Wouldn’t it be great if we could be hypnotized into enjoying things, like scrubbing tile grout with a toothbrush, watching 2016’s La La Land or doing our taxes? While hypnosis isn’t a cure-all for the things you loathe experiencing, it’s been scientifically proven to help people process traumas and phobias.
Hypnosis and hypnotherapy can help “rewire” your brain in a positive, productive way. It’s not quite like Looney Tunes made it out to be, though. There are no swinging watches or swirling black and white images, nor do practitioners typically wear top hats, capes and long mustaches. You remain conscious during the experience, and you shouldn’t expect a full brain wipe. However, it’s a powerful way to adjust your thinking.
Here’s how hypnosis could be the next useful practice in your health toolbox.
What is hypnosis?
Hypnosis is like a deep meditative state. For whatever reason (scientists aren’t entirely sure how it works yet), it allows the brain to work with processes we don’t normally have access to. When you’re in a hypnotic state, it’s kind of like “administrative mode” for your computer. You can go “behind the scenes” and instruct your brain to process something—sensations or memories, for example—in a much different way. If you’ve been trying to get over your needle phobia before you get your COVID-19 vaccine, you could use hypnosis to adjust your brain’s reactions to the situation.
To get into a hypnotic state, you can work with a live human, or try to induce yourself. Guided meditations or self-hypnosis audio files are great when you can’t afford to hire a hypnotherapist yourself—look on YouTube for resources. They’ll help induce hypnosis so you can work on your triggers.
“Induction” is simply the period where you reach a deep meditative state, often by using guided imagery and deep breathing. (The Notorious B.I.G. was correct—words really are all it takes to hypnotize a person.) Once you reach a deep meditative state, your guide can ask you to bring up mental images of the thing you want to change—then suggest different ways to handle it. These suggestions sink into your subconscious and make it easier for you to access a different way of reacting. That goes for anything from public speaking to avoiding sugary snacks.
But is it real? Yes. When you’re in a hypnotic state, there are specific, measurable changes to your brain. This has been measured with electroencephalogram (EEG) studies, which monitor the electric signals in the brain.
Hypnosis is similar to meditation and the power of positive affirmations: using hypnotic states can “rewire” the neural networks in your brain, until your first thought during a blood test is “hmm, needles, they’re not my favorite” instead of “oh my god, get me out of here, I’m going to die.” This is called neuroplasticity. That might not sound like much on the surface, but for people who suffer from trauma, phobias, chronic pain and more, it’s a way to make significant progress.
What can hypnosis accomplish?
Hypnosis can help you deal with certain experiences and memories, but it may also be useful to reduce sensations of pain after surgery, help you quit smoking and more. Practitioners have tried hypnosis for everything from reducing anxiety to reducing gastrointestinal symptoms. In fact, some doctors swear by its efficacy.
Of course, you can’t just expect that one session will cure everything that ails you. You also have to make a commitment to “do the work,” which means attending additional sessions, making a conscious effort to stop unwanted behaviors and more. In other words, don’t go to a hypnotherapy session for smoking cessation, then stop by the 7-11 for a pack of cigarettes afterwards, assuming that you won’t be tempted because you’re “cured.”
Try hypnotherapy yourself
If hypnotherapy sounds like something you want to try, you can start by looking for therapists in your area. Psychology Today recommends that you look for someone certified by the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) or the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. That will ensure they have at least a master’s level degree in various related subjects and a certain number of clinical hours. Be sure to talk to your hypnotherapist on the phone before attending a session—it’s important that you’re comfortable.
Could hypnosis help you conquer your fear of heights, or finally help you picture an audience in their underwear? There’s only one way to find out.