Hypnotherapy and Habits

Habit change is one of the places the rubber meets the road. Sometimes people will listen politely to my explanations of hypnosis and then turn to me and say, "That all sounds good, but when am I going to stop drinking?" Or substitute "drinking" for late night snacking, or nail biting, or pulling out hair, looking at porn, or toking every night...

Like with psychosomatic issues, hypnosis has sets of tools that directly apply to habit change.

Because it's such a classic and complicated issue, I'm going to use smoking cigarettes as an example during most of this post, but you could easily substitute something else.

Some points to consider:

  • Motivation is one of the most important factors in changing anything. Nobody goes through the awkward process of uprooting (or creating) a habit for no good reason. If you're reading this and there's something you're hoping to address, I'm hoping you're feeling motivated.

  • Another important thing to recognize with habits is that they (like somatic issues) serve a purpose -- or at least did originally. Let's consider smoking. A lot of people start smoking as a way to fit in and have social connection to others. Sometimes people start smoking as a way to relax or self-sooth. More often than not, it's both of these or sometimes other reasons. The point is, any habit -- from chewing pencils to shooting heroin -- started for a reason.

  • Of course, what happens over time is that stuff snowballs. While smoking may have been good to take a break and chat comfortably with others as a teenager, at some point maybe it became a major way to relax (think: "take a deep breath!... now exhale slowly!...") or have signal a transitional periods in the day ("smoke break"), or self-stimulate so you can concentrate better (nicotine=fast acting stimulant). Sooner or later, the habit has a momentum of its own. Even just the force of habit is a thing: if you smoke every time you drive your car, it's going to feel awkward if you suddenly stop, even if there's no good reason to smoke right then.

  • Smoking is also a good example of the physical dependence of habit: Once you start consuming a fair bit of nicotine, your body gets used to it and gets upset if it doesn't have it.

Addressing all these levels is recommended to really make sustainable change. And all can be addressed with good hypnotherapy.

As with most issues, I usually start with inner resourcing. Resourcing is what therapists call it when you build up the feeling that you can handle things or deal with things effectively. With habits, it's important to have the sense that you can successfully change the habit and that you can handle any of the crap that will arise from changing it.

Motivation and inner resources can strengthen one another. Imagine your romantic partner has been nagging you to stop smoking. There's a little motivation there, but not much. But imagine spending some time thinking about how much you care about your partner, and maybe the nice things your partner does for you or that you do together. Assuming you're okay feeling good about your partner, it likely will feel good to think about all those nice things and make you feel supported. And will make you more motivated to stop smoking so you and your partner can be even happier and more mutually supportive. You could do more or less the same thing with your own health rather than a romantic partner.

Once there's some resourcing and clear motivation, it's worth exploring the layers of purpose in a habit. Sometimes this is really simple and sometimes it's not.

Smoking cessation has actually gotten harder over time with hypnosis because most of the simple purposes smoking has served are culturally eliminated: it's no longer very "cool" to smoke, and it's not very cheap or easy or socially acceptable. Likewise, there are many more tools available to stop smoking with: patches, gum, losanges, medications, internet forums, apps. So what's left more often than not are relatively unconscious purposes that will accept no substitute. I'll return to this in a moment.

Finally, there's the physiology of stopping a habit. Smoking is actually pretty rough to stop doing. I usually recommend people cut back to less than 10 (or less than 5, ideally) cigarettes a day before they try to stop. But happily, there's that whole mind-body thing and hypnosis. Remember me saying how people can do things like change their blood pressure or help with headaches using hypnosis? Hypnosis can also help with withdrawal symptoms.

I usually approach habit change in three parts, each increasingly “deeper” than the last.**

First, after getting your history and such, we try resourcing and motivation. Sometimes this is enough to get someone unstuck enough to change. I've certainly met former smokers who had hypnosis and the hypnosis only consisted of (in trance) being told repeatedly the reasons they want to quit. This increased their motivation. And it worked.

Second, assuming the motivation and resourcing wasn't enough, I use tailored direct suggestions. For example, there's a hypnotic tool called the "control room" that I sometimes use. Basically, in a hypnotic state, I have people imagine a cockpit or control room where there are controls for all the unconscious elements of their habit. For smoking, maybe there are levers or buttons associated with all the times of day they tend to smoke. Maybe there's a dial associated with anxiety, and a dial associated with twitchy "I gotta go smoke" feelings, maybe there's a dial for "boredom" if that's someone trigger. Maybe there's some kind of dial or computer that has to do with cravings and withdrawal. We might do this and go through adjust all the levels and dials to a non-smoking kind of orientation. The unconscious takes the message and makes it happen below deck, so to speak.

Finally, if we do tailored direct suggestions and someone is still not able to stop, we look deeper. I might use the ideomotor finger signaling, or I might get someone into a deep enough trance that I can talk directly to their unconscious using other methods about the purpose of the habit.

If someone's a particularly skilled hypnotic subject, this three step process might take three sessions, but, frankly, it often takes more.

If you're reading this and thinking this doesn't sound like the one-shot stop smoking hypnosis you've heard of, you're right -- it's not. Sometimes I get results in one session, but I'm not the showman that's going to promise something like that. If that's what you want, I recommend you find someone that does that kind of hypnosis, or even just find a Youtube video or a script and give that a shot. If it doesn't work or it works for a bit and then stops, that's what the kind of work I do is for.

There is also a lot I could say about the things you can do to work on habits on your own. For example, setting a date to change, talking to people about the change you want to make, writing down pros and cons of making the change and putting the pros somewhere you see them often, and choosing the time you actually make the change wisely.

As always, if you have questions, feel free to contact me.

Next, I'm going to talk about hypnotherapy and depression.

** A footnote: I want to give some credit to Maureen Turner, after whom I originally based my three part model for habit change work.