A few minutes into my first hypnosis session with psychologist Joe Mallet, I fell asleep in his comfortable leather chair. I’d made the appointment because I wanted to see if hypnosis could help alleviate my stress. I hoped to stop biting my nails and to silence the inner editor and list maker in my head.
But while I was supposed to be training my mind to relax, I dozed off. I woke 15 minutes later to Mallet’s voice telling me that at the count of five I would come out of my trance as easily as climbing a short set of stairs. I opened my eyes, and he handed me a CD of the session to practice at home.
The next day, I lay on my living-room couch, feet propped on a stack of pillows, and slipped the CD into my computer. Mallet’s monotone voice told me to close my eyes and listen to the sounds of a seascape in the background. To concentrate. He said to look up under my eyelids and hold my breath. As I exhaled, I was standing on a beach with seagulls flying by. It worked until I fell asleep.
By my sixth try at self-hypnosis using Mallet’s CD, I began to smell the salt air and feel the waves of the ocean at my feet. I followed his voice as he told me to relax my body from head to toe, to focus on my breath, and say words like “clear” and “calm” silently to myself as I inhaled. He suggested I replace my negative thoughts with positive ones and encouraged me to be kind to myself.
I was able to focus for the full 15 minutes, rarely drifting away from the beach scene in my mind or the sound of my breath. I’ve repeated this ritual every day since, finding myself on different sections of different beaches. Each time when I’m done, my mind is clear and relaxed. I feel wide-awake, focused, and calm.
Mallet says hypnosis works through the power of suggestion: “There is something about our minds in a hypnotic state: We believe our imagination. That can be very powerful. Athletes do it. They imagine themselves a gazelle or a porpoise.”
Tiger Woods is said to have improved his golf game with hypnosis. Hollywood star Matt Damon told Jay Leno one night that hypnosis helped him quit smoking. The less famous have turned to hypnosis, sometimes as a last resort, to help manage serious health concerns, from chronic pain to anxiety and depression. (Hypnosis should not be used in lieu of medical treatment.)
Daniel Handel, a physician at the National Institutes of Health and director of the Palliative and Hospice Medicine Fellowship, describes hypnosis as feeling similar to reading a good book or watching a movie that causes you to lose track of time. “You are in an altered state of consciousness,” he says. “You are deeply absorbed but responsive to suggestions.”
Handel sometimes uses hypnosis with cancer patients who feel nauseated during chemotherapy sessions. Just the thought of the sessions, the smell of the hospital, or the drive over can make some people feel sick. “It’s a learned response,” he says. “In hypnosis I can teach you to relax. I can teach you to put yourself in some place you like, on a trip, at home eating a meal with your family or your mother’s bread. You begin to feel more and more in control.”
Hypnosis is not a new technique. “The history of trance goes all the way to the beginning of life,” says Dabney Ewin, a professor of surgery and psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine who has been practicing hypnosis since 1966. “There was the oracle of Delphi and the sleep temples of Egypt. A hypnotic trance is very much like daydreaming. The issue is: How do you get someone to believe the daydream? The power of suggestion.”
Surgeons used hypnosis during the Civil War, when they didn’t have anesthesia. In 1841, James Braid, a Scottish surgeon, coined the term neuro-hypnotism, which was shortened to hypnosis and comes from the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos.
“It is the oldest psychotherapy,” says David Spiegel, Willson Professor in the School of Medicine at Stanford University and associate chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Spiegel is conducting a study on how brain functions change with hypnosis.
“Hypnosis has been tainted by association with weird things,” Spiegel says, and with stories of people doing odd things while hypnotized. But he says that while someone under hypnosis is less aware of his or her surroundings, they can come out of a trance at any time.
Hypnosis doesn’t work for every-one. People who are intuitive, imaginative, and trusting can be hypnotized more easily, Spiegel says. Personally, I had to practice a lot to get my mind to settle and to stay focused during sessions.
The procedure is surprisingly simple. To get started, Mallet had me close my eyes and hold both index fingers in the air. I then imagined the two of them floating together to touch, like the hands on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. My fingers were drawn to each other.
Mallet next had me raise my arms and hold them there as though they were balanced on balloons. It was effortless. He showed me these exercises to dispel any notions that hypnosis involves falling into trances as you watch pocket watches swing back and forth.
I sat in a chair and put on headphones to block any noise other than Mallet’s voice. He cued up the ocean. I leaned into the leather chair and shut my eyes.
Mallet said hypnosis works with “intention and attention.” I set my mind with the intention to relax and had to pay attention to what was being said and the sound of the sea in order to keep my focus—a task I wrestled with as my mind felt like a movie camera that couldn’t find the right angle. Jiggle, jiggle, the sand was where the sky was supposed to be. It actually took a lot of concentration, which may be why I fell asleep.
One of Mallet’s handouts to patients says, “Don’t try hard to make anything happen; hypnosis uses imagination, not will power.”