Is Hypnotherapy the Cure for Addiction?

By Wendi Friesen CHT 05/07/15

Hypnotherapy:  Is using hypnosis for addiction brainwashing or cutting edge science?

Hypnotherapy:  Hypnosis for Addiction?

Hypnosis has a long track record of effective application in health care settings as well as a long history of use for entertainment purposes. The mixed reputation should not get in the way of objectively investigating its efficacy as a treatment for addictive disorders. Certified hypnotherapist Wendi Friesen argues that hypnotherapy deserves a place in the treatment of addictive disorders….Richard Juman 

Hypnotherapists have been helping their clients stop drinking, smoking and using drugs for years with great success. Until recently, very little was known about how the brain could just turn off the desire for alcohol or drugs, and how the subconscious mind could stop the addictive urges when a person has been hypnotized. When I started working with drug misusers and alcoholics, I really felt their desperation and hopelessness. Most of them had tried years of 12 stepping, failed, tried again and again, and failed again and again. Most of my clients came to me believing that nothing would work.

The hard truth is that the work I am doing is a result of my own tears, anguish, sadness and desperation. I have been through the desperation of being the mother of a child who struggled with addiction, the tortured family of a child who struggled to find the right kind of help. It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results; I think that this statement could be applied to the current state of affairs in addiction treatment. And it is time to look at the science of how the brain works, how the subconscious mind controls our life and how to change it for good.

Over 20 years ago, I became a hypnotherapist. The results with my clients surprised me right away, especially for addiction issues. It just did not make sense that something as simple as hypnosis could be so powerful. Hypnotherapists use techniques that are specifically created to change the triggers in the brain, stop self-sabotage issues, release trauma and redirect the neural networks in the brain. When I started applying these same processes to my clients who needed addiction help, I found that their addictive behaviors frequently stopped and that their fear of relapse was also often gone.

How does a person become “relapse proof” and not live in constant fear of relapse? In 12-step treatment you are taught that you will always be an alcoholic, or addict, and that you are always going to be fighting to not relapse. 

Are you an addict for life? Calling yourself an addict or alcoholic is a constant reinforcement of your weakness. I believe that the repetition of the statement increases one’s susceptibility to relapse. From a hypnotherapy perspective, we have to stop owning the identity of being an addict.

When somebody says, “I’m George and I am an alcoholic,” it forces his mind to find all of the weakness and fear involved in identifying oneself as an “addict.” The repetition over the years reinforces this belief. The negative memories and connections in his brain are constantly ignited by the repetition. When a hypnotherapist helps a client, we start by changing the identity and beliefs that are causing the problem and create a new identity about who the client is now. When this is applied to addiction, some miraculous things happen.

One reason that hypnosis is so effective is that it changes a person's deepest beliefs about who they are. I believe that when a person quits an addiction, they need to be something other than an “addict in recovery” for the rest of their life. An obvious weakness of 12-step programs is that they actually force you to keep the “addict” or “alcoholic” identity for life. Seeing oneself as powerless, as AA encourages people to do, is a mind-bogglingly misguided concept for hypnosis experts. This belief is exactly the opposite of what the mind needs to end a habit, addiction or compulsive behavior. Instead of telling someone what they are not, we implant an identity about what they are and what they want to be. We create a positive identity of being healthy, in control, powerful and free from a disease.

A hypnotherapist will typically work on a client’s core issues, such as memories that make the person weak and fearful. As we know, a chronic substance misuser has a deep and powerful memory bank of failure, fears and hopelessness. Changing the way the brain reacts to these memories actually stops the cravings and the desire for drugs or alcohol.

But here is the real problem: In AA and 12-step meetings, members’ minds are saturated with beliefs about the fear, the failure, the expectation of relapse and the need to surrender and be powerless. This is very destructive. One is taught to believe that she is powerless, diseased, susceptible, one drink away, “you have not yet hit bottom,” “always an addict,”etc. Those are beliefs that actually contribute to relapse. Since I know how the brain reacts to these negative beliefs and triggers, it is no wonder that so many of my clients come to me after years of repeated failure in 12-step programs. 

In strong contrast, I believe that to end addiction, people need to surround themselves with positive beliefs about being healthy and having the power to stay strong and in control. And this is where hypnosis makes some deep and lasting changes.

How does hypnosis work by helping people change deep-seated beliefs about themselves? When people experience hypnotherapy for quitting problematic drug use, or drinking, they experience something quite the opposite of what is happening in traditional treatment centers. First, a client will go into an imaginary future moment to meet his healthy, clean and powerful self. Meeting his future self will feel very real to the client—he will see, hear, feel and watch his future self being totally free from addiction and free from cravings. He will observe his future self having healthy relationships, creating a business or doing work that he loves and living a healthy life that gives him a powerful feeling of self-worth.

After he observes his future self, he will be asked to go inside of his future self. He will feel what it is like to be free from addiction. He will also feel what it’s like to no longer have the doom and gloom of spending the rest of his life as an “addict in recovery.” Inside of this future self, he will experience some big changes. His subconscious mind will integrate the new beliefs, values, self-worth and purpose.

With the old beliefs and triggers released, the hypnosis can then create a new belief and a new healthy identity. By meeting one’s healthy future self, one changes the way one’s brain reacts to drug and alcohol memories and triggers. The client is no longer an addict, but a person who is strong, healthy and in control. The client can begin to experience himself living a life that gives him the rewards and accomplishments that are needed to stay clean and sober.

How can the change happen so fast? 
We know that the brain is constantly changing. The neuroplasticity of the brain allows hypnosis to create new neural connections. In the past, if a client saw her favorite bar, or a friend pour a glass of wine, her brain would use these neural pathways to trigger the emotions, needs, pleasure and cravings for alcohol. She would be struggling very hard to not drink.
 With hypnosis, we can actually re-wire the response that the subconscious mind has to the sight, smell or thought about alcohol—forcing the mind to trigger an entirely new feeling. When the client is exposed to any of the triggers, her brain doesn’t automatically respond in the old way because it feels stronger and healthier. The very thing that used to cause cravings and relapse now actually reinforces the commitment to not drink or use.

We like to say, “If you fire it, you wire it.” When a person is seeing, feeling and experiencing himself having the healthy life that is free from addiction, and experiencing himself as having long ago put addiction in his past, his brain creates a new memory. He is actually growing new neural pathways. These neural networks get wired together to make the new reactions very real.

A woman who used hypnosis to quit drinking said that now, when she is in the wine section of the grocery store, she feels like dancing. The sight of all that wine makes her instantly feel the love of her freedom. No cravings, just dancing and reinforcement of her decision.

We all know the power of the subconscious mind. A person who has a snake phobia can’t even look at a picture of a snake without panicking. Someone who has a fear of flying starts to tremble at the very thought of taking a flight. These triggers are out of one’s conscious control. The same thing happens with drug and alcohol addiction.

If you are struggling to obtain a stable recovery in 12-step groups, ask yourself: Do 12-step groups program you to fail? 
 When you repeatedly go to meetings, your subconscious mind is programmed to be powerless to the drugs or alcohol and you’re programmed to believe that you have an incurable disease. You listen to stories of struggle and you are told that you should fear relapse. From a hypnotherapist’s perspective this makes no sense if you want to get over a problem.

I could hypnotize you to believe that one drink is going to destroy all your progress. Or I can help you to understand that one drink means nothing more than a drink, and that you really only want a few sips. Or you might notice that even a sip of alcohol makes you realize what you really do want for your life, and strengthen your commitment to abstinence. 

A variety of published studies have begun to demonstrate the effectiveness of hypnosis for addictive disorders

Intensive Therapy: Utilizing Hypnosis in the Treatment of Substance Abuse Disorders

Israel Medical Association

Research on Hypnosis for Alcohol Drug Addiction

Research on the effectiveness of hypnosis with addictive disorders may still be in its infancy, but based on my own experience with thousands of clients, I have no doubt that hypnosis is a powerful tool in this arena. What do you need to know before getting started with hypnotherapy for addiction? A hypnotherapist, who is a professional, has taken a specialized training course, along with continuing specialty workshops, seminars and conferences where they learn the best modalities. Many hypnotherapists do not have much training in addiction work, so you want to find one that is well trained in addiction and relapse prevention.

People who want to moderate their drinking, rather than quit, are also able to do this with hypnosis. I have many clients who tell me they tried a drink and only had a few sips and lost interest. In my own experience with clients, they seem to stick with sobriety rather than drinking in moderation. They just seem to enjoy sobriety more.

My work with addiction has shown some truly miraculous results. A man who had been addicted to cocaine for 12 years listened to one of my free hypnosis sessions and instantly stopped. 
The hypnosis session he listened to simply took him into the future to a time where his life was healthy, happy and drug-free. He quit that day and never looked back—and he contacted me six months later to tell me about this and to celebrate.

Another client used the Alcohol Freedom program to change his life after years of problem drinking and multiple failed treatment attempts. He was in his forties, had failed repeatedly at all rehab attempts and felt totally without hope. He believed that nothing would work, but he is now a triathlete who "loves shocking people who remember him as a '250 pound beer-drinking slob.'” In our sessions, I took him into his future and he saw himself as a triathlete. This guy had never been an athlete, but his subconscious mind saw and felt the transformation as if it had already happened. So he started training. Drinking was not a possibility for him since he was focused on something he really wanted. His subconscious mind had already experienced his Ironman self as a reality. Now, he actually travels the world as an Ironman triathlete.

“Stephanie” came to me after years of overdrinking and, although skeptical, now easily has one drink and is happy. "If I do have a drink, it is always only one and then I switch to water. I never could have imagined it could be this easy for me.” 

Is it this miraculous for everyone? Often, it is. It’s a process that varies from client-to-client, but for most people, the process does get started when they go into their future in the very first session. In contrast to programs based on 12-step principles, where members never get to experience themselves as strong, healthy people, hypnotherapy is a positive-charges experience. Not all hypnotherapists know how to change the triggers in the brain that are causing cravings and relapse, so again, if you seek out hypnotherapy be sure that the hypnotherapist is experienced in working with addictive disorders. 

Your hypnotherapist should not advise you on how to detox, or give you any medical advice, and should only work with you after you have detoxed. We are experts in relapse prevention. Hypnotherapy does not produce any harmful results. It is a very positive experience that changes everything you were taught about addiction and how you are supposed to feel about your future.

Wendy Friesen, CHT is a certified hypnotherapist who has been working in addiction treatment for over 20 years and is committed to changing the way that addiction is treated. She is the founder of The Addiction Project, which trains therapists and counselors around the world to use the Addiction Freedom program help everyone who wants to quit their addiction.

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Wendi Friesen is a hypnotherapist and founder of The Addiction Project,  an organization that trainsn therapists, coaches, counselors and treatment centers in the use The Addiction Freedom method to help addicts stop the struggle and prevent relapse. You can find Wendi on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.