Here's what experts have to say about hypnotherapy and its potential to help alleviate a wellspring of ailments.
As alternative treatments go — and in a time when we seek wellness at any cost, they’re not going anywhere — hypnosis has an image problem. The perception is that it’s mind control, using stopwatches to put patients (and their bad, bad behaviors) to sleep. The reality is far more complex, and it’s backed by new research that promises benefits you may not have imagined.
Do people still turn to hypnosis to quit smoking and lose weight? Absolutely. But hypnotherapy, aka the clinical use of hypnosis for therapeutic benefits, is also being tapped to treat emotional health (anxiety, depression) and physical health (irritable bowel syndrome, chronic sleep issues). And more and more people are actively seeking it out. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have used hypnotherapy to improve their public speaking, while royals (like Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle) have reportedly tried hypnosis techniques to manage physical challenges they faced during their pregnancies (food aversion and pain, respectively).
To put it simply, hypnotherapy helps readjust one’s thinking to relieve pain and reduce anxiety. To put it metaphorically, it’s like a “massage for the mind,” says Daniel Ryan, a hypnotherapist in New York City. It’s a way to loosen the kinks that might be holding you back. That has led some to suggest that hypnotherapy could be a part of one’s overall wellness diet. And yet confusion abounds. So how does it work, and, more importantly, could it work for you?
Have you ever tried meditation and couldn’t shut your mind off and zen out? Maybe it felt too open-ended? Too squishy? Hypnotherapy takes the reflectiveness of meditation but gives it a defined target. “Hypnosis is a state of narrowed consciousness, and hypnotherapy is using that consciousness toward a goal,” says Andrea Bradford, an assistant professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who practices hypnotherapy on some of her patients.
While “typical” sessions vary, experts we spoke to said they’re usually about 30 minutes, and most patients require anywhere from 3 to 12 sessions. Ryan, for one, splits his appointments into two realms: For the first 20 minutes he listens to clients talk through the issue they want to overcome, as a psychologist would; the next is the trance portion, when clients are asked to recline and relax. “It’s a guided meditation with a specific goal and a great deal of technique,” he says.
The client, however, is always in the driver’s seat. Jessica Yatrofsky, a 38-year-old artist, has successfully used hypnotherapy for her anxiety and compares the practice to a mental yoga class. “A lot of things are being activated and lit up in really cool ways — ways that you don’t typically use your brain,” she says, adding that she felt relief and “lighter” after her first session.
It’s not just in her head. A 2017 study conducted by the Stanford School of Medicine and published in the journal Cerebral Cortex found that areas of the brain had altered activity during hypnotic trances; specifically, the self-policing part of the brain that allows one to stay focused and open to verbal suggestions aimed at changing behavior.
Hypnotherapy has also shown promise in treating stress-manifested issues like chronic back pain. “There is no pain in the body; it’s only in the brain,” says Olafur Palsson, a professor of medicine in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “There are sensors in the body that pick up troublesome stimuli and send that information to the brain, and then the brain has to decide whether it is pain and how bad it is.” Palsson goes on to say that when treating pain, “you can do things with hypnosis that no other psychological treatment can do.”
Perhaps that’s why hypnotherapy has found an unlikely bedfellow in gastrointestinal diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, which it has been proven to help ease. Some studies also suggest it can keep those suffering from Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis in remission longer. “There is a very close connection between the brain and the gut,” says Bradford, “and we can often use hypnotherapy to calm people’s gut symptoms and help promote changes both in the perception of pain and probably in the motility, the spasms of the gut.”
That doesn’t mean that hypnosis should be performed in a vacuum. Experts say hypnosis is best used in tandem with traditional treatments, or when those methods have been exhausted and failed to provide relief. “I always encourage people to use first-line treatments, like medications, first,” says Bradford, “because they are usually quicker and easier than hypnotherapy. You have to invest the time — the effect is long-lasting, but it does take effort.” Hypnotherapy is many things, but it is not a quick fix.
It is also not exactly cheap. A session can run anywhere from $75 to $400, but when recommended by a physician — which is happening more frequently, as a general practitioner might green-light hypnotherapy for a patient suffering from chronic migraines — it can be eligible for insurance coverage.
Despite more traditional doctors recommending the practice, hypnotherapy is still largely unregulated. Currently, there is no license required to be a hypnotherapist in the United States. So how do you ensure you’re not seeing any old Tom, Dick, or Svengali? Seek out a state-licensed mental health professional or psychologist who can then recommend a hypnotherapy-trained medical professional. Or find a hypnotherapist through the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis at asch.net.
Then recognize hypnotherapy’s limitations — and yours. To truly benefit from hypnotherapy, you have to believe in it. (An estimated 15 percent of the population is “low hypnotizable,” categorized as those for whom hypnosis does not work.) The patient has to be willing to explore the path a guide lays out. In fact, in the Stanford study, those who were low hypnotizable did not show any changes in their brain patterns, reinforcing the reality that no one can make you act without your permission.
June 21, 2019