Written by Rory Z Fulcher
What is behavioural hypnotherapy?
Behavioural hypnotherapy is the application of hypnotherapy to modify unhelpful behaviours and problematic habits. The main goal of behavioural hypnotherapy is to create and reinforce more helpful, desirable behaviours, whilst removing the unwanted ones.
Behavioural hypnotherapy utilises the long-standing principles of behavioural psychology and behaviourism, which suggest that we learn from our environment and also, that our actions (behaviours) can be adapted to create new ways of responding. Behavioural therapy appeared during the early 20th century and has been an integral therapeutic approach for many talking therapists and hypnotherapists ever since.
In simple terms, unhelpful behaviours are ‘learned responses’ that used to be beneficial to the client in some way. Over time, that response has become less beneficial, or even problematic. Learning a new response behaviour can fix the problem, often a lot faster than working on the beliefs relating to the problem, and especially faster than taking a more analytical approach to gain insight about the problem.
Many hypnotherapists, rely on cognitive approaches, as well as analytical, insight-generation techniques and subconscious change work. However, many problems and goals can be more quickly and easily addressed by having the client take immediate action. This is where behavioural hypnotherapy is the perfect tool. In many client cases, the ‘behaviour’ is the problem. The behavioural hypnotherapist will direct the client to a new, healthier way of responding, developing new and helpful behaviours, in order to reduce or eliminate the issue.
Behavioural hypnotherapy techniques
Behavioural hypnotherapy draws from a range of behavioural psychotherapy modalities. The choice of approach will depend on the condition that the client requires help with, as well as how ‘severe’ or deep-seated the issue is. The majority of approaches that the behavioural hypnotherapist will use fall into two categories. Those categories relate to the two key types of behavioural conditioning, ‘classical conditioning’ and ‘operant conditioning’.
Classical conditioning in hypnotherapy
To use classical conditioning, the hypnotherapist creates an association between a behaviour and a ‘stimulus’. The stimulus will usually be something that creates a behavioural, cognitive or emotional response in the client. For example, linking the behaviour of beginning to light a cigarette with the response of feeling nauseous and disposing of the cigarette before it is even lit. After this stimulus and response is created and repeated, a ‘conditioned response’ is created. This association between the stimulus and the response will then naturally occur, outside of the hypnotherapy session. In fact, as well as working fantastically with humans, it’s also a great way to train animals too – it was discovered by Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov, who taught dogs that they would get fed when he rang a bell. After a while, even just the bell sound would start the dogs salivating!
Classical conditioning is a tried-and-tested way to change the behaviour of therapy clients. There are many therapeutic approaches that rely on classical conditioning, such as:
- Aversion therapy: The hypnotherapist creates a state of ‘aversion’ (disgust) in the client, and pairs the negative state to the unwanted behaviour. So, with the cigarette example above, the hypnotherapist might have the client imagine smoking a cigarette, and to experience a foul taste and smell at the same time. Aversion therapy is widely used outside of hypnosis, for example, giving an alcohol abuser a drug that interacts with alcohol in such a way that it causes vomiting and other unpleasant symptoms. Installing a conditioned aversion response with hypnotherapy is often a lot safer, physiologically, for the client.
- Flooding: Commonly used out of hypnosis to help with fears and phobias, the flooding process requires that a client is exposed to an intense fear-provoking situation/object, and is prevented from stopping or avoiding the situation. There are few hypnotherapy techniques that incorporate flooding, as it can be very disturbing for clients, especially those without sufficient ego strength and internal resources to deal with the flooding process. However, flooding can be more commonly used as a ‘homework task’ for clients, where clients opt to experience the previous fear trigger after having set the client up to be able to cope in that situation with other hypnotherapy approaches, such as the following:
- Systematic desensitisation: Gradual and systematic desensitisation is a fantastic way for hypnotherapy clients to learn to accept and tolerate anxiety provoking situations/stimuli. With hypno-desensitisation, a client is taken into a deep state of relaxation, and then concentrates on imaginary scenes relating to their anxiety, starting with the least bothersome, and gradually progressing to the more anxiety invoking scenes that relate to their issue.
Operant conditioning in hypnotherapy
Operant conditioning is, quite simply, about reward and punishment. When positive reinforcement is given after a client behaves in a certain way, they are more likely to replicate that (wanted) behaviour. Conversely, when a client is ‘punished’ for repeating an unwanted behaviour, this negative reinforcement creates a conditioned response that makes the client less willing to repeat the troublesome behaviour again in the future.
In hypnosis, the behavioural hypnotherapist will have the client imagine scenarios relating to their issue, and will incorporate either a punishment or a reward element into the process. For example, with a weight loss client, the hypnotherapist may have the client imagine binge eating an unhelpful food, and then afterwards, imagine feeling physically ill (classical conditioning: aversion), whilst also reprimanding themselves and experiencing remorse for their actions (punishment). With that same client, the hypnotherapist might take the client through some future pacing scenarios where they performed positive behaviours, and then have them imagine standing in front of a mirror in order to notice their successful weight loss. The hypnotherapist would then give the client a great deal of praise for this future success, creating a tangible link between their success and an emotional reward (praise).
The hypnotherapy ‘contract for action’ is another fantastically useful operant conditioning tool, whereby the therapist and client enter into a formal contract that outlines the intended goals, as well as showing potentially rewards for success and consequences for failure to adhere to the contract for action. This is something a therapist may both give to the client as ‘homework’, but also to use and reinforce within the hypnotherapy session itself.
What behavioural therapy can help with
Behavioural hypnotherapy is widely used to treat a number of conditions and issues, such as:
- Anger management
- Childhood anxiety disorders
- Headaches and migraines
- Memory enhancement
- Nail biting
- Pain management
- Panic attacks/disorder
- Performance anxiety
- Psychosexual disorders
- Skin conditions
- Smoking cessation
- Sport hypnosis
- Stress management
- Trauma and PTSD
- Weight management
With some conditions/issues, a behavioural approach will be the main type of therapy used by the hypnotherapist. With other conditions, the use of behavioural hypnotherapy can be supported by cognitive, analytical and regression approaches, and working holistically with a range of therapy modalities.
Potential limitations of behavioural hypnotherapy
As mentioned above, behavioural hypnotherapy has a multitude of advantages, and is a highly effective therapy tool. However, there can be disadvantages too. These usually occur when a hypnotherapist is using behavioural approaches as a ‘standalone’ approach, where in some cases, it may not provide a full resolution.
A key disadvantage with behavioural approaches is that they may not factor in any underlying influences that are contributing to an issue. Some clients can have secondary gains, unhelpful beliefs or other ‘non-behavioural’ reasons for maintaining an unhelpful habit. As such, a broader approach can sometimes be required. Behavioural hypnotherapy alone may also not take the ‘full picture’ into account. So, it may give a client some behavioural strategies to put into place, but it may not deal with how situations and interpersonal relationships might also be contributing to an issue.
As a rule, a professional hypnotherapist will get a good grounding in the four key therapy modalities (behavioural, cognitive, analytical and regression), in order that they can work effectively with any client and condition.
How to learn behavioural hypnotherapy
If you are interested in learning behavioural hypnotherapy, the best route to take is a practitioner-level hypnotherapy qualification. These are available both online and in person, and as well as teaching behavioural hypnotherapy, you will also learn a vast range of complementary approaches (as mentioned above). For information about exactly what’s covered on the HypnoTC Hypnotherapy Diploma Course, click here:
Otherwise, if you’d prefer to learn hypnotherapy from the comfort of your own home, our Live-Online Hypnotherapy Certificate Course is a great option. We hope you enjoyed this blog about behavioural hypnotherapy. If you have any questions about this topic or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Rory Z Fulcher