I’m often asked why hypnosis and hypnotherapy concentrates on addressing the “unconscious mind”. To understand that, let’s first overview what the unconscious does.
The unconscious is not a specific part of the brain. Rather, it’s a notional delineation of certain mind or “cognitive” functions.
Firstly, it operates and oversees the body’s autonomous processes and healing mechanisms. It keeps everything ticking along. Thus (thankfully), we don’t for example have to consciously think about and operate our internal organs and systems.
What it also does “behind the scenes” is to manage our memories of experiences and learnings. It stores and sorts our positive experiences and memories. Our experiential learnings, perspectives and formed habits (both good and bad). Our terms of reference…the way we see, respond to and feel about things.
It also stores our negative memories of experiences. In this context it acts as a security guard, sometimes in effect holding back certain negative experiences and memories to protect us from pain or perhaps previous trauma.
Next, and this part is fascinating, it takes our “version” of memories both good and bad and stores them. In other words, it doesn’t take a verbatim account of what happened in a given situation. Rather, it stores “our version of events”. Interestingly, that version can change or evolve over time as we unconsciously choose to amplify, downplay or modify “the way it happened” to suit the way we wish to remember and interpret it. That is not always a favourable or flattering recollection. We can thus create “cognitive distortions” around such factors as how it happened, why it happened, how often it happened…even what happened. Yes, we actually modify and even “manufacture” memories.
They combine to become our “story”, if you will. You’ve all heard the saying “the older we get, the better we were”, for example.
Hypnotherapy can directly address the unconscious and specifically, those unhelpful cognitive distortions. It can be used very effectively to influence and shape the way our autonomic functions occur and our physical sensations and experiences.
It can be also used to change the client’s perspective on their “story” relating to a key event or series of episodes in their life. The “story” that might in turn be shaping their sense of identity, confidence or self-worth; and thus their view of who they are and what they can and can’t do.
In therapy, we might typically focus on the exceptions where the client’s “story” doesn’t apply. To identify key resources or skills they have to offset those distortions. We can improve their ability to distinguish between thoughts and worries they ought and ought not to entertain. To ignore negative thoughts and unlikely scenarios. To distinguish between what the can and cannot control. We can change their past-oriented perspective which often sees them feeling “stuck”, to a more helpful “now” orientation. This can help the client overcome and recover from negative life events such as a major trauma, or even more apparently benign events such as retrenchment from work.
Our unconscious shapes the way we see and feel about memories, both good and bad. It can influence and shape our learned behaviours and habits. It can activate long forgotten memories, skills and resources. It can also quieten or silence unhelpful ones and knock-on effects such as stress anxiety, trauma and phobias.
We Ericksonian hypnotherapists prefer working with the unconscious mind rather than the conscious mind. In doing so and under hypnosis, we talk to it. We use this approach to bypass and/or modify the client’s learned limitations and unhelpful belief systems, which often get in the way of other therapies. After all, if the client already knew consciously how to get better, they wouldn’t need to seek therapy.
Under hypnosis, we use approaches such as indirect suggestion, metaphor and analogies as these are proven to have more impact and enduring influence on the unconscious. Stories about the client’s ability to do something relatively complex such as ride a bicycle without conscious effort can be given as an example. Similarly, stories about how the client first learned to tie a shoelace illustrate how the unconscious has now taken over these responsibilities. These stories serve to highlight the enormous competency and dexterity of the unconscious mind.
We thus often suggest as part of the hypnotic induction that the conscious mind “become absorbed” in some non-related thought process as a means of distraction, so we can communicate more directly with the unconscious mind. By working more closely with the client’s unconscious we hope to bypass any conscious resistance or sabotage sometimes introduced by the client’s conscious doubts about the method of treatment or their ability to change and heal.
It is through the approach of addressing the clients unconscious that the powerful therapeutic benefits of clinical hypnotherapy and strategic psychotherapy are achieved.
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