More than ever, people are losing faith in conventional medicine and looking for alternatives, thanks to the prevalence of misinformation, discrimination, distrust in big pharma, and the lack of personalized care. One “alternative” that needs to be taken more seriously? Hypnosis.
In a 2012 survey, only 0.1% of Americans used it, while 8% said they used meditation. They’re not very different, but hypnosis is much more taboo — despite evidence showing it can successfully treat a range of health problems, from anxiety to IBS. It’s time to break down the stigma and get entranced. Here’s how to start using hypnosis for your health.
What hypnosis is…and isn’t
People think of hypnosis as a played-out Vegas magic trick, but “there’s nothing woo woo or weirdo about it,” says Leora Kuttner, PhD, a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia. The American Medical Association and American Psychological Association have recognized hypnotherapy as a legitimate treatment since 1958. Hypnosis is simply a state of relaxed focus that is achieved by deactivating parts of the brain involved in processing outside distractions and activating parts involved in the connection between the mind and body.
When used in medical settings as hypnotherapy, this state makes the brain vulnerable to taking in new information (aka therapeutic suggestions) to alter how it processes certain symptoms. For example, you might expect to feel pain when a needle is placed in your arm. Hypnosis teaches you that it doesn’t have to be painful if you redirect your attention.
Research shows it can help treat anxiety, improve menopause symptoms, and combat insomnia. However, the strongest evidence supports using it to control pain (including from surgery, childbirth, and cancer) and alleviate digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (which led the American College of Gastroenterology to add hypnotherapy to its IBS treatment guidelines in 2021).
This could be hypnosis' moment
The goal of hypnotherapy is to build up “your trust in your own natural capacities,” aka brain power, says Kuttner. And the mainstream-ification of mental wellness techniques — from yoga nidra to breathwork to ASMR — shows that the world is likely ready for hypnotherapy. We’re halfway there: When your yoga teacher tells you to bring to mind an intention during savasana, that’s basically a hypnotic suggestion, according to Elvira Lang, MD, a former associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and the founder of Comfort Talk.
Hypnotherapy is also a rare treatment option that is both drug-free and backed by research. But drug-free doesn’t equal risk-free: Experts don't recommend hypnosis for people with severe mental health conditions or substance abuse issues. It can also be manipulative in the wrong hands, so it’s important to find the right practitioner and establish boundaries, says Lang.
How to get hypnotized
Find a match. Look for a licensed clinician with at least five years of hypnotherapy experience, Kuttner suggests. You can use the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis directory to find someone. Sessions can cost $75 to $125 on average — but some practitioners take insurance.
Prep for your session. Start by talking to your therapist about what you want to accomplish. When you’re ready, the therapist will guide you through the following steps:
Induction: You might be told to focus on your breath or imagine a calming setting to settle in and relax.
Deepener: You’re guided to deepen the relaxation, maybe by counting down or imagining yourself sinking into bed.
Suggestions: The therapist will use specific words or techniques to help guide you toward your goals. Examples: To quit smoking, you might be encouraged to imagine how clean your lungs will look. For IBS pain, you might try to envision your intestines healing.
Emergence: The therapist brings you out of hypnosis, sometimes by counting up or the reverse of whatever exercise you did during the deepener stage.
DIY it. You don’t always need a guide to get the benefits of hypnosis, but it helps to learn how to move through it with a pro. The steps are generally the same as they would be in a therapeutic setting, and the great thing is that “the more you do it, the better you get,” says Kuttner.
The health benefits of hypnosis need to stop being overlooked. Rather than mind control, it is the “ultimate act of self-control,” Kuttner says, because it allows people to influence how they feel in their body using only the power of their mind.
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