The mind is born with two responses to a threat: fight and flight, marshaled by the survival instinct in the primitive part of the brain. Fight and flight are meant to be temporary. In nature, the mind-body quickly returns to rest to heal, grow, and learn.
The experiences that we survive without harm are accepted by the mind-body – it is the unknown that is uncomfortable.
The early mind has two basic emotions: euphoria and fear.
These emotions cause us to see experiences as “good” or “bad.” Both reactions
have survival benefit: euphoria builds social bonding while fear guides our self-preservation.
The newborn learns from their parents how to balance the two. This control
comes from the thinking part of our brain, which learns to intervene in the
activation of the fight/flight response.
Around eight years of age, as we venture out into the world alone, unknowns threaten to overwhelm us. To control the exposure of the mind-body to new experiences, the brain develops a barrier called the critical mind. Atop the barrier is the conscious mind that uses logic, reason, and analysis to test information. Below the barrier is the subconscious mind that adapts the body to meet the demands placed upon it. While our ego (or self) lives in the conscious mind, the subconscious does seven times as much work for us. When there is a conflict between our conscious goals and subconscious motivations, the subconscious generally wins.
Naturally the subconscious places survival above everything else. Given that much of the learning we do in school doesn’t apply to our home life, it sets up powerful barriers to prevent school from changing our behavior. In fact, it ignores everything we learn during the day until we fall asleep at night. During sleep, the subconscious sorts through the new experiences and knowledge and figures out which it is willing to accept as new knowns. Note that if we don’t get enough sleep, we lose a large portion of what we learn.
If accepted, the subconscious then goes carefully about deciding whether the new knowns require behavior changes, and whether it thinks that change is safe. This occurs in dreams. At the end of the night, the subconscious takes a last, cautious step: in the “venting” dreams just before waking, it advises the conscious mind “hey, we’re going to get rid of this old behavior/attitude – is that OK?” Examples might be: “Even though Mom’s cookies were great, we’re beginning to realize that sugar does not equal love.”
If the conscious mind disagrees, the subconscious will continue to work on the problem until a solution is found. During these episodes, our venting dreams will tend to repeat each morning.
The most important consequence of this process is that the conscious mind grows up faster than the subconscious. This is evident in adolescence as we prepare to leave the family home. The subconscious can become overwhelmed with all the changes, and simply decide to stay stuck with childhood behaviors and attitudes.
While adolescence is a universal experience, the same thing can happen at any time during our lives when changes come too fast. This is why an otherwise happy person is challenged by moving, changing jobs or having a child – all things that should be seen as opportunities.
In those situations, hypnotherapy facilitates a direct dialog between the conscious and subconscious, allowing us to replace outdated behaviors and grasp opportunities.
When dealing with combat stress and its follow-on disorders, hypnotherapy is an adjunct to treatment by licensed clinicians – both psychologists and medical doctors. Further information on hypnotherapy and combat stress reactions and PTSD is here. A perspective on the psychic battle against death concludes this series.
As a particle physicist trained to believe that time only flows forward, I wasn’t prepared to accept a fact known to many warriors: the brain is a time-travel device. Once I did, I developed a completely new understanding of trauma: in the event, the survivor reaches deep into themselves to find resources, and receives them from their own future.
Thus survivors of trauma relapse. As they develop strength,
their past reaches out to claim what was necessary to survive. My counsel to
those that survived personal trauma
was to recognize the dynamic and respond to the need in an organized way. When
the event crashes through the walls, don’t fight it, but offer to that earlier
I love you. We are strong enough. Come to me.
While effective, that advice was offered as an intuitive
Professionally, the gatekeepers for trauma recovery are licensed psychotherapists and psychologists. Their goal is simple: keep the sufferer in the here and now. The techniques used include stress inoculation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exposure therapy. The strength thereby created is essential to recovery, but insufficient: it masks off the past rather than healing it.
Alternative healing modalities address the psychic process
head-on. Methods such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
and EFT (Emotional Freedom Therapy) broaden the perceptions of the mind-body to
diminish the hold of trauma.
Hypnotherapy enhances all these techniques. The traumatized mind is wide open – the barrier of the critical mind has fallen, and so information is taken in as absolute truth. This victim is often susceptible to paranoia and conspiracy theories. By taking the client into deeper hypnotic states and then out into conscious dialog, the procedure of hypnosis rebuilds the barrier of the critical mind.
Secondly, hypnotherapists rely upon dreams to monitor the evolution of the subconscious landscape, and interpretation of dreams was always a central feature in therapy. Dreams occur in sequential episodes during the night, and until hypnotherapists learned how each episode affects the development of behavior, attempts to interpret dreams could heighten client anxiety. Once the episodes were understood, recurring dreams (such as flashbacks to traumatic experiences) could be passed and eventually expelled from the subconscious. This is valuable to trauma victims whose haunting dreams often wake them in the middle of the night.
As the strength of the critical mind is restored, hypnotherapy’s third goal picks up pace: rebuilding assurance that the client is safe, freeing the conscious mind to restore and reactivate the circuitry that suppresses the fight/flight response. In this stage, in transmitting insights directly to the subconscious, hypnotherapy is an amplifier for psychotherapy.
Why is that help necessary? It seems that when we realize that our behavior is hurting us, it should be easy to change our mind and act differently. But it’s not.
The reason is that during elementary and middle school our mind breaks into two parts: the conscious and subconscious. The subconscious is the part that controls our behavior. It’s our oldest and dearest friend, concerned only with our well-being and happiness. The challenge is that it prefers the experiences that we survive (even the frightening ones) and is anxious about the unknown. It resists the attempts of the conscious mind to create change. Because the subconscious is “seven times more powerful than you think,” it normally wins the battle.
Sometimes change is necessary, of course. To minimize danger, the subconscious considers change under the safest conditions: sleep. The body is inactive and the conscious mind disabled while the new behavior is imagined in dreams. If the dreams play out positively, the subconscious may try the new behavior in waking life. If that works out, the behavior often is accepted as a known and is available for future use.
In hypnotherapy, I facilitate a direct dialog between your conscious and subconscious minds. We begin the session by talking about your conscious behavior and discuss suggestions. After guiding you into hypnosis, I’ll offer your consciously accepted suggestions to your subconscious. Your conscious mind will monitor the dialog, and I’ll watch for signals in the body that tell whether the subconscious is comfortable with the suggestions.
In many cases, we also suggest that the subconscious release unwanted fears and motivations, through the venting dreams that we have just before waking up in the morning.
Between sessions, you go about your life and observe whether and how your behavior has changed. As you learn, new ideas and opportunities will come to mind. This is the where the next session starts, and the cycle continues until your goal is met.