaction is an emotional or physical reaction caused by re-living (re-vivifying) highly emotional thoughts and feelings associated with the memory of an earlier traumatic event. Abreaction may occur more often during a hypnotherapy session because the subconscious is accessed and given more “free range” to bring past thoughts and feelings to the fore. Abreaction is most often associated with age regression therapies of all types. Emmerson describes abreaction: “An abreaction is a negative emotional or physical response to therapy that is related to an earlier trauma. Abreactions may occur while working through a trauma. In ego state therapy, the mere act of experiencing an abreaction is not considered therapeutic, but the act of resolving the trauma, which often entails abreactions, is therapeutic”. (Emmerson, p78.) . It is this last point that separates ego state therapy from other psychodynamic therapies. The actual addressing and processing of the trauma, rather than merely revisiting the event is considered vital to a successful therapeutic result. By comparison, in Freudian psychoanalysis for example, revisiting the repressed memory by the process of free association is, in itself, considered enough to release the repression and hence it’s associated neurotic presenting symptoms.
Abreaction is regarded as an emotional response that is inconsistent with what would normally, realistically be expected in the current context. The symptoms (sobbing, heavy crying, shaking etc.) are similar to a panic attack in therapy, it occurs when the “vaded” ego state is out (executive). Vaded states are those that hang onto trauma from our past and cause us to feel out of control. When we observe an abreaction it can be taken by the therapist as an indicator that the client is close to the unresolved past trauma. The client is actually in the ego state that needs our attention. We can now deal with the client and resolve the issue associated with the abreaction, and as the issue is tackled, the neurotic response associated with it should not trouble the client further.
At the point of abreaction a useful question to ask is: “As you experience this feeling, how old do you feel?” Let’s say that the response indicates that the client is “about five years old”. We would follow up with “I’d like you to think about being five, with all these bad feelings, feeling just as you did, are you inside or outside?” We’re now getting the client to home in on the cause of the abreaction. To further home in we would follow up with “Are you alone, or is someone with you?” and lastly “Describe exactly what is happening right now”.
Now that we have “bridged” the client to the initial trauma, this is where expression, removal and release need to take place. We can support the client in challenging, for example, the cause of the trauma itself. We could have the client confront her tormentor, or confront the tormentor for the client if she is too afraid to initially do it directly herself. This could be followed up by inviting other, more mature and nurturing ego states to offer support to the five year old, vaded child state that is executive at this time. Having now successfully faced the trauma and put supporting ego states in place, the presenting issue should now disappear.
Emmerson, Gordon (author) Ego State Therapy (Crown House Publishing LTD Carmarthen 2010).
French, Neil (Author) Course notes taken from his Diploma in Hypnotherapy and Psychoanalysis course (1989).
Freud, Sigmund (author) Introductory lectures on Psychoanalysis (Pelican books, London 1986).