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Is Hypnosis full of Hot Air? The Hot Air Balloon Imaginal Technique

The Utilization of a Hot Air Balloon Imaginal Technique (H.A.B.I.T.)

J. Shaul Livnay (Weisbrot) PhD

While the discourse as to the substance, matter, or ephemeral nature of hypnosis continues (re: Diamond’s (1988) treatise on Erickson’s style), I have been developing an imaginal method utilizing the “power” of ephemerality, in elaboration of Walsh’s Red Balloon technique, consisting of three stages:

 1. Preparation: while on the ground, elaboration of the expulsion of excess baggage (emotions, problems, figures) in order to be able to take off.

 2. Taking off: Lifting off and taking into flight, during which a variety of experiences demonstrate a changing perspective and potential for developing new approaches to dealing with old issues and or relationships.

 3. Regrounding: The gradual return to the ground, a phase of adapting new perspectives and perceptions in conjunction with the old reality.

The H.A.B.I.T. is useful in work with obsessives, adolescents around autonomy, problem solving, test anxiety and other anxiety states, and depression.




When I reflect upon my use of hypnosis with patients, I often find myself entering an area of intangibles, at times of illusions, of raising possibilities, which have no solid basis. Whether I choose to call it going by intuition, or the by-product of entering the Therapist Trance (see Livnay, 1992,1995), during such interactions I am caught in the flow of my words, fraught with a sense of definity, certainty and self-assurance. Often, only with retrospect do I question the sense of certainty, with a certain sense of amazement: what brought me to choose those words and to sound so convinced? Diamond’s (1988) brilliant analysis of Erickson’s style and archaic involvement shed an interesting light upon the issue: He presented the Wizard of Oz metaphor to explain the power of archaic ties in Erickson’s magical art. The wizard of Oz happens to be a circus balloonist, who impressed others with deceptive tricks. “Oz sought somehow to fulfill his promises, ... using his ingenious imagination coupled with the faith of his followers”. In other words, Oz began to react to the hypnosis of his followers, to fulfill their expectations by exuding power. Throughout it’s long history, hypnosis has been fraught with allegations of deceit, magic, of not being a legitimate scientifically based method. So, is hypnosis “full of hot air”? While researchers and clinicians continue to debate these questions, I began to find a way to channel the “hot air” into a “concrete” and positive direction: refining a form of guided imagery around flying a Hot-Air Balloon. My initial impetus was to seek a metaphor for taking distance from the usual set in order to examine new perspectives. It is no longer clear to me how I first came upon the idea of the balloon. In searching the literature for possible sources from which might have given such an idea, I came upon that of Walch’s (1976) red balloon technique.. Walch formulated a technique for the removal of unwanted emotions by inviting his patients to imagine putting them into a basket, which one removed by attaching to a balloon, which would take off with the “unwanted” package. He classified the technique as one of hypnocatharsis.


I initially began to develop the H.A.B.I.T. as a means of separating from aspects and emotions which prevent a breakthrough to novel solutions. As I inserted more elements, I saw how it had many further applications (to be elaborated below).


The following protocol should be seen as a possible framework. The different components can be modified according to the needs and style of the therapist, and to suit a particular patient. When the H.A.B.I.T. is applied interactively, with the patient providing confirmation at each step (by ideo-motor signalling), or when the patient is asked to verbally describe his experience, the course of “flight” may be altered in accordance with the content. Alternatively,. the content may be received at the end to allow a purer experiencing without verbal mediation.



The H.A.B.I.T. involves three stages:

1. Preparation

The first stage provides a take off point from left brain functioning: beginning to make order, making the preparations to enable to lighten the load enough to eventually lift off. 

“Imagine a field.before you.... As you look around, you might see a basket. ...If you like, get closer. As you get nearer, you may see a balloon lying flat on the ground, next to the basket. If you want, get into the basket. ...On the floor, you will see some sacks. I would like you, during the next few minutes, to fill each one, with those.emotions, issues, figures in your life which feel you put behind you. Fill each sack with one specific emotion or issue or figure,., and when you feel that you’ve finished, be sure to seal it tightly,.and throw it out of the basket. Let me know by raising your finger each time you’re finished with a sack....Good..Move on to the next until you’re finished with the last...Good. Now that you’ve released all of those burdensome, heavy sacks which have tied you down and troubled you till now, you are now ready to get on with it!.. You’re ready to begin to fill the balloon. Notice that in the center of the basket, is a burner with a wheel. Pick it up and point it towards the balloon. As you begin to turn the wheel, hot air is released into the balloon. You control the release. Now watch as the balloon is being filled. How all of the folds and creases are being smoothed out. Notice as the colors are getting brighter, the balloon begins to move upright, above the basket.”

2. Take-off & flight

The second stage entails moving gradually “into flight”..into more and more right hemispheric functioning, as the suggestions of lightening and rising have a paradoxically deepening effect into trance. This stage begins to add the component of perspective: looking at the present situation as the surroundings at the point of take off, and beginning to see changes as the angle of vision is altered by rising altitude. Birds are added to give suggestions of natural, smooth effortlessness. Clouds are introduced, to be used hypnoanalytically as a variation of the Rorschach inkblots. The clouds also provide a new base for taking a break and to support hypnotic dreaming.

 “Now, as the balloon is beginning to tug at the ropes, you can begin to feel a gentle rising effect. As the basket begins to lift into the air, you may want to look out and down to the point from which you took off. Notice how the surroundings, which seemed before so large (your situation which seemed so striking..) as they begin to become smaller and smaller. Things seem to become a bit different as you get distance from them! ...As the balloon continues to lift, notice how you control the altitude and velocity, in the way you turn the wheel. Play with it a bit to really get a feel of it. Enjoy the sense of control, of being in charge! As you continue to rise, you may notice a flock of birds passing close by. Birds can really be fascinating.. Just look at the ease at which they seem to just glide in the air, hardly moving their wings. Get a feel of the breeze on your face, of the rays of the sun as they alternate between warming and cooling you. Let yourself take in the expanse before you, a feel of the fresh air filling your lungs. You can feel so alive and so relaxed at the same time. You may notice some clouds above you. If you take them in, you might be able to see all sorts of shapes and images. Every cloud is unique and different. You may even see something connected to the (problem/issues) that we have been discussing. There might be some clue there. Can you see it? ...And as you continue to rise, you can even go through the clouds. You might find that you feel like taking a break in your journey, by getting out and resting on one of the clouds. Just relax, lie down and take a snooze. And as you get deeper into sleep, you can enjoy a dream.. Take all the time you need to finish the dream before you wake again. [At this point, the dream can be described, discussed, elaborated further hypnotically, etc.] As you look around from your cloud, you may see in the distance, another cloud approaching. You may discern someone on it. As he draws closer, you may recognize the figure. You may have a very interesting and unique get together, cloud to cloud. Take all the time you need to benefit from this meeting. And when you’re ready to finish, you may notice that this time, you’re separating in a very different way.. When you’re ready, return to the Balloon, to continue your flight. You can take the balloon now anywhere you want, as far as you want. Can you look beyond the horizon? [ at this point, a full journey is possible, if relevant, & if time allows] Let me know when you feel you’re ready to return”.


3. Return and landing

The last stage entails the beginning of transferring the special experience into the every day life and routine. The perspective is again inspected as the “base” is reapproached. There is an opportunity to reintegrate, in a more constructive and adaptive way, some of the “excess baggage” which was previously cast out.

“Good. Now that you benefited from your journey, the time has come to begin the way back. If you look up into the balloon, you will notice a small circle at the top. If you pull a bit at the rope which is hanging from it, you open the circle, releasing some of the hot air. This enables the balloon to begin to descend. You can also begin to turn the wheel the opposite way to reduce the burner. You can control the descent. Now I am going to begin counting back from 10 to 1. 10....when I finish, you will find yourself back safely on the ground, secure and stable. 9.... You can begin to feel a gentle and gradual movement. Feel the change in the air..8...Gradually, you can discern, as you look down, where you will want to land...7...You may want to observe how those surroundings look now, as you begin to approach from a new angle. Some time has passed...6...Can you notice any changes? ... You may begin to grasp the difference....5. As you enjoy the gradual and gentle descent [There may be some negotiation and adjustment of the pacing as the patient may indicate a different pace of descent], use these next few minutes to begin to review your experience....What would you like to bring back with you?...4...Is there anything in those sacks, which you threw overboard in the beginning, which you feel may now again be of use? It could be a whole sack, or some of the contents...3....It’s great to know that whatever you want to keep away, will remain away. But if you can now find some use for some of that “old baggage”, you take it back......Now, your area of landing is getting closer, as you begin to feel more and more sensations returning to your limbs and arms. Still very comfortable, as you can see the surrounding getting bigger and bigger, as you are getting closer...2... Relaxed and refreshed, as you are almost on the ground. When you reach the ground, you will be able to feel really safe, having the comfort of knowing that your feet are back touching the ground...almost your eyes begin to gradually open...Fully back...1..... And as you stretch a bit, take another moment to readjust, and when you are at ease, you can begin to share with me and describe your experience.....[if the patient did not give an ongoing account]”




 1. Obsessives: I first began to use the H.A.B.I.T. with rigid, obsessive characters, who needed a gradual way of letting go. The first, more realistic stage fraught with preparations, provides an apt “pacing” for the obsessive style. Many patients use the opportunity to load the sacks with ruminations and obsessions. Most often, a full complex is inserted, as well as the figures connected to that complex. I encourage as “complete an operation” as possible: to include all the connections (thoughts, feelings, figures). This first stage is often the longest with obsessives, entailing elaborate negotiations with each thought and figure. Often, there is a great sense of relief already here, as intensively bound emotions are released. The second stage provides gaining control, and at the same time, the gradual loosening of it with the shift from left to right brain primacy. The third stage enables generalization and readaptation.


 2. Problem solving: One of the most basic uses of the H.A.B.I.T. is in cases where the person is stuck in trying to solve a difficult problem. The first stage enables him to remove temporarily those constraints that keep him from thinking clearly and constructively. The second stage provides the possibility for new angles and new and imaginative solutions (looking down with a new perspective as you rise, clues in the shapes within the clouds), while the last stage is used as a testing ground In applying the new solution.



 3. Adolescents and separation work: The H.A.B.I.T. provides a fun way of working through separation-individuation, autonomy and actualization of individuality. While the first stage provides the opportunity to express the need to let go of the old ties, the second stage encourages the full letting go and expansiveness with a wide stage for experimentation.

 An anxiety ridden 16 year girl was stuck in an over-dependent position with her mother, using her phobia to tie her mother down. As she reached full altitude, she proclaimed with visible signs of relief that she had cut all the chords, and was able to feel exhilaration in being able to “fly” alone. In the discussion following dehypnotization, she was able to acknowledge her great ambivalence and mixed feelings towards her mother, leading to productive work thereafter.


I often encourage using the other figure on the cloud as an open way to work through separation and individuation. The theme of separation can also find expression in the destination of the voyage beyond the horizon.

A young woman suffering from anxiety states and depression following the annulment of her marriage had returned home to her parents and was unable to leave again. During her flight, she traveled to a far off fantasy land, where she was able to reexperience her ill-fated marriage, and work through leaving home. The third stage of re-entry provided a reconfirmation of the theme, and led to a resolution during the next few months of therapy.


 4. Test anxiety and Quality Control: I have found the H.A.B.I.T. quite useful for both the reduction of anxiety (first stage), and more importantly, as a metaphorical means to allow the anxious examinee to finish the exam, and use the second stage as means of doing some quality control work in an amusing way, by seeing the old answers down on the ground, and new possibilities from high above. The third stage then provides a second chance for checking the corrections.

A distraught student was on the verge of discontinuing his University studies because of an extreme case of test anxiety. While he succeeded in working through most other aspects, he had difficulty clearing his mind towards the end of exams in order to review what he had written. Through the H.A.B.I.T., he found a great release of pent up tension, and was able to develop a unique system of “high altitude checking of the exam.


 5. Anxiety States and depression: In cases of intense anxiety, the H.A.B.I.T. can provide considerable relief, while enabling hypnoanalytical work at beginning to explore the sources of the anxiety (clouds, dream).With depression, the first stage lends itself to both working with the emotional and cognitive concomitants of the depression (see Beck et al, 1979), while the second stage can encourage seeing things differently. The third stage is therefore the most significant, in working through bringing possible changes “back to reality”. Great caution and care should be taken with such cases, because of the danger of instilling false hope and resulting in a more intense sense of desperation.

A highly anxious and depressed young adolescent girl was enjoying her first sense of relief since entering therapy while lying on a comfortable cloud. Suddenly, she became agitated, tears running down her cheeks. When I enquired what was occurring, she reported that there was a hole in the cloud, and she was falling! I began to speak in a calm voice of safety nets in the Circus, and she found herself landing on Garfield the cat, safe and sound, but very frightened by the experience. The dramatic experience enabled her to show me graphically her lability and fragility, as well as her ability to cope with the right support. Though we were able to integrate the experience and use it as a spur for further work, it also highlighted for me the dangers and need for caution.




The H.A.B.I.T. provides a quite flexible framework for the hypnotherapist in which to work with the patient in many directions. Each stage can be amplified and elaborated. Each therapist can develop variations, insert new components to make H.A.B.I.T. suit each patient, as well as each therapist’s style. The boundaries and limits are only that of the therapist’s imagination and creativity.


There is a great amount of power in the dialectic between the casting out the old, the heavy, and taking on lightness. Enactment of the drama of playing with the boundaries of our horizons, within a supportive, encouraging relationship is part of the very essence of psychotherapy. The H.A.B.I.T. itself touches upon the essence of hypnosis, upon the fine line between imagination, fantasy and the alteration of reality through the therapeutic process. The H.A.B.I.T gives the patient the opportunity to experiment with changing perspectives, behaviors, emotions as well new modes of relating by utilizing the “magical” properties of hot air. The progression from matter which is released, to ephemerality, to the reconnection to matter provides a pacing and leading which is conducive to matter forms of dysfunction and issues in life. During the process, the hypnotherapist provides the patient with a structure and framework, within which the latter can practice and experience freedom and flow. We might be able to speak of kind of emotional corrective experience, in that the therapist thereby repeats important parental functions (of holding, while fostering individuality and independence) (Livnay, 1983) which, if repeated during therapy can have a very meaningful developmental effect.




Beck, A.T., Emery, G.E., Rush, J.A., & Shaw, B.F. (Eds) (1979) Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York: Guilford Press.


Diamond, M.J. (1988) Accessing Archaic Involvement: Towards Unraveling the Mystery of Erickson’s Hypnosis. The International Journal of Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis 36 (3) 141-156.


Livnay, S. (1983) Parental Discipline in Relation to Classroom Behavior of Kindergarten Children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, City University of New York.


Livnay, S. (1992) The Sharing of Associative Material in Psychotherapy and Hypnoanalysis: the Benefits of a Departure from the Principle of Neutrality. Hypnos 19, 2, 25-33.


Livnay, S. (1995) The Therapist Trance as a Generator of Associative techniques in Therapy in Bolcs E. et al (Eds) Hypnosis Connecting Disciplines: Proceedings of the 6th European Congress of Hypnosis in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine.Vienna: Medizinisch-Pharmazeutische Verlagsgesellschaft. 152-155.


Walch, S.L. (1976)The Red Balloon Technique of Hypnotherapy. A clinical note. The International Journal of Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis 24 (1) 10-12.

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