I can still remember the moment many years ago when I decided to seek a hypnotherapist to help with my anxiety and low self-esteem. I fully expected to be ‘put under’ hypnosis, to be ‘zonked out’ for a while, or to be ‘zapped’ somehow, and to wake up with no idea what had happened but bursting with confidence and self-belief.
I had no idea where the idea came from, but in my head was an image of an all-powerful hypnotist standing over me with some sort of lightning bolt coming from his fingertips and directed at my mind – zap!
Of course, actual hypnotherapy, as I discovered for myself, is nothing like this. Yet many of the myths and misconceptions continue. Even today, many people think that they will be under the control of the hypnotherapist or that they may be made to do or say things that they do not want to.
In my experience, both as a client and a professional full-time hypnotherapist, the opposite is more true – rather than losing control, you are actually learning to gain control over your own thoughts, feelings and actions. Rather than being made to do stuff, you are finding out how you can take control and change your own thoughts, feelings, and eventually, change certain habits.
Many people often refer to hypnotherapy as a method to help them stop negative patterns, such as hypnosis to stop smoking, however there’s a much wider spectrum as to how hypnotherapy can help you manage personal issues.
When I first trained as a hypnotherapist, a lot of the focus was on the power of the unconscious (or subconscious) mind. I was taught that we all have an all-powerful unconscious mind that stores, among other things, all of our memories, knowledge and habits. Hypnosis was therefore a way of communicating with our unconscious to make the changes that we are seeking to make in our lives. Indeed, this conscious mind and unconscious mind model is one that is still very prevalent in the hypnotherapy profession today.
For my own part, I happily adopted this model early on in my career as a way of explaining how we can find ourselves wanting to make changes and even starting to do so, only to find no matter how hard we endeavour to change, those old thoughts, feelings and behaviours can seem to lead us back to the same starting point.
Yet after a time I became disillusioned with relying on a concept of an unconscious mind, after all, biologically speaking, there is no such thing as an unconscious mind. So it all becomes a metaphor to explain hypnosis and the change process yet, in my opinion, it became redundant as there are many other ways to explain things that do not require relying communicating with our unconscious mind to achieve successful therapeutic outcomes. Add to that, I personally find that seeking to rely on our unconscious minds to make changes is more than a little disempowering – it suggests that there are things outside of our control and that by using hypnosis there is an element of hope and chance in seeking to communicate and trust an unconscious mind.
Certainly we do a lot of things ‘non-consciously’, we are after all very much creatures of pattern and habit and we tend to respond and deal with similar things in similar ways to those we have before. We have all built up a lifetime of beliefs, associations, memories, triggers and expectations that impact upon us daily. And we can influence and amend all of these without needing to invent an unconscious mind to do so (but hey, this is just my opinion!).
These days, I prefer to adopt a more cognitive behavioural explanation and approach towards hypnotherapy and hypnosis.
How does hypnosis work on the brain?
In talking about cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy what we are referring to is a way of conceptualising hypnosis based upon our ordinary psychological principles. This means viewing hypnosis draws upon our ordinary ways of thinking, feeling, acting and reacting and so forth rather than hypnosis being, for example, some sort of 'magical state' or a ‘special state’. In terms of achieving positive therapeutic change I think this is great news because it means understanding how someone is doing what they currently do and how they can build upon those normal psychological processes to achieve something else.
Hypnosis and hypnotherapy are all about using our imagination, motivation, thoughts, ideas and cognitions to achieve goals such as overcoming anxiety. In essence, hypnosis is about adopting a hypnotic ‘mind set’ in which we purposefully utilise our imagination, beliefs, expectations, motivation, mental engagement and thoughts.
If you’re interested in learning more about the science behind hypnosis and its effects on behaviour and the brain, check out these two books on hypnosis: The Science Of Self-Hypnosis: The Evidence Based Way To Hypnotise Yourself by Adam Eason, and The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy by Donald Robertson.
Does hypnosis work for anxiety?
In essence then, rather than being controlled by our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, as people often feel they are with issues from anxiety to fears to eating habits, we are learning to take back control over our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Many people still hold the misconception that hypnosis is about being controlled by a hypnotist whereas in reality it is a way of taking back control for yourself over what you are experiencing.
For example, with something like anxiety, rather than thoughts filled with worst case scenarios of things going wrong or badly in some way, we want to learn how to take control over these thoughts and our imagination to focus on what we want to happen, scenarios that are more realistic and rational and to develop ways of coping and dealing with whatever comes our way.
The cognitive behavioural therapy framework means that as a client you get to engage in the changes you are achieving in an active, positive and proactive way. You get to take control over your thoughts, feelings and behaviours in ways that put you in control over the direction of your life.
And who wouldn’t want to be more in control of their thoughts, feelings and behaviours, right?