In this post I will explain in the simplest terms what hypnotherapy is and in the process help to dispel those persistent misconceptions of what the treatment involves.
Where to begin?
To best keep this blog simple it makes sense to explain how our minds work. Our minds drive our behaviour.
You may have heard of the conscious, subconscious and the unconscious minds.
What are they and what do they do? Your conscious mind is reading this article write now. It is capable of handling between five and seven bits of information at any one time. If you think of your mind as being like an iceberg, the conscious is the bit that you can see. It is also the part of your mind that is least responsible for your behaviours.
The subconscious is the part of your mind that is beneath your awareness but is, right now, aware of the feeling in the little toe on your right foot. Now that I have mentioned it, the subconscious will bring that sensation to your consciousness so you can attend to it. The subconscious can handle, depending on whom you read, between two and eleven million bits of information at any one time! The subconscious will inform the conscious mind on how to behave and respond to a given situation based on information stored in the unconscious.
The unconscious is where all of our experiences are stored, and, according Freud, those experiences that our conscious mind finds so difficult to deal with that they are banished there and most importantly I believe, the meanings we attached to those experiences. It is the meaning we attach to our experiences that determine how they will subsequently affect our behaviour.
The subconscious and the unconscious account for 90% or more of our behaviour. Or put another way, you have not been in charge of you for 90% of your day so far! This may pose questions for things such as criminal responsibility but that’s for another article!
To illustrate; if you suffer from social anxiety, for example, your conscious mind may accept an invitation to a dinner party but the discomfort and trepidation you feel when you’re getting ready to go or when you’re sitting there thinking you have nothing useful to say and really should leave, is coming from your subconscious based on information gleaned from past experiences stored in your unconscious that you probably will not be aware of. Because of this, it is the unconscious that hypnotherapy concerns itself with.
Most people’s perception of hypnosis comes from stage and screen unfortunately. This leads to many believing that hypnosis is a strange parallel universe that they have never been to. Nothing could be further from the truth. In hypnosis we induce a trance state in our clients. The important thing to remember is that trance is an everyday phenomenon. An example of this is if you think of your commute to or from work; how much of it can you remember when you arrive at your destination? When someone is feeling anxious or they are running screaming from a money spider they are in trance – acting unconsciously – because, as I said above, the subconscious and unconscious are in charge 90% of the time and inform the conscious how to respond.
The premise of hypnotherapy and any other therapy that believes the unconscious is responsible for most of our behaviour (some therapies don’t believe this) is that in order to effect change in our clients we need to change what the subconscious mind feeds the conscious mind by understanding and changing what the unconscious mind believes about those experiences and beliefs that are stored there. The easiest way to access the unconscious is through relaxation. When relaxed the client can access memories, feelings and experiences that are normally beneath their awareness. A skilled hypnotherapist will then understand how these experiences are shaping behaviour and can use hypnotic language to change the meaning of those experiences.
Hypnotic language is not from another universe either. It is simple every day language, normal words but strung together to help a client change their behaviour.
I always say to my clients that I cannot change the past but I can help them to change the meaning of the past which then changes the nature and framing of the information divined from the unconscious by the subconscious. This reframing of previous experiences, in turn, changes the information the conscious mind is presented with when faced with triggers that hitherto had produced unwanted behaviour.
The Buddha described the mind as being like a man riding an elephant. Although he wouldn’t have used these terms; the man is the conscious mind and the elephant the unconscious and subconscious.
In simplest terms, hypnotherapy is relaxing the client sufficiently so that the rider is persuaded to get off the elephant and go and have a cup of tea so that we can talk to the elephant. I believe it’s vitally important to understand exactly what the elephant believes. When did it acquire this belief that this response is appropriate to social situations, for example, and what was happening at the time?
Then by getting to know the client (and their elephant), by understanding what the problem means to them, what this past experience means to them, the context of their issue, the language the client uses to describe the issue and other important information I can tailor the hypnotic language towards their particular elephant so that beliefs, meaning, responses and behaviours change.
Anyone can hypnotise someone else because at its base it is simply relaxation. What takes skill and experience is the understanding of the complexity of the behaviour, what is underpinning it and what to say to the client and their elephant to help bring about change.