While we still don't know exactly how hypnosis works, for people with seemingly intractable habits, it can be a powerful tool for change.
Many of us have perceptions of hypnotism rooted in Hollywood or entertainment versions of the process, but in reality, there's nothing that magical or even strange about it. Hypnotism is simply a means to access the subconscious mind, and many experts think it's not all that different from states that we experience while absorbed in watching a movie that we closely identify with, reading a book we love, driving, or any other activity wherein it seems the outside world has less impact on our perceptions. (If you've ever missed a train stop because you were sucked into a new novel, or driven your car miles past your exit, you're experienced a similar state of mind.)
And if you've long been a tad afraid of hypnotherapy (I have) even as you've heard friends or family members tout its benefits, once you understand how it actually works, it's not all that creepy.
Contrary to popular thought, a hypnotist can't make you do something you would never do, or "plant" an idea in your head that's the opposite of what you believe in. And certainly, no responsible practitioner (there are many trained therapists who can utilize the method) would do so. So why can't someone mess with your head the way we've all seen on TV shows?
According to HowStuffWorks, even when one is hypnotized, one's conscience still exists, so we will never do anything under hypnosis that we don't believe in doing. Similarly, if one is using hypnosis to change a habit, it must be one that the person genuinely wants to kick. That being said, hypnosis does access the subconscious mind, which is why someone can be encouraged to act silly (flap their arms like a chicken) but not immoral (hurt someone or themselves). Our conscious minds govern our "thought-through actions," whereas our subconscious is very much who we are, but without the more logical, rational conscious mind (which makes decisions about how to walk from the office to the burrito place, but doesn't monitor your body movements, footfalls, eye gazes or other more automatic behaviors — that's the subconscious' job). The two parts of our mind usually work together in everyday life; hypnotism skips over the conscious part, putting us in touch with our automatic processes (like bad and good habits). The subconscious gets us to buckle up, and stop at a red light, so our conscious mind is free to think about the email our boss just sent or how we really need to get plane tickets to Greece by next week.
Hypnosis is really more of a trance-like state in which we are simply more open to suggestion, more relaxed, and more imaginative (and also more able to access memories easily), because we are bypassing the conscious mind for a time. Our free will is still very much intact, we are just more flexible, and for those of us with myriad defenses built up over the years, hypnotism can help us move past those to change bad habits.
Nobody can be hypnotized against their will. That's because, according to HowStuffWorks: "Hypnotists' methods vary, but they all depend on a few basic prerequisites:
The subject must want to be hypnotized.
The subject must believe he or she can be hypnotized.
The subject must eventually feel comfortable and relaxed.
Once you understand all of these details about hypnotism, and how it works, it's a lot less scary. Using hypnotism to change habits can work, but the method that's most effective is the one that's tailored to you and your bad habits. Unfortunately, group sessions and those found on tapes and downloads have been shown to only have short-term positive results.
So if you're interested in getting over a phobia or kicking that unhealthy habit, a one-on-one session with a licensed therapist can really work, and has worked for millions of people who report positive results. Some people even say that hypnotism helped them deal with chronic pain, or extreme temporary pain, like that typically experienced in childbirth. We still don't know how the mind-body connection works, only that there is one, and hypnosis can help us get closer to its mysteries.
MNN homepage photo via Shutterstock