This centuries-old technique can successfully treat numerous nagging issues. Could hypnotherapy be the solution for what ails you?
Coined by English physician James Braid, who studied the practice during the 19th century, hypnosis gets its name from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. The practice uses guided relaxation and focused attention to achieve a heightened state of awareness, sometimes referred to as a trance. (Check out the nine things you need to know about hypnotherapy.) "They lie on a sofa or sit in a comfortable chair and we talk to the subconscious mind and deliver a script that puts them in a state of relaxation," says Orlando, Florida-based hypnotist Richard Barker. "I distract them from normal things around them by having them stare. I use verbal confusion to get the critical mind to go under duress and then quit." When a person is in a hypnotic state, they are more open to discussion and are better able to respond to suggestions, this makes it possible to help them with certain conditions such as smoking, insomnia, overeating, or even the perception of pain. The critical faculty of the brain is turned off, explains Barker, and the subconscious mind is listening—that's where their habits lie.
"I tell them what's going to happen and then it happens, but first I set up the mind to let it happen." Hypnosis is not regulated in the United States, so the best way to find a certified hypnotherapist is through the National Guild of Hypnotists, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the practice. While treatment varies based on each individual's condition, many conditions require just one session. A typical therapy session lasts about 90 minutes and can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,500. "Hollywood portrays hypnosis as spellbinding witchcraft, but its not," says Barker. If you have a bad back, you go to the chiropractor, if your teeth hurt, you go to the dentist, but where do you go if you want to increase the thought capacity of your mind?"
If you want to find the best way to quit smoking, you'll navigate a long-list of over-the-counter and prescription nicotine-replacement medications as well as non-nicotine prescriptions to find the right fit. Quitting is vital, of course: Cigarettes are responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also states that among all current U.S. adult cigarette smokers, nearly seven out of every 10 (68 percent) reported that they wanted to quit. Herbal remedies, behavioral therapy, and acupuncture are other methods people choose to quit smoking, but for Jon Bryner, a bar owner in Melbourne, Florida (where smoking is still allowed in bars), hypnosis was the answer to kicking his two-pack-a-day habit. "When you go to a doctor, they give you a pill, but they can't give you anti-habit pills," says professional hypnotist Richard Barker. Barker worked with Bryner to change his thought process and take away the emotional connection to help change his habit into a positive one. "At first I thought, how will I drive, how will I have a beer and not smoke?" says Bryner, "But now I just think about how bad smoke smells."
Making healthier food choices and exercising are key components for weight loss, but in some cases, successful weight loss also requires getting rid of the emotional and unconscious factors that prevent us from losing weight. The use of hypnosis for weight loss requires a different approach than when used for other conditions—it usually takes several sessions rather than just one to determine the individual's personal triggers, explains Barker. "Before hypnosis is performed, I need to find out if they are all-day snackers or those who reach in the fridge between meals. Everyone is different, everyone has their own vice, and it takes a while to get that out." Barker's sessions start with embedded commands that help his clients control their eating habits. "After five or six bites, you close your eyes and tell yourself 'that's enough' or every time you eat a plate of food you close your eyes and say 'eat just half of what's there.'"
Not getting enough sleep can impair decision-making and memory, and it can lead to chronic health problems such as heart disease, obesity, and depression. While there are a variety of remedies for insomnia including medication, meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy, getting enough sleep is not something you can talk yourself into doing. Sleep is primarily managed by the subconscious, explains Mount Vernon, Washington-based hypnotist Kelley Woods. "Trying to use conscious thoughts to fix this type of problem is like attempting to make a corporate change by going to the receptionist—you need access to the CEO." Worrying about sleep is also one of the main reasons that you can't fall asleep. "Fear of insomnia is what causes insomnia," says Barker. "When you remove the anxiety and fear of not getting a good night's sleep, you will get a good night's sleep." To treat his patients, Barker first asks them to visualize a scene when they slept through the night, and then he uses hypnosis to put them there. "I have the person imagine the great night of sleep that they had in the past and then I have them remove the label of 'I have insomnia,' and replace it with 'I sleep at least eight hours a night.'"
The high-pitched whir of the drill, the pinch of the needle, or simply embarrassment of having someone look inside your mouth are just a few of the reasons that people avoid going to the dentist. While the industry is striving to use new dental technology to make a trip to the dentist's office less stressful, dental anxiety affects about 10 to 20 percent of the world's population, according to the British Dental Health Foundation. "Fear has kept many of my clients out of the dentist chair for years," says Woods. "The fear can come from a negative experience at the dentist or hearing about someone who has had a negative experience. Whatever the case, it can be debilitating and once its programmed, the mind can run in default mode." To help her clients get over the anxiety of going to the dentist she uses neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which helps the brain "rewire" certain thought processes and get past loops of automatic thinking. "When they start to feel anxiety about going to the dentist, they can use NLP to interrupt the anxiety and re-wire the phobia on their own."
Pain is a signal that is helpful to us, says Woods, but in the case of chronic pain, the nervous system may still be relaying the pain signal even after the body has healed. (There are several ways your mind can make pain worse.) "We can use hypnosis to turn it down." She recalls a patient with chronic back pain who couldn't sit still in the chair. "He described the pain as being a grizzly bear gnawing on his spine." When she asked him what he wanted to do, he said he wanted to "put it into hibernation." Woods worked with the client to help him imagine the bear crawling into a cave on a snowy day, curling up and going to sleep. "While hypnosis is not magic, it can feel like it sometimes," says Woods.
Whether it's dealing with a national tragedy or the loss of a loved one, the feeling of loss or bereavement can be debilitating, causing anxiety, insomnia, and depression. Letting yourself feel the loss through crying helps your body and mind, and organizations such as Mental Health America and the American Psychological Association offer help for those coping with loss—including talking about the death of your loved one, taking care of your health, reaching out to others who are dealing with the loss, accepting your feelings, and celebrating the life of the one you lost. Coping mechanisms for dealing with loss are personal, explains Barker. Hypnotherapy can help by providing positive suggestions to help cope with the symptoms of grieving and help with finding ways of dealing with loss as time passes. Barker helps people cope with loss by having them put a "timer" on their bereavement. "Normally, they let me know when they are sick and tired of being sick and tired of bereavement."
There are things only someone living with anxiety can understand, like how debilitating and desperate the condition can be. According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety disorders are the most common of mental disorders, affecting more than 25 million Americans. While anxiety is usually treated through medication or therapy or a combination of both, many people also turn to hypnosis. A hypnotist works to identify the root of stress or anxiety, whether it is situational, physical, or based on an issue from the past. The subconscious mind is what makes you feel anxious and drives bad habits, explains Barker. "When someone comes to see me about nail-biting, nail-biting isn't usually the problem, it's anxiety," says Barker. When a man came to see Barker about a speech impediment, he treated him for anxiety. "His problem was not speech related, his problem was in his mind," says Barker. During the session, Barker had the man regress back in time to when he was six years old.
"He had climbed onto the roof of his house and his father yelled at him for being on the roof," says Barker. While the American Stuttering Society does not support the claim that stuttering is caused by an emotional event, Barker believes it was this incident—the anxiety of being yelled at by his father combined with the fear of being on the roof—that contributed to his speech impediment. "During the session, I kept the memory the same, but changed the reaction of his father from being angry to one where he held his arms open and loved him rather than yell at him. When he came out of hypnosis, his stammer was gone."
Ringing, buzzing, hissing, whooshing, or whistling sounds that nobody but you can hear are signs of tinnitus, a condition that is experienced by 45 million Americans, according to the American Tinnitus Association. While tinnitus can be temporary or ongoing, there is no cure for most types of the condition. Treatment options include hearing aids, behavioral therapy, sound therapy, and TMJ treatment. Hypnosis is also an option. "The mind causes tinnitus," says Barker. "It happens because the person is expecting it to happen and once you remove the thought of expecting it, the sound disappears."
One of the earliest documented uses of hypnosis with a cancer patient occurred in 1829, when M. le Docteur Chapelain used hypnosis to relieve the suffering of a patient with breast cancer. The doctor used hypnosis as an anesthetic during a mastectomy and during the operation, the patient was said to be "calm and evidenced good pain control." While today anesthesia is the preferred means for surgery, hypnosis still plays a role in the treatment of cancer and is often used to reduce stress and anxiety as well as minimize the side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea and vomiting. "Primarily we help them deal with the symptoms and help them change how they are processing pain," says Woods, who often works with cancer patients. "We cannot give them false hope, but we can put them in a comfortable state and help them with healing." She says that often cancer patients are shuffled from doctor to doctor, making them feel as if they are just a number. "We make custom recordings for our clients to listen to during their chemotherapy treatment--it's a personal experience with a hypnotherapist that can go a long way."
Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Mike Tyson are just a few well-known professional athletes that have turned to hypnosis to help with their athletic performance. Athletes have long used hypnosis to eliminate negative thoughts, de-stress and relax the mind and body, and help with focus and concentration so they can "be in the zone." This mental training can increase confidence, consistency, and ability, and it applies to all levels of athletes, including those recovering from injury and those just learning a sport. "Most athletes go to a hypnotist to improve their performance, but actually they are going to improve their mind," says Barker. "A hypnotist can change your thought process and turn your bad habits into positive ones." He uses golf as an example. "It takes a lot of mental endurance to be a successful golfer," says Barker. "You have to alter your perception and reality and you have to mentally play the game as well as physically—the critical mind is closed, but the subconscious mind is in a heightened state."
Woods uses hypnosis to help people post-surgery to shorten their recovery time and in some cases, wean themselves off pain killers prescribed by their doctor. "I had one person come to me post-surgery and tell me she didn't want to live because she had been cut off from her opioid prescription." Woods used hypnosis to interpret the pain signal in her brain. "Thoughts and emotions travel in pathways, and that's how habits are made," explains Woods. "At first it is just a pathway through the woods but over time that pathway eventually becomes a trench that you cannot get out of." Through hypnosis, Woods teaches the brain and nervous system to take a different pathway. "After three sessions, my patient to me that she wanted to live."
According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects between 25 and 45 million people in the United States. While the exact cause of IBS is not known, the impact from the disease can range from mild to debilitating. Stress, although not the cause of IBS, can worsen the symptoms of IBS. While treatments range from probiotics to following a diet that minimizes trigger foods—known as a low-FODMOP diet—to antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis has also been shown in studies to be an effective treatment for IBS. Hypnotherapy uses relaxation techniques followed by hypnotic suggestions to help patients learn to control their symptoms. The results of the studies showed that patients experienced improvement in their quality of life and in the common symptoms of abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating.