what can hypnosis be used for?
The problems which affect human beings are "unconscious" ones, almost by definition. After all, nobody consciously chooses to behave in ways that cause them problems! One of the great presuppositions of modern hypnotherapy is that all behavior is trying to achieve a purpose, even if the effects of that behavior are counter-productive. In other words, the unconscious mind has convinced itself that the problem behavior is "good" for us in some way, and persists despite all the evidence to the contrary.
It is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to control unconscious behavior through conscious effort alone. The human mind has often been compared to an iceberg, with the conscious mind being the 10% that you can see above the surface. That leaves 90% below the surface - and that's the bit which sank the Titanic. To put it another way, the unconscious mind outnumbers the conscious mind by 9 to 1. In your conscious, lucid moments you may well recognize that your habits, responses or feelings are causing you difficulty, but that lone rational voice will be drowned out by nine unconscious voices saying the exact opposite.
The solution, therefore, is to get the unconscious and conscious minds saying the same thing. Hypnosis is all about direct communication with the unconscious mind, and is the most powerful tool we have for bringing about change at the unconscious level. It can be used in any situation where you need to let go of old patterns of behavior, and learn new ones.
All of the problems that people commonly seek hypnotic help for can be seen in this light. Changing unwanted habits such as smoking or nail biting obviously involves changing a pattern of behavior, but so does something like gaining more confidence or dealing with stress - the unconscious needs to learn "confidence" patterns and unlearn "stress" patterns for specific situations.
So how does hypnosis actually teach the unconscious mind these new patterns of behavior? Broadly speaking the hypnotist or hypnotherapist is aiming to do at least one of two things. First of all, they aim to help the client perceive things in a different and more helpful way - a reframe in therapy jargon. Phobias are a good example. When somebody has a phobia, their unconscious mind has labeled an object or situation as literally life-threatening. Hypnosis can be used to reframe that object or situation in a more realistic way, as something that is inherently safe, or at least non-threatening.
Even physical conditions such as chronic pain can be reframed. An experiment conducted by the University of Bangor achieved remarkable results with rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. Using self-hypnosis, the participants visualized their pain as a person, bringing them news that something was wrong. They were able to thank that person for the information, before sending them politely but firmly on their way. This technique brought about significant reduction in pain. In effect, their pain had been reframed, from "permanent condition" to "message delivered - so no longer needed".
Reframing takes place every time the unconscious receives and accepts new information through hypnosis. Learning better ways to deal with stress, breaking a dependence on cigarettes or alcohol, developing the ability to speak to the opposite sex without blushing, even learning to relax more deeply - these are all reframes, in that they literally create a different world for the client, one in which the old ways of going about things no longer apply.
The second hypnotic strategy is mental rehearsal of preferred behavior or a preferred future. In therapy-speak, this is known as future pacing. Through the use of guided imagery, the hypnotist is able to re-create the preferred behavior in rich and vivid detail, so that the client experiences it in their imagination as if it were actually happening. Somebody who is severely stressed at work, for example, may be future-paced through a typical day feeling calm and in control.
The rationale behind future-pacing is that the unconscious mind does not discriminate between "real" and "imagined" events - it produces exactly the same physical and emotional responses to each. If you vividly imagine your favorite meal, for instance, you'll probably start to salivate. In just the same way, building up a detailed mental picture of yourself acting or feeling better in a certain situation gives the unconscious mind a better template to refer to the next time it encounters that situation.
This process also harnesses expectation, a powerful force shaping human behavior. We're constantly trying to fulfill our expectations, good or bad. If you expect something to be stressful, it usually will be. If you expect the same thing to be easily manageable, it will usually be that, too. This is another form of reframe, of course. Setting up positive expectations about a situation or event creates a preferred-behavior shaped "hole", which the unconscious mind seeks to fill with a preferred-behavior shaped "peg", made up of the appropriate emotions, responses and behaviors.
It could be argued that all problems are unconscious problems, even those that arise from external events that seem to be beyond our control. It is our reaction to these events, rather than the events themselves that is crucial. Through hypnosis, we can learn better ways for our unconscious minds to react to the uncertainties and challenges that are a normal part of living.