Do you find willpower alone not enough to break a habit?
What would you give up if you could do it easily? Chocolate? Wine? Smoking? Snacking?
Often these habits start out harmless enough, but it’s only when we try to give something up that we find it difficult and it becomes a craving. When people sign up to a diet plan or abstain from something, they may be able to go for a period of time without their particular “fix” but that only tends to hold out for as long as their willpower can, before eventually returning to old patterns of behaviour.
Many clients come to hypnotherapy hoping that the hypnotherapist has some kind of magic wand that can make the process of quitting easy. There is no magic wand, however, there is the understanding of how to undo that feeling of inner conflict, which reduces the need of willpower, making it easier for us to stop doing something we don’t want to anymore.
So why do we have internal conflict?
As humans, we are driven by both our conscious and subconscious parts of the brain. The conscious part is very logical and rational, it makes good decisions for us but it can only process a small amount of information at once. The subconscious part is able to process thousands of bits of information at the same time. It is predominantly responsible for our survival, but it doesn’t like change!
If I asked you to remember a phone number, that would be about the maximum level of data your conscious brain can think about at any one time. However, the subconscious can regulate your heart rate, digestion, temperature, hormones, alert you to danger, provide suitable emotions to what is happening around you, as well as carrying out all the tasks you do daily. How can it do all that at once? By simply repeating behaviour you have done so many times that it becomes “autopilot”.
Do you remember how hard it was when you first learnt to tie your shoelaces or drive a car? That was your conscious brain having to work it out for you. However, when you repeated it often enough, you stopped having to think about it with the conscious part of your brain as the subconscious took over. This was basically to free up your head space to be able to process more important bits of information and learn new skills.
A very clever system, but what happens when the two parts of the brain disagree? This is what causes our internal conflict, one voice says you want to lose weight/stop smoking/drink less and the other tells you to eat the cake/have a fag/pour another glass etc... So we have to rely on the willpower of our conscious brain to override the urges provided by our subconscious. Unfortunately the subconscious rules about 90% of our behaviour, so it’s often only a matter of time until we end up “giving in” (usually when we lose our conscious focus to something else).
If a behaviour is pleasurable or helpful to our survival, we produce chemicals in the brain such as serotonin or dopamine which make us feel good, this makes our subconscious encourage us to do it again. A great survival mechanism when we were cavemen and had to hunt and gather for survival, but not quite so good in our modern environment when polishing off an entire packet of hobnobs.
Interestingly, the more dopamine we produce the less effective it becomes. So in a society when pleasurable behaviours are so easy to come by, the more often we end up having to repeat a behaviour to derive the same sense of satisfaction from it. Hence why we get addicted.
So now we understand how the conflict is created, we can reverse the process
When you consciously want to stop doing something, the subconscious will provide you with various emotional arguments to change your mind. The first step is to identify what conflicting thoughts your subconscious holds. For example:
- You deserve some chocolate cake as a treat.
- You enjoy smoking (this is one my brain used to come up with when I was a smoker!)
- You need a drink to have fun.
The second step is to analyse with your conscious mind if these beliefs are true.
- Is consuming empty calories and flooding your body with sugar really a treat? Or would you rather treat yourself to feeling fit, vibrant and healthy by exercising and eating well?
- Do you really enjoy inhaling those chemicals? Or would you rather a healthier way to take a break like a walk or meditation?
- Think of a fun time before you started drinking like Christmas or holidays as a child. What made it fun? So is it really alcohol that makes a situation fun or what you are doing and the people you are with?
Of course, these are just examples and subconscious beliefs will be different for everyone, but by thinking through this process with your conscious brain you can assess your thoughts logically and rationally and address what you need to change.
The third step is to simply repeat your new thought patterns until they become subconscious beliefs. Therefore slowly reducing the internal conflict.
Hypnotherapy is a great tool to assist you in this process, as when we are deeply relaxed our subconscious mind is much more open to new suggestions. So with a little bit of work on your part, a qualified hypnotherapist will be able to guide you through the process, often resulting in a far easier change than willpower alone.
With best wishes,
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About Melanie Gillespie
I am a friendly clinical hypnotherapist and psychotherapist based in Frenchay, Bristol. I offer a free initial consultation where I’m happy to explain how hypnotherapy works and answer any questions you have.