The Health Benefits of Hypnosis

Experts say hypnosis can help people lose weight, quit smoking, even cope with pain. I wanted to find out if it would enable me to relax and clear my mind. But first I had to stop falling asleep.

By: Laura Hambleton

Hypnotherapy works through the power of suggestion. Some use it to mentally escape to a beach, smelling the salt air and feeling the waves on their feet. Photo-illustration by Jesse Lenz.

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.”

Finding a Hypnotherapist

Experts say you should approach finding a hypnotherapist in much the same way you would choose a physician: You want to find someone you can trust and who has the proper training and credentials. Your doctor or psychologist may be able to provide recommendations.

The highest credential a hypnotherapist can earn is certification from one of the various boards, such as the American Board of Medical Hypnosis, the American Board of Psychological Hypnosis, the American Hypnosis Board for Clinical Social Work, or the American Board of Dental Hypnosis.

But many good hypnotherapists choose not to get board-certified because the process is expensive and isn't required for practice, says Daniel Handel, director of the Palliative and Hospice Medicine Fellowship at the National Institutes of Health.

Handel suggests looking for someone who is a member of a professional society of hypnosis. A good place to start searching is the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (asch.net), which lists practitioners it has certified as members.

Handel also says you should choose someone who, in addition to being certified in hypnosis, holds a license in another health-care field, such as psychology, counseling, psychiatry, medicine, social work, or nursing. That way, if hypnosis doesn't work for you, the clinician can provide other treatments.

That principle is what can help smokers quit. Harnessing someone’s imagination can be very powerful, Mallet says. He typically devotes three sessions to quitting and encourages patients to see smoking as a poison and to view a healthy body as vital to life. According to Mallet, the same can be done for people who want to lose weight. He has them imagine themselves thinner, eating the right portions of healthful food.

Hypnosis is also effective for pain management, says Paul van Ravenswaay, a DC psychiatrist who treats patients with chronic pain.

“Pain is a sensory experience analogous to hearing and sight,” van Ravenswaay says. “In hypnosis, you can learn to ignore discomfort by focusing instead on a pleasant scene or perhaps a time in life before the painful condition. Or the discomfort could be experienced as a different, more tolerable sensation such as warmth, pressure, or perhaps on the skin instead of deeper inside the body.”

For Beatrice Bowie, 60, mind over matter is a matter of survival. Most of her life, she has coped with pain from sickle-cell anemia and rheumatoid arthritis. The pain occurs as sickle-shaped cells pass through her blood vessels. “My heart beats so fast,” she says. “It’s like a migraine all over my body.”

Bowie is often tired because sickle cells break down more easily, leaving her body short of red blood cells, or anemic. One morning, she woke to see only black and red. The blood vessels around her eyes were clogged with the sickle-shaped cells.

“The disease causes so many problems,” she says. “Before I started hypnosis, I couldn’t cope with it. It was so hard. I can’t go out with friends if I have a pain crisis. The disease takes so much away from you.”

Handel, at NIH, has taught Bowie self-hypnosis. “Whenever I am having a crisis, I put the earphones on and listen to music,” she says. “It relaxes me. I listen to a lot of music and sounds of the beach. I hear seagulls and waves. I go back to the days when I was happy.”

Everyone should tap into those good places, says Elvira Lang, a former associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School. Lang started a company called Hypnalgesics to train medical teams to use hypnotic suggestion to change anxiety and pain. “How can this save health-care dollars?” she says. “Less pain, less anxiety, fewer complications.”

With a grant from NIH, Lang hopes to show how hypnosis can help patients getting MRIs. Of the millions who receive MRIs each year, about 2 percent become claustrophobic and can’t continue, which Lang says drives up costs.

“It’s a pretty radical idea that you should talk to your patients,” she says. “There has been so much emphasis on technology and the misunderstanding that talking takes so much time. When people don’t know how to express their empathy, they aren’t helpful. We have to help patients help themselves.”

Judith Thomas, a dentist in Centreville, says word choice makes a difference, too. Take the word “drill”—just hearing that, a patient may avoid an appointment. “We don’t use the word ‘pain.’ We use the word ‘comfort,’ ” she says. “We don’t call it treatment. We say we are going to restore the tooth. We don’t go into detail like ‘We are cutting the gum.’ We say, ‘We are going to make you comfortable. This is going to be wonderful. You will finish with a much cleaner mouth.’ ”

And she hypnotizes those who aren’t comfortable in a dental chair: “I ask them, ‘Where would you rather be?’ ” she says. “I would rather be in the mountains. I am talking to get them to a certain level, to take them somewhere, and to get them to feel as though they aren’t right here.”

Thomas was traumatized by her childhood experience with a dentist who didn’t believe in numbing the mouth before filling cavities. “I used to be phobic of dentists, even after dental school,” she says. “I made it my mission that no one would have a bad experience. A huge part of practice is people with dental phobias.”

I just finished another session with Mallet’s CD. Each time now, as soon as my eyes shut and I hear his voice, I don’t want to leave the beach. I miss it before I get started.

It’s a funny longing. I say I am going to a beach on the coast of Maine, called Popham, where a few years ago my daughter and husband went swimming on Christmas Day. But actually my mind takes me to many beaches: Tsitsikamma in South Africa is a favorite, as is another one in Sayulita, Mexico.

As I walk the beaches, I picture myself calm and stress-free, especially when dealing with my two teenage boys, who often bring out the nail-biting mother in me. I’ve barely raised my voice in weeks. The power of suggestion, indeed.

This article appears in the March 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.