Regression therapy is an approach to treatment that focuses on resolving significant past events believed to be interfering with a person's present mental and emotional wellness.
Therapists who practice this approach believe people seeking treatment for phobias, depression, intimacy issues, and a range of other concerns can see improvement in their state of mind by revisiting and reliving the early experiences that influenced the development of these issues. However, the approach is somewhat controversial, due to limited research supporting the method and the potential for false memories.
Regression therapy primarily developed out of the theories and techniques of hypnotherapy and psychoanalysis, with their emphasis on rediscovering details of past events in order to solve current conflicts and emotions. Hypnotherapy and psychoanalysis both rose in popularity in the 1950s as the field of psychology began to embrace the belief that the past was the cause of turmoil in people’s lives.
Sigmund Freud, who developed the concept of bringing the unconscious to the conscious, was a prominent figure during the growth of psychoanalysis, and many of his ideas informed the development of regression therapy. Morris Netherton, who published Past Lives Therapy, the first book in the field of regression therapy, in 1978, has taught his theories in regression therapy across the world. Brian Weiss, who is credited with the continued development of regression therapy techniques since the 1980s, is another prominent figure in the field.
As the works of psychoanalysis and hypnotherapy came together to inform regression therapy, consciousness became a central component to the work of regression therapists, and the psychoanalytical view of consciousness having three levels was adopted by regression therapy.
The three levels of consciousness recognized in regression therapy include:
- The conscious mind, which represents the thoughts a person is aware of having
- The subconscious mind, which represents emotions, habits, and instincts a person is unaware of having
- The superconscious mind, also known as the spirit, soul, or higher element of a person, may provide a model for how that person wants to think or act in the world
Regression therapy holds that as a person moves through life, they collect memories that are then stored in the mind. Some of these memories are accessible to the conscious mind, but other memories may remain in the subconscious, and a person is generally unable to bring details of those memories to the conscious awareness without aid. Even though the subconscious memories are not able to be accessed, regression therapy believes they can still have a significant impact on a person’s development and ability to function in daily life.
Regression therapy focuses on areas of conflict and other potentially negative aspects in a person’s life with a goal of isolating the causes of negative emotions and determining their cause in order to better address them.
Hypnotic regression therapy often occurs in five phases:
- Conducting regression techniques
- Expression and release of emotions previously repressed
- Relearning/Reprogramming of the subconscious
- Session conclusion
To prepare. the regression therapist helps the person enter into a relaxed state with the use of deep breathing. The role of the therapist then becomes to facilitate the process of regression as the person closes their eyes and speaks out loud about a past significant experience, urging them to be as detailed as possible about their surroundings and any sensory feelings that come up in the process. The therapist may also prompt the individual, if necessary, to speak about any emotions that arise as the event event is re-experienced. It is believed that through this process, a person can access their subconscious mind and isolate the emotions associated with the past event. Proponents of regression therapy believe a traumatic event can often have a continued impact on a person’s ability to express emotion and interact with other people, though the individual may not readily recall the details of the trauma. Regression therapy can, then, be of benefit, because it can help a person return back to a trauma in order to understand the impact the trauma may be having on their behaviors and choices.
Once these emotions are isolated and brought to the conscious mind, the therapist and person can begin to identify possible ways they may be having a harmful impact. In the relearning/reprogramming phase, the therapist and person in treatment work together to develop alternative ways of describing the past event that better promote a sense of resilience and foster adaptive strengths in the person.
Regression therapy can be practiced through a therapist-directed or person-centered approach. Therapist-directed trance work requires less training in hypnosis, as therapists often use a script to fit the presenting concern of the person seeking help. These scripts may be helpful in some instances, but they also may leave certain issues unaddressed. Many practitioners find this to be a less effective method than person-centered hypnotic regression therapy, in which the therapist uses hypnosis to allow the person in treatment the opportunity to obtain answers for themselves. Current practitioners of regression therapy typically adapt techniques, Gestalt therapy practices and inner child work among them, to provide the best care for the specific issues of the person they are treating.
Some regression therapists practice past-life regression, which considers the possibility of past life memories, but regression therapists largely use regression therapy to look at significant memories from the earlier stages of a person's life.
Regression therapy is a specialized type of therapy that involves specific training and experience. A primary tenet of the approach is the concept of core levels of consciousness, and so many who offer regression therapy have a background in psychoanalysis. It is recommended that therapists who wish to offer regression therapy seek thorough training in the practice of hypnotherapy, as when hypnosis, like any method of treatment, is used without adequate training it carries the potential for harm.
The International Board for Regression Therapy is a governing body that provides accreditation to therapy programs, certification in regression therapy, and continuing education for practitioners. The Earth Association for Regression Therapy is another worldwide organization that offers training in this approach, and many of their recognized trainers offer advanced workshops in different parts of the world.
Regression therapy has been used successfully with individuals of varying ages and backgrounds. One area in which some consider regression therapy to be particularly useful is in the treatment of significant traumas. Proponents of regression therapy believe a traumatic event can often have a continued impact on a person’s ability to express emotion and interact with other people, though the individual may not readily recall the details of the trauma. Regression therapy can, then, be of benefit, because it can help a person return back to a trauma in order to understand the impact the trauma may be having on their behaviors and choices.
Proponents of the approach believe regression can be highly effective when individuals experience one or another of the following:
- Fears or phobias that have no recognized cause
- Intimacy issues
- General relationship issues
- Feelings of guilt and shame that seem to have no explanation.
Regression therapy is a shorter approach to treatment: some people may see results after only one or two sessions.
Scientific research supporting the efficacy of regression therapy is limited, and this approach is somewhat controversial. Research does indicate hypnosis to be a significant factor in the development of false memories, and there have been a number of cases studied in which individuals "uncovered," through regression therapy, memories of abuse or other trauma that were later found to be false.
It is generally advised that therapists practice regression therapy in such a way that they guide the person through the re-experiencing process with open-ended questions, such as “What do you see, hear, or feel?" rather than lead the person by asking questions that may be suggestive or generate "memories" of an event that did not take place.
Past-life regression therapy, an approach to treatment where the person seeking help is encouraged to consider the possibility of a "past life," has been shown to have some psychological benefit in cases where the person in treatment believes in the possibility of past lives. However, this method is also considered to be controversial.
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