When you think of hypnosis, do you envision someone on stage crawling on all fours or flapping their arms like a chicken? In cartoons, a person would swing a pocket watch in front of another person’s eyes, repeating, “you are getting sleepy.” This is often the “hypnosis” entertainment seen on stages at bars, all-inclusive resorts, or on TV. Although you may get a chuckle from this, and it may be entertaining, hypnosis is much more than a show. Therapeutic hypnosis is complex and very different from what you see in these other settings.
Hypnotherapy can be used to treat various health issues and behaviors. For example, it is commonly used to treat anxiety and depression, weight loss, quitting smoking, and even to reduce the side effects of some cancer treatments.
When you are in a hypnotic state, you are still in control, unlike what is often portrayed. This state of being is quite normal and common. In fact, you have probably experienced a hypnotic state before, even if you haven’t been professionally hypnotized. It can happen when you are driving to work, washing the dishes, or lost in a task. Routine experiences can trigger your brain to do some “maintenance” by putting you in a hypnotic state.
Therapeutic hypnosis consists of several parts. The first part is informed consent. Before you begin, you will speak with the therapist, ask questions, and consent to the hypnosis. The next step is hypnotic induction, where a therapist brings you into a hypnotic trance. A digital metronome or guided verbal instruction will help focus your attention to get you into this state. Initially, you will start off by visualizing calming imagery. These calming thoughts help get you into a hypnotic state. After you are in a hypnotic trance, the therapist will use specific scripts to help you achieve your therapeutic goals. The suggestions presented will be tailored to the specific symptoms or medical issues you want to address. The final step of the session is the ending hypnosis. This is when you are gently guided back to being fully aware and alert.
If you find you have sleep-induced anxiety when you lay on your millet pillow at night, you may benefit from hypnotherapy. Hypnosis can be used to help with some sleep disorders and improve the quality of your sleep. For example, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine looked at 24 different research papers and stated that evidence showed that hypnosis could benefit sleep.
According to the Sleep Foundation, sleep hypnosis aims to change negative thoughts or habits around sleep. Although it may be effective when used alone, it is also often used alongside other forms of counseling, such as CBT.
Sleep hypnosis follows the traditional format of therapeutic hypnosis. In many cases, it is advised to undergo hypnotherapy only under the guidance of a trained professional; however, some research has shown that self-hypnosis for sleep may be beneficial. For example, one study looked at cancer survivors and found that they received some benefits when they followed audio recordings at home.
Research has found that by reorienting thoughts and emotions and encouraging relaxation, hypnosis can be helpful in enhancing sleep. It can be especially beneficial for those with insomnia. Some studies have found that hypnosis prompted increased slow-wave sleep, which helps physical and mental recovery. Additionally, as stress is a significant factor in many sleep issues, by reducing stress, those who undergo hypnosis can sleep better at night.
Hypnotherapy is often used to modify behaviors which can also be applied to sleep hygiene. For example, hypnosis can help you cut back on your intake of coffee or alcohol or follow the same sleep schedule.
Hypnosis is like a meditative state that you can access for therapeutic purposes - no meditation pillow required. When you start to undergo hypnosis, you feel your breath begin to slow. Your arms will go limp, your hands will relax, and you will feel a sense of weightlessness. This feeling is often compared to the moments when you are close to sleep but still have some awareness. As your body relaxes, your brain activity also changes.
You are more open and suggestible when you are in this trance-like state. This state allows a therapist to make suggestions based on your needs. As such, hypnosis is effective for increasing confidence, quitting smoking, diminishing cravings, easing anxiety, and dealing with trauma.
Hypnosis is also commonly used for weight loss. Research has found that hypnosis can result in weight loss as well as reduced inflammation. In one trial, researchers looked at the use of hypnotherapy for weight loss in those with obstructive sleep apnea. They compared hypnotherapy to simple diet advice and found that all participants who received hypnotherapy lost 2 to 3 percent of their body weight in 3 months. These same individuals were followed up with 18-months later and had lost an additional 8 pounds, on average. As a result, the researchers concluded that hypnotherapy warranted more research as an obesity treatment.
A study published in Cerebral Cortex examined the neuroscience behind hypnosis. Researchers looked for the most hypnotizable people in the study and screened 545 participants. According to the lead researcher, professor, and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Dr. David Spiegel, our ability to be hypnotized is a stable trait. Interestingly, just as we can test our IQ, we can test for hypnotisability.
These individuals in the study were tested with a short, 5-minute hypnosis. Approximately two-thirds of people can be hypnotized, and the rest cannot. Of those two-thirds, some are more easily hypnotized than others. Those who can be hypnotized tend to be more trusting, intuitive, and quickly caught up in what they are doing. The team of researchers chose 36 people who were considered easily hypnotizable and 21 people who were believed to have low hypnotizable.
All 57 individuals received a series of fMRI scans for different considerations, like when being hypnotized, at rest, or recalling a happy memory. What the researchers discovered was quite fascinating. Only the highly hypnotizable individuals saw a significant drop in activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate part of the brain. This is the part of the brain that tells you what you should be paying attention to and what you should ignore. It also tells you when there is something to worry about. The second thing that happened was certain parts of the brain began to sync up, like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
According to Spiegel, this suggests that the “brain in hypnosis is intensifying its connection to your body.” However, at the same time, other areas of the brain experienced a disconnect, specifically parts involved in planning and self-reflection.
Our hypnotisability can change with age. Some studies have found that susceptibility increases over the age of 40. Research has also found that regardless of age, women can be hypnotized easier.
During hypnotherapy, the barriers you keep up in your normal state are dissolved, giving a trained therapist access to a part of your brain. Because of this, when there is reduced self-consciousness and a lack of barriers, people may do things they usually wouldn’t do. This is why we see those images of someone acting like a chicken, or as Spiegel said, “That’s why stage hypnotists can get football coaches to dance like a ballerina.” This isn’t what true therapeutic hypnosis is all about it. It is a positive experience that can help you improve your quality of life and sleep.
There is minimal risk with hypnosis when conducted by a professional, but in some cases, you can experience adverse effects. For example, those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may not react as well, and therefore it is essential to work only with someone who is trained and experienced. If you are in the U.S, look for a professional who meets the rigorous requirements for hypnosis training set by The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. This is the largest U.S organization for mental-health professionals using clinical hypnosis.
Although hypnosis has been used for both entertainment and therapeutic purposes, thanks to recent research, we now know that hypnosis is very real and can be used to change your life for the better. If you are struggling to get enough sleep at night or feel like whatever you do, you just can’t lose the extra weight, hypnosis is worth a shot. If you are open and trusting to the experience, you are more likely to see the results you are after. The therapist will only tackle one issue at a time when you are receiving treatment. So, for example, you won’t be able to sleep better, stop nail biting and lose weight in one session. The average number of sessions recommended for one issue is 6, although you may start to see changes sooner. You can also search for scripting examples and self-hypnosis samples for free online, giving you an idea of what the experience will be like.