In order to understand Hypnosis, Hypnotherapy and Hypno-analysis, it is necessary to understand the relationship between the Conscious and Subconscious minds. In simple terms, anything which you have to think about to accomplish is controlled by the former, and anything you can do without thinking is controlled by the latter. However, the amount of parameters controlled by the Subconscious mind is quite astounding – it is generally regarded as being at least 100 times more powerful than the Conscious mind. Amongst many other things:
It is precisely because it is so powerful that your Conscious mind will always lose a battle with it. This is why diets are extremely hard to keep to in the long term, why drinking less alcohol is nearly impossible however hard you try and why some people spend their whole lives being attracted to the ‘wrong’ type of partners. The good news is that these issues are all potentially fixable.
The subconscious mind does not ‘think’ in the way that the conscious mind does – it is in some ways more like a computer that runs on programs. If you change the program, the outcome will be different. Hypnosis allows access to a client’s subconscious mind so that the Therapist can change the programs. However, it is really important to understand that the client is fully aware of the changes as they are being made, and they would instantly reject any change that they were not in full agreement with.
Clearly, we are born with some programs pre-installed – the ones that run our autonomic processes are a good example. However, it is obvious that a new born baby has an awful lot of learning to do in a relatively short time, so for the first 3 years or so of life we absorb everything we see and hear unchallenged. At that age we have no ability to make judgements about the truth, accuracy or helpfulness of the information that comes our way. At this age, if we are told that we are bad/stupid/naughty/useless etc it unfortunately goes straight into our system of deeply held beliefs.
From the ages of about 4 to 18 we progressively develop the ability to make judgements about the information we come across. This filter mechanism is known as the Conscious Critical Faculty, but repeated messages from authority figures (parents, teachers, etc) still get past it and into our belief system.
As adults, our CCF is fully in place, and new information can only pass the CCF and get into our Subconscious in very specific circumstances. Firstly, if the information is on a genuinely new subject, there will be nothing already there for it to conflict with, so it will be accepted. Secondly, at times of high emotion (typically fear), the CCF will be bypassed. So if you get assaulted by a man with a beard, you might immediately (and illogically) learn to fear men with beards, for example. The third and final way that Subconscious programs, or deeply held beliefs, can be changed in an adult is under hypnosis.
There is something really important to understand about this system of deeply held beliefs, or Subconscious programs. When making judgements about events occurring around us, the Subconscious mind likes to take shortcuts. Rather than evaluating all new information on its own merit, it finds it quicker and easier to compare the new information with information already stored on the same subject.
This is why, once we have a deeply held belief that was programmed in at an early age, any information which contradicts that belief is routinely rejected. For example, suppose a person was repeatedly told they were stupid, or unlovable, when they were young. It wouldn’t matter how many degrees they got, or how much they were told they were lovable as an adult, they would still hold that limiting belief. The new information just bounces off the CCF as soon as it hits it. The implications of this are profound, and very limiting, until you realise that hypnotherapy offers the opportunity to permanently change these limiting beliefs, in many cases quickly and easily.
At this point the conscious and subconscious minds have different agendas. The conscious mind wants the symptom removed because it is illogical and extremely inconvenient, but the subconscious mind wants to retain it because it views it as a survival strategy. The subconscious mind could therefore put resistance strategies in place which might include, for example, difficulty in recall, and the therapist may encounter a succession of Secondary Sensitising Events or Screen memories before the client gets to the real issue.
As a general principle, what we are familiar with has obviously not killed us yet, but change implies unfamiliarity and uncertainty, and therefore potential risk. So we should not be too surprised if the default position of the subconscious mind is to resist change. This characteristic is actually behind one of our biggest behavioural problems – our tendency to be attracted to what is familiar, whether we consciously want it or not. This explains, for example, the inclination of some people to be attracted to the ‘wrong’ type of partner, and to keep doing it however unpleasant the consequences. This behaviour is what psychologists refer to as ‘The Urge to Repeat’.
We all know people who consistently make bad relationship choices – maybe we even do it ourselves. It is, for instance, a statistical fact that women whose mothers whose mothers experience domestic violence are much more likely to marry men who will abuse them. This seems completely counter-intuitive, but there is a simple explanation behind it.
The main function of our Subconscious mind is to ensure our survival. One of the ways it does this is to ensure that we are attracted to familiar situations, and that we avoid unfamiliar ones. By definition, we must know how to cope with the familiar ones, or we would not have survived thus far, so they pose no specific threat. Our ability to cope with an unfamiliar situation is unknown, and therefore poses a potential threat. We are therefore ‘programmed’ to be attracted to people like those we have already been exposed to, and also to avoid people who act differently. If you are unlucky enough to have experienced unpleasant behaviour in your formative years, this cycle can repeat endlessly in your life unless it is stopped by therapeutic intervention. It not only ensures that you are consistently attracted to the ‘wrong’ people, but you are also not attracted to the ‘right’ people. We all know of women who always get together with ‘bad’ boys when they could do SO much better!
It is also the case that if you have inadvertently picked up the Subconscious belief that, for example, you do not deserve to be treated with love and respect, then you will be attracted to partners who treat you in accordance with your expectations. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, with your life experiences proving your belief correct. By definition, you cannot consciously know what your Subconscious beliefs are, but there are ways of finding out. Hypnosis is one, and Psychological Kinesiology is another – more about these in the next few posts.
When you worry, you look into the future and think about something unpleasant that might (or might not!) happen. To some extent we need to do this, firstly so that we can take actions to reduce the chances of unpleasant events happening, and secondly so that we can prepare ourselves in case they do happen. However, if you habitually dwell possible unpleasant future events (i.e. you worry), long after you have done the mitigation just mentioned, this can have serious adverse effects on you.
This is because when you think about something you visualise it, and as mentioned above, your subconscious cannot tell that it is not actually happening. So your body generates a stress response – i.e. it dumps adrenaline into your system to fire up the ‘fight or flight’ system. Adrenaline is biologically only designed to be used in short bursts, and it has serious health implications if present in the body for extended periods. Add to this the fact that the vast majority of things which people worry about never actually happen anyway!
So try to get in the habit of limiting the time you spend thinking about these possible future events, and when you have put in place all the mitigation that you can, shelve the problem. Put it in a box, and don’t keep opening it, especially at night!
As mentioned above, when your adrenalin levels rise, a whole raft of bio-chemical changes take place in your body to give you the best possible chance of escaping from the sabre-toothed tiger. These include:
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does explain why it is so important not to accept a lifestyle that involves long-term stress. Our fight/flight system just isn’t designed to operate over extended periods.
To gain an understanding of habits and how to break them, we need to know exactly what they are. There are four states of knowledge or competence, which are:
Think about changing gear in a car. As a young child you don’t know what gears are, then at some point you gain an awareness of the process without understanding it, then you learn to drive and change gear hesitantly and thoughtfully, and you end up doing it without thinking. At that point, the task has been delegated from your conscious mind to your sub-conscious. It has become a habit.
The advantage of this process is clear – it frees up your conscious mind to handle other less routine matters. So it is generally to your advantage for as many things as possible that you do to become habits, and for those habits to become deeply programmed and ‘locked in’. Unfortunately of course, this process also applies to behaviours which we might at some point choose to change, like drinking and smoking. And this is where the trouble starts, because we have already learned that the Sub-conscious mind is far more powerful than the Conscious mind, and it is pretty certain to win in any conflict situations. Hence the difficulty of breaking ‘bad’ habits.
Fear and phobias are distinctly different from the therapist’s point of view. Simply put, if someone offered you a million pounds to confront the fear, would you do it? If you would, it is probably a fear, and if you wouldn’t it is probably a phobia. Fears can usually be addressed by de-sensitisation, or hypnotherapy, but phobias normally require a more in-depth look at how they originated, using regression or hypno-analysis.
There is no doubt that they can be learned from parents – if a small child sees a parent being terrified of a spider, they will quickly learn that spiders are frightening. More bizarrely, there is a significant amount of evidence that fears and phobias can be inherited. I know of a mother and daughter who have an extremely unusual phobia, and the mother has never discussed it with the daughter, or displayed it in front of her. See also my article on inherited memory.
Strangely, phobias are very often not about the subject which you think they are. A good example of this is a lady who sought treatment for a fear of flying. Under hypnosis, it became clear that the fear was actually triggered when she saw a child being sick during a flight, and further questioning elicited the fact that she had had a traumatic illness involving being sick as a small child. When this memory was resolved, the fear of flying went away. The connection was simply that she connected flying with being sick. Our subconscious minds often ‘hide’ traumatic memories behind screens, so we retain the lesson without being traumatised by direct recall of the event itself.
Screen memories are memories which are put in place by the subconscious mind in order that we can learn the lessons from traumatic events without consciously recalling the trauma itself. Freud theorised that it is not until a child is about six that their memories form a narrative pattern that is temporally connected. Before that time a client is more likely to be recalling screen memories, which are constructed by our subconscious minds, than real events. These screen memories may consist of seemingly abstract associations and analogies, which make sense to the unconscious but do not follow factual events.
This is best explained using an example. Let us suppose that a young girl was sexually molested by an adult male stranger. A likely lesson from this experience would be to be very uncomfortable with adult male strangers (at the very least), and not to trust them. Let us suppose that years later she tries to have a relationship with a boyfriend, but he gets frustrated and angry at her inhibited behaviour, and they split up. Her subconscious mind could then use this incident as justification for her fear of intimacy with men.
So when she later explains or justifies (to herself or others) her inability to have successful relationships with boyfriends, she says it was because of the behaviour of her first boyfriend. The memory of the molestation is completely repressed, and she is protected from the associated discomfort attached to the trauma, but she retains the belief that men are unpleasant and can’t be trusted. However, screen memories may often be much less logical than this, and it is not always easy to ‘join the dots’ during the analytical process. It is not unusual for several successive screen memories to be put in place, which re-enforce the message, and bury the traumatic event even deeper.
Visualisation is a really useful tool, and is very easy to use. It relies on the simple fact that your sub-conscious mind is completely unable to distinguish reality from unreality. If you don’t believe this, sit quietly in a chair and for a few minutes and visualise lying on a tropical beach in the shade of a palm tree. Hear the sound of the surf, and the seabirds calling, feel the sand beneath your feet, really visualise it clearly. Most people who do this will soon find that they feel calmer, and their pulse and blood pressure have dropped. Consciously, you knew you were in your living room, but sub-consciously, your body reacted as if you were on the beach. The same is true watching films. Consciously, you know you are in the cinema, but your sub-conscious still dumps adrenalin into your bloodstream when something alarming happens.
So how can you use this knowledge to really improve your life? If you visualise something which you want to happen in the future (it needs to be something that you have some control over, like the outcome of an interview, or a Driving Test), then your sub-conscious will be fooled into thinking it is definitely going to happen. It will then optimise your behaviour in line with achieving that outcome. The intended outcome obviously needs to be achievable – do not visualise flying, and then jump off the roof of your house!
Top sportsmen and women do this all the time. Watch a rugby player preparing for a conversion – he looks up at the posts and visualises the ball flying through dead centre, then puts his head down to kick, trusting that his sub-conscious mind will guide his body to achieve the outcome he visualised. This technique is incredibly useful for short term fixes – it does not permanently re-program your sub-conscious in life-changing ways like hypnotherapy, but it can massively improve your ability to achieve your short-term goals on a day to day basis. For a much more in-depth look at this subject, read Creative Visualisation by Shakti Gawain.
It is very common for people to be much more aware of their shortcomings than they are of their successes. Visualise this scenario – you have got everything right, all day, and then you make one silly mistake and you say to yourself ‘God, I’m so stupid!’. Why do we engage in this negative self-talk? When we get things right we don’t say ‘God, I’m so clever!’ (well most people don’t, anyway!). What is really puzzling about this is that we often personalise it – we don’t say ‘I did something stupid’, we say ‘I am stupid’, so we are actually putting a very uncomplimentary label on ourselves.
There was probably a biological advantage to this tendency deep in our past. We definitely needed to be aware of our shortcomings because they might get us killed, whereas what we were good at did not threaten our survival. However, in today’s world it does not help us at all. In fact it is a distinct disadvantage, because if we repeat negative images of ourselves regularly enough, we eventually re-program our minds to that belief at a deeper level. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy because we begin to unconsciously act the way we see ourselves.
So my advice is to make an effort to recognise when you get things right, and give yourself a pat on the back. Be prepared also to recognise your shortcomings, but don’t ‘personalise’ them, and make sure you see them in context – keep an eye on the bigger picture.
Most people think that they have little or no control over their emotions, but this is far from true. To understand how to control your emotions, you first need to understand what they are. They form part of a continuous cycle which runs like this
Trigger – thought – emotion – action
Let’s look at an example:
Trigger – you are relaxing watching TV and a tiger sticks its head around the door
Thought – Oh sh*t – I am about to get eaten!!
Emotion – Fear
Action – Jump out of the window (open it first)
Emotions are also called feelings because they involve a physical sensation, and what you can actually feel is the bio-chemical changes in your body which are designed to facilitate the action that follows. This is described in detail in the article on stress. The clear implication of this is that if you deliberately change the thought, the new thought will trigger a different emotion, so you do have control over your emotions. This process is known as re-framing.
Here is an excellent practical example. You are driving along, and an idiot overtakes you dangerously, and cuts in front of you. He then carries on his lunatic driving style and continues on his adrenalin fuelled journey. You might well conclude that he was selfish and was unnecessarily endangering you and other drivers for the hell of it, and this could well make you angry and stressed (which does you no good at all, and also does him no harm at all!). An alternative scenario might be that he has a very sick child in the car and is desperate to get him to A & E. If you chose this interpretation instead, you would not be remotely stressed, and you would wish him well. End result? You feel better. You will never know the truth, and your re-interpretation of the facts benefits you. No-one else is affected in any way. Why would you not choose to do this as a default?
Very often in life, when things go wrong, they actually work out for the best in the end. With the value of hindsight, we can see that most clouds do have silver linings. So when things go wrong, rather than feeling sad or unhappy, why not remain optimistic, waiting to see what the upside is? Whether you see a glass as half full or half empty is absolutely your choice, and the choice you make determines your level of happiness. It is within the power of all of us to do this on an ongoing basis.
A lot of people struggle with this concept because they confuse it with being immodest at best, and egotistical at worst. For some people, even liking themselves seems difficult to achieve. However, the truth is that if you can learn to love yourself it makes you modest – it is the people who are unhappy in their own skin who are tempted to ‘big themselves up’ and come across as boastful or egotistical. Also, people who don’t like themselves are often tempted to be critical of others to make themselves feel better by comparison, and this trait will definitely not make you popular. And another thing – if you don’t love yourself, how can you expect anyone else to?
So how do you do it? If you have a tendency to be kinder, more charitable and more forgiving to other people than you are to yourself, ask yourself why. Why do you single yourself out for harsher, less forgiving treatment? If you do something that you are not proud of, visualise having a conversation with yourself where you ask why it happened, learn the lessons for the future, then let it go. Learn how to forgive yourself. This is what you would do with anyone else, so why not be as forgiving to yourself? And when you get something right, take the time to praise yourself. Recognise your success, and don’t just pass it off as ‘normal’, or just what you expect of yourself. Some people set such unrealistically high expectations of themselves that they inevitable fall short, and then they give themselves a hard time when they fail to meet them. Looked at objectively, this makes absolutely no sense. Just be kinder to yourself.
Failing to forgive others makes no sense at all, but failing to forgive yourself is even worse. Holding a grudge against someone has been compared to carrying a heavy rock around in the hope that you might get a chance to throw it at them. Usually, you don’t even get the chance, so you just wear yourself out until you give up and drop the rock. How utterly pointless! If you can find it in your heart to genuinely forgive someone at the time, you save yourself a lot of effort, and you like yourself more for being able to do it. With regard to personal forgiveness, you are of course carrying the rock around with the intention of throwing it at yourself! Guilt is an indicator that you are not good at forgiving yourself. So if you have a tendency to feel guilty, stand back and take a good look at why you do this. At the risk of being accused of sexism, I do find that women are more likely to do this than men. For some people, this tendency is ‘programmed in’, and it may need the help of a therapist to release it.
Free Association is a process where a client in therapy allows their mind to wander through their memories without any conscious ‘steering’. Under hypnosis, once their conscious control of their train of thought is released, their subconscious mind takes over and memories will come to them for no apparent reason. Neither their significance, nor their connection to each other, will be apparent – and they shouldn’t even try to work it out – they just let the memories keep coming. And this becomes easy, because in this deeply relaxed state the Conscious Critical Faculty is suspended and their recall is enhanced, so their memories will flow effortlessly, one after another.
It is really important that the client tells the therapist everything that comes to mind, even if it seems really trivial, or even if they might consider it embarrassing. This whole process is judgement free, and as they engage fully with it, so they will derive maximum benefit from it.
The flow of this stream of thoughts, one after another, is not really a random process. The memories are actually being selected by their subconscious mind because they have connections with the events which are causing them problems in their daily life. As they describe these events, they will also feel and describe the emotions they felt at the time they occurred. To start with they will just be circling around the issues, but before long, events and emotions will surface that will allow real healing to take place. The client just needs to go with the flow, and allow their subconscious mind to work effortlessly on their behalf.
Current research suggests that this is very likely to be the case. It is certain that animals can do it – maybe this is actually what instinct is. An experiment was carried out recently where caged rats were exposed to a distinctive smell before the floor of their cage delivered a mild but unpleasant electric shock to their feet. There were plastic discs on the floor of the cage, and the rats very quickly learned that they could avoid the shocks if they jumped on the disc as soon as the smell became evident. These rats were bred from, and then their offspring were bred from. The ‘grandchildren’ of the original rats were then exposed to the smell, and they instinctively jumped onto the plastic discs without waiting for the electric shock.
Cuckoos clearly demonstrate this ability because they migrate without their parents, but end up in the same locality their parents flew from the previous spring. They must have inherited a memory of the route. Eels appear to do this too, with adults crossing the Atlantic from Europe to spawn in the Sargasso Sea, and the young elvers coming back to the places their parents originated from.
So what is the significance of this to humans? If instinct is in fact inherited memory, then it is, by definition, parent specific. So it might be possible that we inherit attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, rather than just learning them by observation. If this is so, one might question whether it would be more difficult to change than learned behaviour. Maybe this is why we find some behaviours harder than others to change?
Seemingly, yes. This somewhat alarming concept seems likely to be true. The microscopic cat parasite Toxoplasma Gondii has been demonstrated to make rats and chimps three times more likely to take risks. It also attracts them to feline urine. In both cases, felines are their natural predators (cats and leopards respectively), and the parasite can only reproduce in a feline host. So the biological advantage to the parasite is that the changed behaviour of the rat or chimp makes it much more likely to get eaten by a cat, and this enables the parasite to get back into a host where it can multiply. It is estimated that 60% of the human population also hosts this parasite – could this explain why so many people like cats, which unlike dogs, are pretty useless to humans? No offence intended here – I like cats!
Maybe this possibility should not surprise us – think about the rabies virus. Rabies changes the personality of its host by making it more aggressive, and making it want to bite other mammals. That, to some extent, is natural behaviour in dogs, but not in humans. How does a virus make a human suddenly feel like biting humans and animals? This achievement is even more remarkable when you consider that the ratio of size between a virus and a human is the same as the ratio of size of a human to planet Earth!
Whilst considering who or what is controlling your mind, don’t forget your gut bacteria. These have been shown to have the ability to produce neurotransmitters that make you crave particular foods. There are no prizes for guessing that they make you crave what they want, not what you want. Maybe you don’t actually like chocolate at all, but your gut flora are addicted to Green and Blacks! Food for thought.
Conventional medicine finds it hard to explain how this phenomenon works, but there is absolutely no doubt amongst therapists of the validity of this methodology. There is a growing number of people who believe that your mind is not in your head, but in the whole of your body. This may sound like a bizarre idea, but there is evidence to support it. For example, the concept of cellular memory, where transplant recipients take on the interests, tastes and preferences of the organ donor. There have been some very striking examples of this, and they are well-documented.
Psychological kinesiology, where the client makes statements (such as ‘I deserve to be treated with love and respect’), can be enormously useful to the therapist. Few people would consciously disagree with this statement, but when their arm goes weak it suggests that their sub-conscious programming is not supporting it. This might explain, for example, why some people continuously make poor relationship choices. Events in their past have programmed their sub-conscious into this unhealthy belief, and they are unknowingly trapped in a cycle of bad relationships as a result. Fortunately, hypno-analysis enables the programming to be permanently changed.
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