There’s an interesting new treatment that has been shown to be effective with anxiety and addictions and which is now being tested for PTSD. It’s called Cognitive-bias modification (CBM) and can have a positive effect in a short space of time.
It is based on the idea that many psychological problems are caused by unconscious biases. For example, if a brain has an attentional bias towards threats it’s likely to lead to anxiety. An obvious example of a more specific bias would be a phobia, where the brain is strongly biased to find an object like a dog or a spider threatening, or a situation frightening , like public speaking.
What CBM is looking to achieve is to alter these biases, and they’ve found doing so is surprisingly simple (of course I would say, so have we). Their approach is to sit someone in front of a computer screen and show them two words or pictures, one neutral and one negative – so in the case of someone with social anxiety it could be a neutral face and a threatening face. Clearly their bias will cause them to automatically focus on the threatening face. The computer program, however, causes them to complete tasks involving the neutral picture. Repeating this procedure around a thousand times over a two hour period retrains the brain to no longer focus on the negative – and that change is carried back into the world.
I found this interesting because in Cognitive Hypnotherapy we also focus on such biases. We believe that all behaviour has a purpose, so any negative behaviour that a client wants to change is the result of an unconscious bias the brain has learnt to value. Negative behaviour is just the brains response to something it’s learnt to believe is relevant to our survival. I’ll give an example: We all have moments in our life when we’ve felt that we’re not as good as other people (or is it just me, my students and my clients?). This can lead to us experiencing various degrees of fear – of rejection, or failure – or anxiety, or anger or jealousy. The list goes on.
My point is that each of us will respond to what happens to us in a unique, and not entirely predictable way as our attentional biases develop based on the meaning we give to the things that happen to us. An experience of childhood abuse may turn one person into an abuser, and the other into a social worker. A perception of rejection could lead to someone becoming celibate or promiscuous, a feeling of being unloved to a life of obesity or anorexia. And the fact that all of the negative events could lead to any one of the problems described is why we do not believe in diagnosing problems. Labels limit. Each client has arrived at their problem behaviour through a unique series of life events, and each is maintained by a unique pattern of thoughts and behaviours. In Cognitive Hypnotherapy we map this problem pattern and match it to interventions from a range of approaches that fit the client – not the label – in order to change their biases. CBM is a welcome addition, and we see Cognitive Hypnotherapy as a model that informs therapists about which choices are most likely to work with which client, rather than see each approach as a silver bullet aimed at a particular diagnosis.
I think it’s inevitable that in our life journey our brain is bound to develop these attentional biases: some things in our environment will be viewed as more relevant to us than others because of what the brain has learnt (or mis-learnt) they represent – that food is love, people equal danger, or cigarettes equal company. Our brain is plastic, so anything can become associated with any meaning – which is why you might be the only person in the room who stands on a chair in the presence of a mouse, or who stuffs cake after an emotional day.
We suggest these negative behaviours arise because, if the relevance is accompanied by a strong emotional reaction, the bias could lead to control being wrenched away from you by your unconscious and it launching you into an automatic action intended to protect or reward you; an action you have little or no control over. For want of a better word we call this a trance. A jealous rage, eating the chocolate that you know you don’t need, smoking the fag you want to quit, running away from the thing you shouldn’t be afraid of, becoming tongue tied in the presence of someone you want to impress; in Cognitive Hypnotherapy they’re all examples of trance states the unconscious generates in order to control your actions.
On our hypnotherapy courses we train our therapists to identify these trance states, and we teach a wide variety of techniques to help each client adapt their biases so the unconscious no longer feels the need to respond to a situation that used to be negative. In effect we’re ‘de-hypnotists’: we enable the client to remain awake and in control of their actions during the times when they used to be at the mercy of their biases. And then we go further. We help them introduce attentional biases into their unconscious that leads to them becoming more aware of everything around them that would be evidence of their improvement. How much better would you life be if your unconscious was tuned to choose first those things around you that leave you feeling loved, secure, safe and happy? We think that’s eminently doable.