In the 1770s, a German physician named Franz Mesmer caused a sensation when he said he could cure physical and mental illnesses by putting people into a trance to realign their magnetic fields. “Mesmerism” was popular for about a decade until it was publicly discredited in 1784, but some elements of the practice persisted.
In 1841, Scottish surgeon James Braid began using a similar fixed attention technique to cure headaches, alleviate general pain, and anesthetize patients. He called it “hypnosis”, derived from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep.
Today, hypnosis, also called hypnotherapy, has much more data to support its use in mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. It can also be an effective treatment for sleep problems, pain, irritable bowel syndrome and smoking, studies show. And it’s still sometimes used as a way to sedate patients for surgery with little (or no) medication.
Despite these diverse applications, hypnosis can’t shake its reputation as a scenic prank — where you look at a pocket watch and then cluck like a chicken — or a way to recover lost memories (which can be misleading) and probe “lives”. past” (pseudoscience).
Experts say it’s a technique that requires diligence and focus, similar to mindfulness (“mindfulness”) and to meditation. Here’s what you need to know.
What is Hypnosis?
The simplest way to describe hypnosis is as a state of deep relaxation and focused attention, in which your mind is more receptive to making subtle changes in feelings and behavior.
The intense concentration and focus of hypnosis may sound strange, but it’s no different than “being absorbed in a good book or movie, getting lost on the internet, or surfing on your phone,” says Elvira Lang, radiologist and founder of Comfort Talk, service that trains medical teams to reduce anxiety and pain in hospital patients using hypnotic language (so named because people are often afraid of what she calls the “H-word”). You are absorbed, less aware of your physical or sensory environment, ecstatic but still relaxed.
Formal therapeutic hypnosis has a few more steps. First, a hypnotist will try to induce a hypnotic state by having you relax and focus on your words. Once you’re inducted, he’ll talk you through suggestions based on your goals for that session. If you’re trying to get over your fear of flying, he might tell you that the plane is an extension of your body and have you imagine yourself floating with the plane through the sky.
The subject must become so focused on the hypnotist’s words that everything else disappears, says David Spiegel, a Stanford University psychiatrist and a leading researcher of hypnosis. The goal is for the suggestions you hear in this trance state to change your perspective, feelings, and eventually behavior.
In addition to traditional face-to-face hypnosis, there are online hypnosis sessions and a series of apps with pre-recorded video and audio; some will also connect you with hypnotists remotely. They are usually generic and work for common problems like insomnia and smoking.
Who can benefit from hypnosis?
Tonja Langis, 47, was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder complex that, for her, is accompanied by chronic pain, anxiety and loss of self-confidence. She has been in individual and group trauma therapy for 11 years and has tried a variety of treatments.
Langis began hypnotherapy sessions in small groups nearly a year ago, and now has one-on-one sessions once a week with her psychologist in Nashville, Tennessee.
During the sessions, Langis says that there is a “distance from the pain sensations” that she usually experiences, and that she feels “very comfortable” in her body. “It feels like a deeper state of relaxation than meditation,” she says.
Each person’s pain is individual, with different causes and reactions to treatment. But “it’s very clear now” that hypnosis can be effective for pain, says Afik Faerman, a postdoctoral researcher in clinical neuropsychology who has worked in hypnosis. Pain management is one of the most studied applications of hypnosis, he says, and research suggests it’s effective in helping people cope with both acute and chronic pain.
Langis points out that hypnosis helped her with irritable bowel syndrome. From the start, “I’ve only had two flare-ups, which is a big reduction for me.”
The conditions Langis struggles with — chronic pain, inflammatory bowel syndrome, stress and anxiety — are some where hypnosis is most commonly applied. It is also often used for insomnia and chemical dependency. But it doesn’t work for everyone.
Individuals with extreme mental illness, schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis are not good candidates for hypnosis, Lang suggests, in part because they tend not to be hypnotizable and also because treatment can be emotionally difficult for people with these conditions.
The very ability to be hypnotized is another limitation. One person may succumb immediately and readily accept suggestions, while another will never feel that they are entering a hypnotic state.
This ability presents a bell-shaped curve, says Spiegel. Studies suggest that 10% to 15% of people are easily hypnotized, while another 10% to 15% have difficulty being hypnotized or simply cannot. The rest, most of us, are somewhere in between – mildly to moderately mesmerizing.
It’s hard to tell how hypnotizable you are without formal screening. Lang claims he’s seen extremely skeptical people become very hypnotizable, and people who are excited to try it find it doesn’t work for them.
“I look at hypnosis as a talent or a skill,” like a good ear for music, says Mark P. Jensen, a health psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “Some people are Mozarts, but most of us aren’t.”
Hypnosis is best used in combination with different types of therapy, such as CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), according to Faerman. “Hypnosis with CBT is more effective than either one alone,” he points out, as shown in research on its effectiveness in treating obesity, pain, and distress in people with fibromyalgia and acute stress disorder.
For Lindsey C. McKernan, a clinical psychologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who uses hypnosis in her work, the training came with her training as a clinical psychologist. But not every clinical psychologist will necessarily have such training. To find a hypnotist, first look for a licensed therapist who can work with you on hypnosis or refer you to someone who is trained. (Experts recommend first consulting a professional before starting with apps or recordings.)
If you want to try it, know that there will be effort
As a hypnotist, Spiegel says, “My job is to identify your ability to be hypnotized, stimulate you, and teach you how to use that ability to solve a problem.” As with other therapies, seeing results from hypnosis takes time and practice. If you are dealing with a chronic condition, it will require regular treatment.
Rachael Howe, 32, has struggled with chronic back pain since discovering three herniated discs between 2013 and 2016. The physical pain and mental suffering prevented her from getting restful sleep. Howe, who lives in Auburn, Wash., has tried years of physical therapy and psychotherapy, as well as medication, but they haven’t helped much, he said.
About a year and a half ago, she tried a remote hypnosis session after referral from a previous therapist. In an initial relaxation and sleep session, the psychologist took her on an imaginary walk through the Cascade Mountains, where she had been married. He described arrows in the ground that would take her to deeper levels of relaxation.
As she walked, Howe claims, she felt her pain disappear as her body eased the tension. “I actually ended up falling asleep,” she says – her therapist ended the session and they rescheduled. “I can’t believe I got a few hours.”
Howe has had many sessions since then, focusing on increasing calm, managing pain, and reframing negative thoughts.
“The ideal scenario is for patients to work with a hypnotist and learn the techniques to do these sessions themselves,” says David Patterson, a pain specialist and clinical psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, who is Howe’s clinician. Practicing in this way is especially important for conditions “like chronic pain where you need relief over a long period of time.”
Langis has noticed that the immediate relief from pain and fatigue she gets through hypnosis wears off after a few days. She reinforces regularly by reviewing recordings from previous sessions, and says she is getting deeper into the hypnotic state over time. “As I practice, I see more and more benefits, so I get more excited to practice more,” she says.
After relistening to the sessions and training to remain in a hypnotic state, Howe said he now feels he has the discipline and ability to calm his body and mind when the pain escalates.
“It’s not that it works 100% of the time,” she says, but “the more you do, the more you earn.”
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves