Your grandmother went to the circus. One of the sideshow acts was a hypnotist and he hypnotized her to quack like a duck. Oh, wait, not her but she heard about this from someone else. In a past generation, hypnosis was a stage show act. But today it is a serious tool in the hands of people like psychologists, social workers, or behavioral coaches. It is a respected and powerful technique for helping people solve real problems of weight control, smoking, pain reduction and emotional dysfunction.
A dentist may use hypnosis to reduce a patient's apprehension. A child psychologist helps a child with a nail-biting habit. Some of my clients have been helped to fly, stop smoking, fall asleep without medications or reduce–or even eliminate–their pain after total knee replacement operations.
There is much we don't know about the human mind, but what we do know is that we both think and communicate at more than one level. There is a level of thought of which we are aware. This includes our conscious problem-solving, memories and situational awareness. It is logical and fact based, and there is also emotion which we know and often enjoy. But there is at least one other level of consciousness of which we are not always aware. (Some psychologists suggest that there may be more than one level outside of awareness.)
The unconscious thoughts often have more control over our emotions and behavior than the conscious ones. That's one reason that people, knowing full well the damage they are causing to their health, will continue smoking or over-eating. It is not that they have too little will-power, rather their pre-conscious simply has overwhelming control. Of course there are many reasons for such self-destructive behavior. Old habits, physical addiction and other causes have more power than we wish.
While physical addition may be a large problem, especially with smoking, habits inhabit the pre-conscious. Pain responses come from physical triggering of nerve sensors, but people have varying responses to pain including differing levels of pain reaction. Those differences are largely the result of unconscious processes.
Have you ever been hypnotized? Of course you have. You have left work thinking about a problem. You got into your car, merged onto the highway and began driving. You were surprised when you found yourself at your home exit. You were so engrossed in your work problem, that you were just not aware of all the miles that went by. This illustrates another aspect of hypnosis. You were still in control, even though not fully aware. If a traffic problem arose, you probably could have responded appropriately; people usually do; though sometimes the trance is so strong that we do not recognize danger in time and fail to recognize that the car ahead of us has stopped quickly and we rear-end it.
Clinical hypnosis–sometimes called hypnotherapy–taps into that pre-conscious level of mind. By relaxing and letting the conscious mind let go of control, we have access to the pre=conscious where the most important decisions take place. With the cooperation of the pre-conscious, we can smell, taste and experience things that are out of the awareness of the conscious mind. Moreover, we can enlist the aid of the pre-conscious in forming new habits and letting go of old ones. We can learn to view cigarettes with disgust, ignore pain, develop new habits that support a better life, better relationships with our children, more creativity, enhance our marriage, even become a better lover.
Hypnosis, by itself, is rarely a full cure for our emotional and behavior ills, but it is an important tool in the work of a good therapist.