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3 Ways to Use Classical Conditioning in Therapy and Counselling

Or why I'm a chocoholic

Pavlovs Dog
Classical conditioning happens in the therapy room too, so you might as well use it!

Well into adulthood, my mouth would water whenever I heard a key turning in a lock.

You may be wondering what on earth happened to me!

The answer is, nothing particularly odd.

You see, when I was a child, my mother worked and couldn’t be at home to greet me when I came in from school. I didn’t mind being a ‘latchkey kid’, but to assuage her own guilt about it, she would bring me a chocolate bar. So I would eagerly wait to hear her key turn in the lock, announcing my daily treat.

In the process, my mother inadvertently ‘trained’ my brain to trigger my salivary glands at the mere sound of metal scraping on metal. The turning key ‘primed’ my expectation of some soon-to-be-gobbled-up chocolate.

We are all Pavlov’s dogs

Long before my latchkey kid days, Ivan Pavlov famously demonstrated the same principle – what he termed ‘conditioning’  – by ringing a bell whenever he fed his dogs. Pretty soon, the dogs would salivate whenever they heard a bell, whether food was offered or not. (This type of conditioning is also known as ‘classical conditioning’ or ‘respondent conditioning’).

Classical conditioning works because it uses the brain’s ability to pattern match. Some of these are innate (such as a baby knowing the shape and feel of a nipple) and pattern matches can be learned too, as with Pavlov’s dogs.

We all perceive and respond to the world through the automatic associations of pattern matching. When something happens in the environment (a scream, an offer of a cup of tea, the sound of a key in a lock), we produce a suitable response (jump out of our skin, smile and say “Yes please!”, salivate).

We all perceive and respond to the world through the automatic associations of pattern matching.

The problem with pattern matching

How do we know which response to choose? The brain performs a lightning fast search of our repertory of inherited and learned pattern matches for the stimulus and triggers the matched response before we’ve even had time to think. It works quite automatically and unconsciously.

This automatic pattern matching can be useful, but it can also cause problems, like when a spider is automatically matched to fear. Addictive, depressive, or traumatic pattern matches cause untold misery for millions.

Fortunately, we therapists can also make use of the power of pattern matching to help our clients.

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Here are 3 effective ways to use the power of pattern matching for therapeutic benefit

1. Use words

Words are all about association. A word is just a ‘block of sound’, of course, but we very quickly learn some powerful pattern matches to words.

For example, think of the worst swear word you know. Now imagine saying that word to a three-month-old baby. (I’m not recommending you actually do this!) The baby will not react, because they have no pattern match to the word; they haven’t learned to associate it with any specific meaning. To them, it is just a meaningless noise.

But say that same ‘meaningless noise’ to your boss and you’ll see the pattern match well and truly demonstrated!

Words are powerful because we give them power. When you want to evoke a particular positive state in your client, you can associate that state – be it confidence, calm, being in the zone, or whatever – with a particular word or phrase. You can do this through having them strongly imagine feeling calm when they think the word or, more powerfully and quickly, by using hypnosis if you’re trained to do so.

If Pavlov had been able to use his interest in hypnosis to get his dogs to hypnotically imagine eating every time he said the word ‘bell’, then the dogs would have experienced automatic unwanted drooling just as effectively.

So, I might repeat the word ‘now’ every time I help a client evoke a positive state. Then I suggest that when they say “Now!” to themselves before they make their presentation or go on their big date, they’ll automatically feel positive. The word becomes their talisman to take with them to trigger good feelings.

2. Use places

Places can have very strong associations. People who had a bad time in school decades ago might find themselves feeling inexplicably uncomfortable if they have to enter a school classroom or similar setting as an adult. They experience a pattern match to the environment, even if they may have forgotten all about what happened.

In the same way, someone with a dental phobia can trigger extreme anxiety in themselves with the mere thought of sitting in a dentist’s waiting room.

But on the positive side, if you want someone to, say, feel confident at work, you can get them to imaginatively (or hypnotically) rehearse a pattern match of ‘going through the front door’ as a cue to ‘feel calm and in control’.

3. Use physical patterns

If you go out for an evening of hilarity with a much loved and very witty friend, you may find after a while that anything they say is hysterical. This is because you’ve been primed to associate the sound of their voice with laughter.

If they were to subtly touch you on the shoulder each time they made you laugh uproariously, then pretty soon you might find that just the touch brings a smile to your face, even if they haven’t just cracked another joke.

I use this pattern match often by asking my clients to squeeze thumb and forefinger together every time I help them to evoke a positive feeling in hypnosis.

If we do this enough, after a while (and sooner than you might think) just the act of bringing thumb and forefinger together can make them feel empowered.

We can then hypnotically rehearse them bringing their fingers together as they go into that interview room or as they step out onto the stage. Physical pattern matches can be very strong.

Never forget that pattern matching is going on all the time

If a therapist or counsellor works out of the old orthodoxy that all therapy must be painful and focuses exclusively on getting the client to dig up and analyze the unhappy past, it’s not surprising if the client finds themselves feeling tearful just entering the ‘therapy room’. All the bad feelings they have encountered in the therapy room turns visiting a therapist into one big negative pattern match.

That’s why I practise and teach solution-focused therapy, concentrating on a person’s resources to meet clear therapy goals, so that clients leave a session with me feeling empowered and calm. I strive through my voice, appearance, clinic, actions and word choice to elicit a positive automatic association in my clients at just the thought of coming to talk to me.

Speaking of positive automatic associations, did I just hear a key in the door…? Mmmmmm…!

To most effectively use pattern matching for therapeutic benefit, I recommend learning hypnosis.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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