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Doctors Are “Prescribing” Hypnosis for Sleep, IBS and More Health Woes: How It Works

Experts explain how the powerful brain therapy can restore health — and how to get the perks at home

For many people, hypnosis is best known as a party trick or a bit of entertainment: A hypnotist on stage asks for a volunteer who undergoes hypnosis, then, at a snap of the hypnotist’s fingers, the volunteers start quacking like a duck or crawling around on all fours. But hypnosis is much more than than this — a form of entertainment called “stage hypnosis.” In fact, a growing body of evidence supports hypnosis for sleep, anxiety and even gastrointestinal issues. Not convinced? Keep reading for what experts have to say about hypnotherapy for your health, plus how you can reap the rewards.

What is hypnotherapy?

woman on couch with hypnotherapist; hypnosis for sleep
PeopleImages/Getty Images

Hypnotherapy, sometimes referred to as medical hypnosis, is “focused attention in a relaxed state,” explains psychiatrist Daniel Amen MD, author of Change Your Brain Every Day. “It tends to activate the thoughtful brain, but calm the emotional one,” he explains. And it’s a powerful tool for our minds, helping to shift us away from anxious states, kick smoking to the curb and even influence our ability to lose weight. But surprisingly, our physical health can benefit too. Studies back hypnotherapy as a treatment for insomnia and even irritable bowels.

Hypnotherapists encourage patients to enter a meditative-like state through suggestion and guided imagery. You may be asked to recall a calm, relaxing location or focus on your breathing. This is called an induction, which helps you begin to relax and focus. As hypnosis deepens, therapists then make suggestions that are intended to resolve a symptom or explore scenarios relating to that symptom.

“Hypnotherapy really is a form of guided meditation,” notes Glenn Rottmann, C. Ht., a renowned certified hypnotherapist. “In my opinion, it’s the most effective form of guided meditation there is.”

So what’s exactly happening in our minds as we get hypnotized, and how does that improve our health? Keep reading to discover the powerful brain impacts of hypnosis.

Health benefits of hypnosis

With a history dating back centuries, it’s no surprise that ancient cultures have used hypnosis to heal ailments, dating back as early as 18th century. The modern hypnosis we know now may differ in practice, but it’s impact on health remains. Here, seven study-proven ways you can restore your health with hypnosis. 

Hypnosis for sleep

You’ve probably heard that meditating can improve sleep. So it may not be surprising that hypnosis has impressive benefits for helping you get a good rest. If you’re struggling to sleep, “the imagery of sleep often nudges the brain to stop focusing on your worries and to find a more peaceful state,” explains Dr. Amen. He’s used hypnotherapy to help patients improve sleep in hospital settings where insomnia is common. (Click through for the risks of lack of sleep, plus how to get more Zzz’s.)

The practice is highly effective not just for helping you fall asleep, but also helping you enjoy deeper sleep. In fact, one study found that when using hypnosis for sleep, study subjects had longer periods of slow-wave sleep. This phase helps you feel refreshed upon waking, plus is crucial for better memory and immune function. Deepening slow-wave sleep can also help those of us kept awake by menopausal symptoms. As many as 77% of postmenopausal women reported better sleep quality following self-hypnosis in a study published in the Journal of Women’s Health. Equally important, they reduced the severity of sleep-hampering hot flashes and had better overall mood.

Related: Study: Lack of Sleep Raises Diabetes Risk — Docs Share Easy Tricks to Get More Zzz’s

Hypnosis for anxiety

Hypnosis helps heal most health conditions by easing stress and anxiety, which can lead to a cascade of health complications. Evidence in the journal Brain Sciences found that hypnosis soothes activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our fight-or-flight instinct, while improving parasympathetic tone, which is crucial for better emotional regulation. “Under hypnosis, we develop alpha brain waves, which create new pathways of calm in our mind,” explains Rottmann. That’s why folks don’t just see hypnosis benefits during practice, but for weeks or even months after a session. Dr. Amen notes that hypnotherapy may even be a potential alternative to medication for anxiety in certain cases.

Related: Revolutionary ‘Tapping’ Technique Dials Down Anxiety By 67% in 10 Minutes, Says Study — MDs Weigh In on Whys and Hows

Hypnosis for irritable bowel syndrome

One of the most surprising benefits of hypnotherapy is its ability to ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). When undergoing this type of hypnotherapy, patients typically hear suggestions that calm the digestive system and train the brain to not focus on common gut symptoms of IBS, like bloating. And it’s not just a slight reduction in symptoms – one study found that hypnotherapy was on par with a low-FODMAP diet – one of the most common treatments for IBS – at relieving GI issues. Plus, researchers in the journal Gut found that, of the 71% of subjects who responded to hypnosis, 81% maintained the improvement in IBS symptoms for as long as five years. Other studies have shown that hypnotherapy can help achieve and maintain colitis remission, speed stomach emptying and improve overall quality of life in folks with IBS.

Related: Is Your GI Upset IBS or IBD? Doctors Reveal How to Tell — And Which One Can Be Serious

Hypnosis for pain

Hypnosis won’t make you completely pain-free, but it can redirect your attention away from pain and help ease anxiety that’s a result of constant aches. One study on individuals with osteoarthritis found that hypnosis reduced pain by 53% in four weeks. And a review of 13 studies revealed that hypnosis improved low-back pain, temporomandibular pain in the jaw, fibromyalgia, cancer-related pain and general chronic pain. (Click through to learn about another effective pain remedy, infrared sauna blankets.)

Have a sudden pain? Hypnosis can help with that, too, explains Dr. Amen. In his book Change your Mind Every Day, he shares the story of when his daughter Chloe burned her finger on a piping hot dessert. Dr. Amen guided her through a brief hypnosis session. He explains, “I told her to think about stepping into a warm pool where it had super powers to heal and soothe her finger. Floating in the pool would also bring peace to her mind and body.” And within moments, she was asleep and free of pain – and she didn’t feel any anger toward herself for making a simple mistake.

Related: Foot Pain is the Menopause Symptom No One Warned You About: How to Relieve It

Hypnosis for weight loss

After one hypnosis session, you won’t immediately drop 15 pounds. But for many, hypnotherapy can be an effective way to break away from food noise. “For a lot of people, there’s an emotional connection in their relationship to food,” explains Rottmann. He has a weight-loss course in his online self-hypnosis resource, The Hypno Vault. The proof it works: Research published in the International Journal of Obesity found that when hypnotherapy focused on stress reduction, participants had greater weight loss than those who did calorie-restriction-focused hypnotherapy or received dietary advice.

Related: Hypnosis for Weight Loss: Studies Suggest a Few Weeks of the Technique Can Lead to Lasting Weight Loss

Hypnosis for smoking cessation

closeup of woman throwing cigarettes in trash; hypnosis for sleep
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

One of the most popular uses of hypnotherapy is smoking cessation – and for good reason! Patients are often asked to imagine cigarettes in a negative light, like a suggestion from a therapist that the smoke tastes like gasoline. In one small study, subjects who did a single hypnosis session smoked fewer cigarettes and the following 48 weeks, they were also better at abstaining from smoking. (Click through for the story of how hypnosis help one woman quit smoking.)

Hypnosis is particularly effective for smoking cessation when combined with other strategies, like nicotine replacement therapy. Indeed, researchers publishing in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that people who used a combination of nicotine therapy and hypnosis were more than three times more likely to abstain from cigarettes after 26 weeks than those who used nicotine therapy alone. Smoking isn’t the only addiction that hypnotherapy can help with, either, notes Rottmann. He’s worked in various addiction centers helping rewire the brains of addicts to let go of impulsivity.

Hypnosis for fears and phobias

Training the brain through hypnosis is a common therapy for crippling fears and phobias. A minor fear may not impact your health. But up to 15% of people suffer from a phobia that can impact behavior, brain health and physical function. “The mind is powerful enough to create these fears,” says Rottmann. “So it makes sense that the brain is also powerful enough to work for us instead of against us.”

When it comes to fear, hypnotherapy helps reduce the anxiety caused by a phobia and induces physical comfort. Hypnosis is proven successful for helping with phobias like driving and insects. For some people, just one hypnosis session is enough, report researchers in the International Journal of Spa and Wellness. In the study, subjects with a variety of phobias, including fears of heights, cats and driving, all said they were better able to face their fears and felt less anxiety upon facing them.

Is hypnosis safe?

Hypnosis is typically safe for most people. You may have even experienced a hypnotic-like state in the past and not realized it. We experience a low-grade hypnosis when we’re so focused on an activity that time begins to distort, explains Dr. Amen. For many people, this occurs when driving long distances, often called highway hypnosis. Doing something as simple a reading a great book that pulls focus away from any worries may also cause a hypnotic state.

However, some may not experience the benefits. “Some people are very high responders,” explains Rottman. “They often don’t remember being hypnotized upon being woken up.” But for others, he says, hypnosis can simply be a meditative-like experience. Dr. Amen notes that some people are not naturally hypnotizable. Folks that are skeptical or closed-minded to the benefits of hypnosis may also have trouble seeing results.

How to try hypnosis at home

If you’re not ready to jump into hypnosis with a practitioner yet, you can also try self-hypnosis at home. Rottmann’s The Hypno Vault contains a wide variety of hypnosis practices with benefits ranging from weight loss to reduced anxiety. Dr. Amen’s Brain Fit Life app also has self-hypnosis programs for you to try. Self-hypnosis is safe to try at home. But if you’re not used to meditating, Rottman suggests starting with two or three hypnosis sessions a week to get used to the practice. He notes that self-hypnosis can be highly effective for people who may not feel comfortable being vulnerable in front of a practitioner they don’t know. Doing so from the comfort of their home can help them relax better than they would in an office setting.

How to find a hypnotherapist

To find a hypnosis practitioner, Dr. Amen recommends looking for someone accredited by a hypnosis training institute, especially the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. Use their find-a-professional tool here. The number of sessions you need for your particular health issue can vary. Rottmann says he’s cured phobias in one session, and other cases can take three, four or more sessions to reach a breakthrough.

Before a hypnotherapy session, Dr. Amen recommends writing down any concerns, fears or misconceptions you have about the process. Being open and willing to give hypnosis a shot to improve your health is key, says Rottmann. He explains that people who aren’t open to seeing the powerful benefits may not experience them. Before a session, writing down what you’ve done to heal your specific health issue and what has and hasn’t work can also help, says Dr. Amen. Finally, imagine a place where you feel happy and safe. Many practitioners will ask you to come up with such a place at the beginning of your session to help bring you into a relaxed, hypnotic state, so it only helps to come prepared!

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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