For the benefit of those of you unfamiliar with hypnotherapy, let me first assure you that it is a safe, fast, non-addictive and, above all, effective form of therapeutic treatment for a vast array of conditions. It is, for example, commonly applied to help people manage their weight more effectively, transform destructive habits, build confidence and self-esteem, create emotional well being, attain goals, and even reduce the symptoms of physical conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, pain and Asthma.

Hypnosis is practised throughout the world and has been used to benefit people for hundreds of years, yet some people remain suspicious of hypnotherapy, considering it a treatment of last resort, if at all. This has not always been the case. Indeed, in 1955, hypnotherapy was so widely practised and so broadly respected that the British Medical Association recommended it as the “treatment of choice” in dealing with anxiety and stress related disorders, advising all physicians and medical students to receive fundamental training in hypnosis.

More recently, hypnotherapy has enjoyed a well-deserved resurgence of popularity, its reputation becoming ever strengthened by continuing research confirming both its scientific basis and its effectiveness. However, many myths surrounding hypnosis (the trance state) remain.

Perhaps the most popular misconception is that hypnosis is a form of sleep in which the all-powerful hypnotist has complete control over the client. The thought of being made to squawk like a chicken on command typically creates a sense of distrust and fear amongst even the most open-minded.

But, far removed from the stereotyped hypnotist described above, the trained hypnotherapist focuses on applying their knowledge and skills to improve health and enhance enjoyment of life. They work alongside people who are motivated to change, guiding them in identifying, developing and releasing hidden abilities, finding meaningful alternatives to their present unsatisfactory ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.

Moreover, hypnosis is not a sleep-like state. It is a focused, calm, pleasant feeling, similar to daydreaming, in which the conscious part of the mind is relaxed and the awareness of the unconscious mind heightened. Some people may feel lethargic, others quite light, but, however hypnosis is experienced, people are always aware of what is happening to them, so they retain absolute free will and self-control at all times.

Relaxation of the conscious mind is actually a naturally occurring state that people experience daily, many times a day. Every night, just before sleep or when daydreaming, absorbed in a book or film, or even, on occasions, when driving; these are all examples of natural trance states. We’re all accidental experts at going into trance.

So, why does hypnotherapy require the creation of a hypnotic trance (hypnosis)? Why is it not effective to simply tell a person to change? To answer this requires an understanding of three things.

First, the ways in which people habitually think, feel and respond have little to do with innate characteristics. Although we may be born with certain traits and pre-dispositions, the habits, beliefs and self-perceptions that form do so mainly as a result or our life experiences, often our early life experiences. They are learned and, therefore, can be changed if so desired.

Second, the human mind is the sum of two parts, the conscious and the unconscious. Our learned beliefs, habits and self-perceptions are housed at the unconscious level. They have a powerful effect on us because much of how we think, feel and subsequently behave occurs not as we might imagine at the rational, conscious level, but rather at the automatic, unconscious level. Jarrett adds that, even in relation to decision making, "research undermines the notion that our conscious selves are in control, and points instead to a sophisticated nonconscious mind, wide open to outside influences, as the real source of our decision making." (The Psychologist, April 2008).

But, the unconscious mind has a ‘flaw’. It is unable to distinguish between fact and fantasy. Once the beliefs, habits and self-perceptions have been established, the unconscious mind accepts them as reality whether or not they are accurate or beneficial. Clearly, negative self-perceptions (negative hypnotic states) will have a very limiting effect on our behaviour and lives.

Third, once these habits, belief systems and self-perceptions are formed they are very difficult to change. The conscious mind acts as a filter system, allowing only information that is consistent with our habits and belief systems to pass through to the unconscious mind, thus perpetuating and reinforcing our notions of who we are and what we’re capable of. Therefore, for change to take place, this filter system needs to be temporarily switched off.

In a nutshell, hypnotherapy uses hypnosis to bypass the rational, logical, gate-keeping conscious mind and gain direct access to the real power-house of the mind – the unconscious mind.

Once in a state of hypnosis, simple hypnotic techniques can be safely applied to effectively re-programme detrimental habits, beliefs and perceptions stored within the unconscious, and, because the unconscious mind also has a major influence on the internal physical mechanisms, specifically the autonomic nervous system, automatically regulating such things as heart rate, breathing, hormone / chemical release, the immune system, digestion and so on, it can even stimulate the body’s natural ability to fight physical illness and pain.

To demonstrate the above, should a person’s life experiences have led them to believe they lack confidence, when facing a challenging situation that requires a confident response, various learned cognitive, emotional and physiological responses will be automatically triggered, “I can’t do this”, “I feel anxious and stressed”, accompanied by breathlessness, increased heart rate, sweaty palms and tense muscles, influencing subsequent behaviour, probably avoidance.

If I were simply to tell this person that they already have the inner resources to tackle the situation effectively (an absolute truth), more than likely their conscious mind would filter out that information as inconsistent and wrong. Hypnosis involves temporarily shutting down this conscious filter system to permit information to enter the unconscious where positive, enduring change can take place; the contents of the mind-file labelled "in this situation I..." can be re-packaged and re-defined, transforming, perhaps, to one that says "I choose to remain feeling positive and calm; I know I can do this and I choose to do this; I will maintain a steady heart rate, normal breathing and relaxed muscles"; subsequent behaviour - the situation dealt with – success.

Furthermore, the unconscious mind strives to minimise discomfort and maintain an inner harmony/balance. But what the unconscious mind thinks is harmony is based on patterns of behaviour that have become established over time. What it assumes, through practise, are comfortable eating behaviours, for example, are not necessarily healthy or beneficial to us.

So, when a person attempts to alter a habit consciously, perhaps through will power, feelings of conflict often result because the unconscious mind is not experiencing what it expects. Individuals typically become uncomfortable, restless, irritable, fixated and stressed. So, to become comfortable again, the individual reverts to old ways.

Hypnosis can melt away this conflict, helping to override old patterns of behaviour, and rapidly establish new, more positive approaches to food, for example, exercise and eating behaviours, stress and so on.

Let’s take smoking as another example of this. Many smokers are keen to quit the habit, and often try to stop through sheer determination. Although such a commitment to quit is essential, even with hypnotherapy, it alone tends not to be sufficient to succeed. No matter how many times ex-smokers consciously tell themselves they have stopped, they typically retain the belief that they are a smoker. Thus fixation, conflict and discomfort often results, and such persistent unconsciously driven thoughts and feelings tend to win through in the end. If, however, they were able to perceive themselves to be a non-smoker, there would be much less internal conflict, and so, success in achieving and maintaining their goal is all the more likely.

Author's Bio: 

Christine Woolfenden DCH DHP reg GHR

Clinical hypnotherapist at Echelon Associates Hypnotherapy Practice, Charlbury, Oxford, Oxfordshire

· conversion degree in Psychology/Oxford Brookes University – distinction
· Diploma in Clinical Hypnosis (DCH) - distinction - Institute of Clinical Hypnosis (ICH), Kings College, London
· Advanced Professional Diploma in Hypnotherapy and Psychotherapy (DHP), ICH
· Member of General Hypnotherapy Register (GHR), British Psychological Society (BPS), Associate of the ICH (AICH)