To keep this blog simple, I need to explain how our minds work. Our minds drive our behaviour.
You may have heard of the conscious, subconscious and the unconscious minds.
Your conscious mind is reading this article right 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 piece you can see. It is also the part of your mind that is least responsible for your behaviour.
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 11 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. According to neurologist Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, the unconscious holds those experiences that our conscious mind finds so difficult to deal with. Most importantly, I believe, the unconscious also stores the meanings we attach to those experiences. And 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!
For example, if you suffer from social anxiety, your conscious mind may accept an invitation to a dinner party. However, the discomfort and trepidation you feel when you’re getting ready to go or when you’re sitting at the dinner table thinking you have nothing useful to say and really should leave, is coming from your subconscious based on information gleaned from past experiences. This past experience information is stored in your unconscious and you are probably not even aware of it.
And, because of this, it is the unconscious with which hypnotherapy concerns itself.
Unfortunately, most people’s perception of hypnosis comes from stage and screen. This leaves many people believing that hypnosis is a strange parallel universe to which they have never been. 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. Take your commute to or from work – how much of it can you remember?
Or, say you don’t like spiders and “find yourself” running away from a giant spider without even realising it. You are in trance – acting unconsciously –because, as I said above, the unconscious is in charge 90% of the time and instructs the conscious part of the mind on how to respond.
The premise of hypnotherapy and any other therapy that believes the unconscious is responsible for most of our behaviour is that, in order to effect change, we need to change what the subconscious mind feeds into the conscious mind. To do this, we need to understand and change what the unconscious mind believes about the experiences and beliefs stored within.
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 put 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 their 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 had previously produced unwanted behaviour.
The Buddha described the mind as being like a man riding an elephant. Although he wouldn’t have used these terms, nowadays we could say the man is the conscious mind and the elephant represents the subconscious and unconscious.
So, returning to the Buddha analogy and 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.
In order to understand the rider better, I believe it is vitally important to understand exactly what the elephant believes. When did it acquire a particular belief that a particular 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 – I can tailor the hypnotic language towards their particular elephant so that beliefs, meaning, responses and behaviours change. I do this 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.
Theoretically, 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 of each individual, to find out what is underpinning it and what to say to the client and their elephant that will help bring about change.
Written by Bert Stemarthe