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The unconscious and the conscious mind in hypnotherapy

Many clients ask me the difference between the subconscious and the unconscious. There isn't really a difference, it's just different professionals use different terminology; in this article, I will use the terminology of each researcher mentioned. The difference between conscious and unconscious is much more interesting. It is suggested that the unconscious is the part of your mind that allows you to remember things, like your birthday. In your conscious mind, you are not currently thinking of your birthday, but if you ask yourself for it, your subconscious will shift to the conscious level.  

Sigmund Freud was interested in the unconscious mind and its relationship with the conscious mind. In 1915 he described the conscious mind comprising all of the mental processes that are in our awareness, these include hunger, thirst, tiredness, etc. He described the mind in this way to help explain his complex psychoanalytical theory. The identity, the ego and the superego are described as functioning at different levels of consciousness, while the ability to memorise or influence will constantly shift from one level to another through interaction between the three.  

In 1970 psychiatrist Ellengberger wrote The Discovery of the Unconscious, a book exploring the origins of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy back to prehistory. Reading the work of Gassner and the important works of Mesmer, Puysegur, Charcot and Freud, Adler and Jung, he believed that the unconscious was a real entity.

Hypnotherapy and the unconscious

In psychology, the unconscious is the part of consciousness that is not in that moment, working within awareness. Janet suggested that the powerful unconscious was underneath the layers of critical thought processes. He suggested that it stores knowledge and memory because there is a limit to how much information can be stored in the conscious mind.

Others suggest that the unconscious is a collection of all that is received through the senses, and any other information that the mind collects that cannot be used in conscious processes. It protects the conscious mind from information overload. It stores information that can be retrieved when it is needed, also storing information that has not been fully processed or is not understood, for example, you might have an instinct about something but you don’t know why.

Gavin De Becker discussed this as the elicitation of the unconscious thought processes and the way that the conscious mind usually controls reactions, even though the subconscious is working.

Bargh and Morsella explored the concept of the unconscious mind, suggesting that there is now real evidence that the unconscious mind is as adaptable, multifaceted, controlling and deliberative as the conscious mind. They suggested that there are a number of independent, unconscious behavioural guidance systems, which are perceptual, evaluative and motivational. They concluded that actions of the unconscious mind come before the actions of the conscious mind. 

How hypnotherapy works with the unconscious mind

There are a substantial number of different techniques used in hypnotherapy, many working with the unconscious mind. Below are a few examples:

Suggestion hypnotherapy is common and involves offering a series of suggestions to a client during treatment. The aim of this is to help the client find it easier to achieve something in their conscious state, for example, to lose weight or stop an addiction. This technique is often used when there doesn’t seem to be an underlying cause or in short-term therapy.

Analytical hypnotherapy or hypnoanalysis is often useful when working with deeper issues and it involves the use of psychotherapy within hypnosis. There may be a deep-rooted problem that suggestion therapy could actually mask. This is a far longer process and aims to solve rather than manage.

Cognitive hypnotherapy is different from traditional forms. It integrates a number of different theories, including positive psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). It provides an individual approach to the client’s needs.

Cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy, together with a progressive muscle relaxation is an evidence-based therapy that targets anxiety, developed by Ost in Sweden. This method has been adapted to help treat a range of different problems and research has seen effective results regarding treatment of general anxiety disorder. This method is often recommended for use with worry management and low-level stress. It is similar to hypnotic desensitisation.

Hypnotherapy and the unconscious

The use of metaphors in hypnosis make use of personal stories to create a metaphor that will cause positive change. In hypnosis, metaphors relate to transferred relationships, attention placement feelings, beliefs, values and suppositions. Jung defined a metaphor as a word or a symbol that implies something more than its superficial meaning, that it has implicit meaning to the subconscious. This meaning can be explored in order to assist people to work through transformation of thoughts, ideas and healing.  

The subconscious has a well-researched history and its applications to hypnotherapy are very interesting. However, research still has a long way to go before the mechanisms of the mind are fully understood. Despite this, current knowledge informs effective hypnotherapy practice.

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