How Does Hypnosis Work?

November 5th, 2012 § 1 comment

Hypnosis is a safe and effective means of changing habits, whether your desire is to eliminate a disempowering habit or create an empowering one. Your sub-conscious mind does not care, or even evaluate, the benefit or detriment of your personal habits. It is simply a warehouse of programmed, conditioned behaviors. Hypnosis gives you access to that warehouse. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s fun to discover how effectively it can be used to program your sub-conscious mind to behave the way you want it to.

Hypnosis – What is it? How does it work? Is it real? These are the questions I answer every day in my practice at Intuitive Hypnosis, and in casual conversation with friends and acquaintances. I am fascinated with the process of hypnosis and how it can be utilized to create change in our lives, and I welcome the opportunity to talk about it every chance I get.

Let’s start with a brief definition of hypnosis. I define hypnosis as “a deep state of relaxation with a targeted focus.” The reason for using hypnosis is to bring about desired changes in our thought patterns, behavior, and experience.

One Mind or Two?

To begin the explanation of how hypnosis works, it helps to take a generalized, simplistic, look at our mind and how it works. As hypnotherapists, we talk about our mind as if it was divided into two parts, the conscious mind and the sub-conscious mind. Of course it’s not really divided into two parts, and so it’s more accurate to speak about our mind as having different processes; conscious processes, and unconscious or sub-conscious processes.

Our conscious processes include all those things we do with complete awareness, the things we do on purpose at any given moment, for example, having a conversation, calculating the balance in our checking account, making a decision to place a phone call. Believe it or not, neurologists tell us that we only pay conscious attention to 1-5% of what we do all day. I was alarmed when I read this statistic. That means that anywhere from 95-99% of what we do all day is a sub-conscious process! It’s as if we are walking around in a trance all day, and that being hypnotized is actually snapping you “out” of that trance and giving you back the ability to consciously choose the behaviors you want.

Sub-conscious processes are things we do automatically, without consciously thinking about them while we’re doing them. It’s kind of like being on autopilot all day. Examples include things like getting dressed, making the bed, showering, eating, and driving to work! Almost everyone has had the experience of “highway hypnosis.” You know, you’re driving along and all of a sudden you arrive at your destination and you honestly don’t remember paying attention to the drive. Luckily, our sub-conscious mind does a pretty good job at following the rules of the road while we’re lost in thought, or chatting with a passenger.

A Groove in the Record

So how did all these sub-conscious behaviors become sub-conscious? It’s all about the building of neural pathways in our brain. These are microscopic hair-like structures that actually grow and branch out and hook up with other neural pathways as we learn and practice new behaviors.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine a child learning to tie his shoes. In the beginning, he has no neural pathways for shoe tying. He has to pay very close attention to the act of tying those laces. With practice, and repetition, he begins to develop the neural pathways for shoe tying. It’s as if he’s creating a “groove” in the record in his brain specifically for shoe tying. Eventually, the neural pathways are so firmly established and embedded, that he can tie his shoes without such a concentrated effort. In other words, the behavior of shoe tying has now evolved from a “conscious” process to a “sub-conscious” process. As an adult, anytime this person goes to tie his shoe, it’s as if his brain says “shoe tying” and plugs in the program for shoe tying, as if the needle finds the groove in the record for shoe tying and it just happens automatically. Make sense? Another name for all these sub-conscious behaviors is “habit.”

Just imagine all the automatic behaviors we engage in daily, some that benefit us, and some that don’t. How about your sleep habits, your eating habits, your activity levels? Even your patterns of thought are nothing more than habits. Do you ever get tired of the repetitive thoughts in your head? It’s like getting a song stuck in your head, only there’s no music to go along with it.

Sub-conscious Doesn’t Differentiate

Another interesting fact about the sub-conscious mind that helps us in our understanding of hypnosis is the fact that our sub-conscious mind does not differentiate between “really” doing something and just “pretending,” or “thinking” about, doing something.

For example, if I could monitor your brain activity while you’re riding a bike down the street I could show you all the parts of your brain that light up while riding the bike. Then, if I hypnotized you, and guided you through pretending to ride a bike, guess what? The same parts of your brain light up!

This means that we have the ability to create the neural pathways (habits) that we want to develop simply by “pretending” to engage in a particular activity, thereby creating and/or reinforcing the neural pathways allowing the desired behavior to become part of our sub-conscious norm. As hypnotherapists, we take advantage of this attribute using a technique called “future pacing.”

This is a valuable technique used with clients who have test anxiety, fear of public speaking, fear of flying, and more. By guiding clients through practicing the desired situation in a state of relaxation and comfort, they are able to create the neural pathways for the desired behaviors and responses. Through repetition of this guided visualization while in a relaxed state, those neural pathways become firmly established, and the desired behavior becomes the new norm. I record all client sessions and clients are given a copy of their hypnosis session to listen to daily until the new behavior is well established, or firmly embedded in their sub-conscious mind.

The fact that the sub-conscious mind does not differentiate between really riding a bike and pretending to ride a bike is great since pretending to ride a bike allows you to improve your skill as a bike rider. All you have to do is listen to your recorded hypnosis session and mentally practice riding your bike just the way you like.

But what about the many thoughts you practice in your mind all day that are in opposition to what you want? Remember, thought patterns are habits too. If your repetitive thoughts include thoughts like, “I’ll never be able to lose weight,” or, “it’s impossible to give up smoking,” guess what kind of neural pathways you are strengthening? You got it, the very ones you’d like to get rid of!

It’s important to know that there is no part of your conscious awareness residing in your sub-conscious mind monitoring your thoughts; no part of you in there making sure that the thought patterns you engage in are in your best interest. The sub-conscious mind is often compared to a computer program, and that’s a pretty good analogy. Your habits, your routines, and your rituals are very much like computer programs; very impersonal, very automatic, with no attention paid to whether or not a specific program is helping you or hurting you.

The Sub-conscious Thinks in Terms of Images

This is important in our understanding of how we can unwittingly program ourselves to reinforce the very behaviors we’re trying to extinguish. Our sub-conscious minds process our words, our thoughts, and our phrases in terms of images, and whatever is imaged is reinforced. Many of the words we use, such as “quit, stop, don’t, won’t, etc.” do not have images to go along with them, and so they are disregarded, booted out so to speak, and we can be left with an image reflecting the exact opposite of what we want. Compare the two different images that come to mind when you hear, “Don’t run into the street!” or “Stay in the yard” – same message, different words, and very different images. There are a lot of frustrated parents out there who have mistakenly programmed their children to do the exact opposite of what they really wanted them to do!

Another example, let’s say you dislike exercise and you repeat to yourself “I know I should exercise, but I hate going to the gym. I want to tone my muscles, but I dislike lifting weights” and so on. By repeating what you dislike, you are in fact reinforcing your dislike for exercising and making it more difficult to change your behavior.

By using hypnosis, you can train yourself to think and talk about what you want with the words and phrases that create the image of the desired behavior. Using the exercise example above, you would be better off saying “It feels good spending time at the gym several times a week, and I enjoy the process of increasing the weights I lift as I see the improvement in my muscle tone over time.”

The point here is to be aware of the images being reinforced by the sub-conscious mind, and to realize that you have the ability to guide your thoughts and behaviors to achieve the desired results.

Brain Wave Activity is the Key

It would be nice if, once we realize how this all works, and we have identified the changes we want to make, that we would just “self correct.” That’s where the frustration kicks in when we want to lose weight, quit smoking, or quit biting our nails. We know what to do, we know we should do it, we want to do it, so why is it so difficult to make the change!?!?

There is a separation between our conscious mind and our sub-conscious mind called the critical faculty. It’s like an invisible barrier that somehow prevents our conscious intentions from getting into our sub-conscious mind. This is where hypnosis comes in. During a hypnosis session, you are guided through a process of physical and mental relaxation that actually slows down your brainwave activity. It is this slowing down of brainwave activity that “softens” that critical faculty making the sub-conscious mind receptive to suggestion. It is the repetition of these suggestions while in a relaxed state that results in the desired changes.

Using hypnosis to facilitate personal change is, in fact, nothing more than re-programming your mind. It is in this state of relaxation where you have all the control. In this state of relaxation, you are able to bring your conscious awareness, your conscious desires, and your conscious intentions into alignment with your sub-conscious mind and deliberately create the habits, routines, and rituals that make up your daily life experience, on your terms! And that is why I say that being in a state of hypnosis is being in complete control. You are in control of which habits become the norm for you in any given situation.

Myth Busting

Thanks to the Hollywood portrayal of hypnosis, stage hypnosis shows, and a general unawareness of how our minds work, there are a lot of misconceptions regarding hypnosis. Some facts to remember include the following:

  • Hypnosis is simply a way working with naturally occurring states of mind. It is not mystical, occult, supernatural, or even abnormal
  • You can never be hypnotized against your will
  • You can never be made to do anything against your nature while in hypnosis
  • You cannot get stuck in hypnosis
  • You do not lose control while in hypnosis, in fact, the opposite is true
  • In line with the above, hypnosis is not a “truth serum.” You will not inadvertently reveal your deepest, darkest secrets
  • Hypnosis is not mind control or manipulation, the hypnotist simply serves as a facilitator. All hypnosis is self-hypnosis
  • You are not actually asleep during hypnosis and will most likely remember everything that occurs during a session
  • Almost everyone can benefit from hypnosis. The ability to concentrate and having a creative imagination help, but aren’t the determining factors; willingness and commitment to the desired outcome are
  • There are no dangerous side effects from using hypnosis

In Conclusion

Hypnosis is a safe and effective means of changing habits, whether your desire is to eliminate a disempowering habit or create an empowering one. Your sub-conscious mind does not care, or even evaluate, the benefit or detriment of your personal habits. It is simply a warehouse of programmed, conditioned behaviors. Hypnosis gives you access to that warehouse. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s fun to discover how effectively it can be used to program your sub-conscious mind to behave the way you want it to.

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