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I Use Hypnosis to Help People Stop at One Drink

In some cases, the best mixer for hard liquor is hypnotherapy

U.K.-based Ailsa Frank has been practicing hypnotherapy since 2005, and offering specific treatment sessions for people who want to drink less since 2009. Over that time, she’s worked with thousands of people trying to change their relationship with alcohol. Here’s what a treatment is like — and how she started mixing booze and hypnosis in the first place.

Hypnotherapy is like other forms of talk therapy, except that I speak to your subconscious instead of your conscious mind.

Your subconscious is a bit like a cupboard in the back of your mind — a storage facility that contains all your habits and patterns. Here’s a good example: When you learn to tie your shoelaces as a kid, at first, you have to consciously think of how to do so. But once you’ve learnt it, it goes into your subconscious cupboard as a learned habit and pattern.

When you learn to drink — because we get messages about drinking all the time and do learn that drinking accomplishes certain things for us — you begin your own relationship with alcohol. It’s your own drinking habit if you will, in the truest sense of the word. By that I mean, a drinking habit doesn’t mean a drinking problem, it simply means the way you habitually relate to alcohol. In the same way someone might have a reading habit or an exercise habit. We can say “program” or “behavior” if “habit” makes people uncomfortable, but it’s the way you understand and relate to alcohol, you know?

Anyway, once you’ve learnt it, it goes into the subconscious. So when you consciously try to drink less — when you say, “Okay, tonight I’m having one glass of wine, and that’s it” — it’s hard, because your subconscious has this automatic program that’s giving you the old way that you’ve learned to behave with alcohol.

It’s the same way you tie your shoes after you’ve learned it — your hands just tie them. You don’t even think about it. Your drinking becomes automatic as well. That’s where people find it difficult to make a change. For instance, if people take a week off alcohol or do Dry January, they force themselves not to drink, but the habit hasn’t changed. Nor has the lifestyle. When they go back to drinking then, they drink in the same way.

With hypnotherapy, we’re actually breaking the drinking habits and replacing them with new ways of living in relation to alcohol — of being comfortable being out and having just one drink; of not feeling like you need to order another one; of not ordering one at all.

Both with a one-on-one session and with the downloadable recordings, I talk you through a relaxation exercise, a lot like the final minutes of yoga classes where you bring attention to your breath and the feeling of your body on the mat, and where the messages can wash over you.

Next, I take you through a process in which I say the words in a very specific way. In the Stop Binge Drinking for Women tracks, for example, after the relaxation exercise, I have you visualize holding a glass of water, really feeling the curve of the glass and the coolness of the condensation on the outside — the true feeling of holding that container of liquid. Then I have you visualize yourself in a social setting holding that glass of water. As you visualize yourself there, I talk you through feeling calm and confident with that glass of water. I focus on the ways that “having a good time” means being in good company and good humor, and not on what, or how much, you’re drinking. The idea being that the water washes away the reliance on alcohol.

Everyone is different, though, so I tailor each session to deal with the emotions behind a patient’s drinking. Are they drinking to reduce stress or to feel more social? Are they grieving? Are they embarrassed or ashamed of how much they drink?

Also: What are their goals? Do they want to drink less? Drink less in a night? Stop altogether?

That said, the end goal is always the same: To help them get back in control of their drinking and to view alcohol as something they consciously choose to partake in and notice the effects of, rather than say, getting sloshed because they were at the pub all night and didn’t know what to do without drinking.

Some people notice changes in 24 hours. For others, it takes several weeks. A sign of change would be going to get a drink out of the fridge but putting it back because you think, I don’t actually want this. Or you go out socially and just get a sparkling water because you think, I don’t want anything harder.

Unlike a lot of hypnotherapists and AA, however, I don’t focus on getting people to stop drinking completely. That’s a big decision, and many people still want to have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer on Friday night. If it’s alcohol that’s helping them relax and get through the week, I don’t want to take that from them. I want to address the root causes of their stress. Because when the need for alcohol diminishes, they can be natural and normal with it.

In the end then, my treatments give people the ability to leave wine in a glass or beer in a bottle, and to realize that it’s like a bottle of ketchup or soy sauce — you wouldn’t drink the whole thing, you’d just have a small amount.

That’s at least the conversation I’m having with your subconscious.

—As told to Haley Hamilton