One of the surprising aspects of Solution Focused work is that we rarely talk with clients about the nature of their problem.
We obviously discuss why they’ve sought help at the initial consultation, but even then, we don’t encourage them to go into too much detail. We are much more interested in what they hope to gain by having hypnotherapy.
Clients seek help for a wide range of issues like lack of confidence, poor self-esteem, overthinking or lack of sleep.
They might even have anxiety related physical symptoms, such as irritable bowels, migraines, skin complaints or high blood pressure.
Some seek help because they have a behaviour they want to change, like skin picking or hair pulling.
Once clients understand how the brain works, they can see that these issues are not the cause of the problem. They are the symptoms of a brain that sees the world as a dangerous place. The original, primitive area of the brain then does what it does best. It protects us from the crisis by ramping up the fight-flight response. It floods our systems with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
It fires up systems that will get us away from the danger, so we get high blood pressure. It diverts energy away from systems not immediately needed for our survival, so we get irritable bowels. And we’re unlikely to sleep well.
One of the main principles of Solution Focused work is that the solution is not necessarily directly related to the problem.
So, rather than focus on why people are not sleeping, we instead help them cope better with the stresses in their lives. When they cope better, the level of their stress hormones reduces. With fewer stress hormones they sleep better, their blood pressure reduces, their tummy becomes more settled, they are more confident, they don’t pick their skin…
And the thought of not having to analyse the cause of their problems is one of the reasons some clients are attracted to the Solution Focused approach.
It’s counter-intuitive, but it works.
What’s your Preferred Future?
My primary role as a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist is to help people move towards their ‘preferred future’.
It’s a fabulous phrase and sums up the essence of the Solution Focused approach.
We’re taught specific questioning techniques to help people identify what their preferred future looks like.
And it’s often hard for clients to do that at first.
So many people become stuck in the past, simply because they rerun past hurts, mistakes or injustices. And it’s not unusual for people to want to replay those unhelpful scenes in the therapy room.
When I ask something like ‘if something in your life has shifted for the better, what would you notice that was different?’, clients often respond by telling me what’s wrong with their life now.
‘The trouble is, I am very anxious and I hate social situations’.
‘I wouldn’t be eating rubbish all evening’.
‘I’d be happy and calm <good answer>, rather than shouting at the kids and arguing with my husband <not so good>’.
The tendency to rehearse what’s wrong, rather than imagine what would be better is an automatic response. Part of my job is to help clients understand this style of negative thinking and help them retrain their brain to come up with positive answers.
Sometimes clients have strong beliefs that get in the way of opening up to change: ‘I have no will power’, ‘I have always been very stubborn and can’t back down’, ‘If I walk away from a problem, I am giving in.’
As a result they may find themselves stuck in a repeating cycle of behaviour that doesn’t serve them well. Their self-limiting beliefs are preventing them from enjoying life to the full.
When I hear these kinds of answers I remind clients of the phrase, ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’. And I help the client imagine a future where they are responding differently.
It’s not always easy to change ingrained habits of thought, it takes effort.
But the good news is, if you practise a new skill often and long enough, it becomes a subconscious response. Then you no longer have to apply any effort.
And if it means you achieve your preferred future, it’s surely worth it.
Have you ever noticed that you have a clearer perspective on things after a good night’s sleep? Or that you have more clarity and insight into issues at work after you’ve returned from a two week holiday?
Well, it’s no coincidence.
Cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios studies what goes on in our brains when we experience a moment of insight. He put it nicely: ‘Almost everyone has creative insights from time to time. But it is possible to cultivate these moments, too. People tend to have more creative insights when they are in a happy, relaxed mood.’
One way to solve a problem is to focus on the issue and use analytical thinking to come up with an answer. This can of course be very productive.
But what about those times when the answer just won’t come, no matter how hard we try?
This is when we need an Aha! moment, that flash of inspiration when a novel solution pops into our heads.
It turns out that these moments rarely arise through applying our conscious minds to the problem. They are much more likely to happen when we are out for a walk, or washing our hair or weeding the garden. When we are relaxed and not consciously thinking about the issue.
So, here are my top 3 tips for solving a difficult problem:
1. Build some downtime into your day.
There is a tendency in our culture to value hard work, even to glorify overwork. I see it in clients who are on the go from 6am to 10pm. They have no downtime.
If your brain is continually focused on the task at hand you are not accessing the background neural network that allows us to daydream and gain perspective. It can even impact on your ability to form memories.
When I was in my late twenties/early thirties I had a stupid work regime. I had a full-time job in IT and a parallel full-time commitment running a local charity. During this time I went on a narrow boat holiday with some friends and family. I have no recollection of that holiday. It’s only that there is photographic evidence that I know I was there at all.
For sure I was working hard, but there is no way that I could be in the slightest bit creative or come up with novel solutions.
Aha! moments don’t come from grinding work schedules, so cut yourself some slack and build some downtime into your life.
2. Get a good night’s sleep
Life is so much better when we get a good night’s sleep. If we sleep for 7 to 8 hours we go through several periods of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
REM sleep is really important for processing the events of the day and clearing your mind so you wake up with a clearer perspective. It’s when we have those really bizarre dreams when people and events from our past crop up in weird circumstances. They make no sense and are illogical when we think about them with our conscious minds.
But these illogical connections can serve a very useful purpose.
It seems that REM sleep helps us to make leaps of understanding that we couldn’t achieve with analytical cause-and-effect thinking. That mishmash of random thoughts can lead to incredible insights and there are plenty of examples of important scientific breakthroughs arising from dreams.
So, make sleep a priority. It is so important for our mental well-being.
3. Stop thinking about the problem
It sounds counter intuitive, but if you keep thinking about what’s wrong, how can you hope to find a solution?
It’s far better to take your mind off the problem and do something completely different. Your subconscious mind will continue to search for solutions, but you need to give it some space to be creative.
I remember years ago being in the garden with some friends and we were playing a ‘lateral thinking’ game. Each one of us read out a question from a pack of cards and the rest of us had to try and solve the riddle. You know the sort of thing: a horse is tied to a 5 foot long piece of rope, there is a pile of hay 8 feet away, how can the horse eat the hay? Jonathan Creek would solve it right away ,of course.
I’m not generally good at these things and, feeling a bit miffed at the thought of being shown up, I busied myself weeding the nearby border.
Weirdly, and for the first time in my life, I came up with correct answers to several of the conundrums.
Why? Because I wasn’t thinking about the problem that had been set. That allowed space for the Aha! moment to pop into my head.
So, if you’re struggling with a problem, distract yourself by doing something completely different.
One of the surprising things about our brains is that they are ‘plastic’. Not literally, of course. But they are mouldable.
What does that mean exactly? Well in neuroscience terms, it means that we can change the connections between our nerve cells (neurons). We can create new connections, strengthen existing connections and prune out old connections.
In wellbeing terms it means we can change the way we think. We can learn to be more positive, optimistic or confident. We can stop being anxious, fed up and fearful. And we can do this by paying attention to the way we think.
When we are born our minds are pretty much a blank canvass. Then life experiences and events shape the way we think. We may be influenced by parents, teachers, siblings and friends. It may be that we see the way they respond to situations and adopt their responses. It may be that we learn that by behaving in a certain way, we get attention.
If these experiences are nurturing and positive we stand a reasonable chance of being in a good headspace by the time we go out into the world.
But if we have had a hard time of things, we may struggle to find peace of mind. We may decide that life is not fair, or we are not worthy or there’s no point in trying something new because we won’t be any good at it. We have created a habit of looking on the gloomy side. This negative attitude becomes our reality.
But all is not lost. We can absolutely change our experience of life, simply by changing the way we think about things. I say ‘simply’. It’s a simple concept, but we need to apply some effort to learn how to do it.
The good news is though, like any new skill that we learn, the more we do something the easier it becomes. If we repeat the new behaviour often enough it becomes automatic, a subconscious habit. And that means we don’t have to apply so much conscious effort, we simply enjoy a new way of experiencing life.
So, how do we do this? Well a good start is simply to focus on what’s positive in your life.
There’s a great exercise that I do most days and it helps to keep my spirits up. Every day I find at least five good or nice things that I’ve done or have happened to me. It doesn’t have to be something major or earth-shattering. It could be something as simple as remembering to use my loyalty card at the supermarket.
When you do this kind of mental exercise regularly you soon notice a difference in your mood. And it’s fun.
So, are you up for taking your mind to the positivity gym? If you are, you’ll strengthen the connections in the area of your brain that’s geared for positivity and be able to change the way you think about things.
One of the Solution Focused techniques we use during therapy is to ask clients what would be different if a miracle happened, and they woke up to find life was just a little bit better.
I’ve lost track of the number of times clients have said something like ‘My children would be better behaved around bedtime’.
Now, here’s the thing. No amount of therapy that you have is going to change someone else. That’s just the way it is. They are not in the therapy room, so there is no motivation for them to change.
So, I will respond to these replies with something along the lines of ‘Well, let’s imagine they are not going to change, but you are coping better with their behaviour. What’s different about that?’
Now, instead of the client linking their happiness to someone else needing to change, we help them take responsibility for how they respond to the other person’s actions.
And then, something magical starts to happen. You see, I lied when I said the other person won’t change.
Typically, what happens is that when the client remains calmer with the kids at bedtime, the youngsters don’t react. The situation is less likely to escalate and there’s a chance everyone gets to bed in a much better mood.
This is obviously over-simplified, but the point is, if you keep playing the same game with the people around you, you will always receive the same response. Nothing changes if nothing changes.
So, if you were coping better with your children, neighbour, partner, boss or parent, what would you notice that was different?
It’s worth thinking about.