Changing Your Habits with Hypnosis

Hypnosis is an age-old remedy that can help break bad habits
illlustration by kristina rowell

Remember those resolutions you made back at the beginning of the year? If you’re still a prisoner to cigarettes or fast food, or if you struggle with a phobia, anxiety, or another personal challenge, perhaps a new approach is in order.

Hypnosis might not be the first thing that comes to mind as a way to boost your willpower or change your mindset, but many area hospitals offer it as an alternative or complementary tool for better health.

Although hypnosis is perhaps most associated with helping smokers quit their habit, it has been shown to be a useful therapy for a variety of physical and psychological problems. Athletes even turn to hypnosis in the hope of stepping up their game. “My favorite is golfers — they all want to be better,” says Ed Lane, a board-certified hypnotist at A New You Center for Hypnosis in Dover. “[Golf] is a head game … It’s all about focusing. But we think about what we’re afraid of,” such as hitting the ball into the sand trap or the water hazard on the golf course. Likewise, he says, in everyday life many of us fixate on aspects of our lives that worry or bother us, which often does more harm than good.

Hypnosis helps individuals redirect their thoughts and establish a new way of thinking. People who undergo hypnosis are guided into a relaxed and focused state, which makes them more amenable to suggested changes in behavior and habits. While some might describe the hypnotic state as trance-like, a person undergoing hypnosis is always fully aware of what is going on.

“[Hypnosis] is a state of very deep concentration and focus,” similar to our level of awareness when we are engrossed in a good movie or book, says Rebecca Johnston, PhD, a psychologist at the Center for Neuropsychology, Learning and Behavioral Medicine at St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua. We go in and out of this natural, meditative state spontaneously and intermittently throughout the day, Johnston says.

Hypnosis works by drawing on imagination and reaching parts of the brain that can be difficult to consciously access, Johnston says. In a typical hypnosis session, the hypnotist might tell you to imagine yourself being physically and psychologically comfortable in a situation that you normally struggle with. The link between the mind’s imaginings and the body is strong, Johnston says. “When you imagine yourself doing something frightening, your body reacts. Your muscles tense, your heart rate goes up,” she says. As an example of the power of imagination that hypnosis ties into, Johnston says to close your eyes, imagine cutting a gigantic lemon in half, and biting into it. Chances are, just envisioning the scene will make your mouth water.

But even though we all possess the ability to imagine, not all of us are well-suited for hypnosis. The best candidates can concentrate deeply, an ability that Johnston says “is a trait, like eye color.” Hypnosis can be an effective tool for about 80 percent of people, she says, but experts advise those seeking hypnosis to undergo medical and psychological evaluation before undergoing hypnosis treatment; hypnosis is especially not advisable for individuals with certain psychiatric conditions.

In addition to our aptitude for imagining and concentrating, how we feel about our hypnotizer can also influence the effectiveness of hypnosis. “You have to like and trust your hypnotizer,” Johnston says. Some people show up for their first hypnosis session and clearly declare at the outset that they can’t be hypnotized, or they express skepticism about the likely results of the treatment, for example. “Some people are just too guarded,” Johnston says. “You have to trust.”

Admittedly, that can be difficult to do if you’re familiar with the common Hollywood depiction of hypnotism, with the practitioner slowly swinging a shiny object to and fro, then leading the hypnotized person to do something outlandish and/or illegal. Such scenes contribute to people’s fear of losing control in a hypnosis session, Johnston says. But professional hypnotism is not like the portrayal you typically see in television and movies, she says. “The hypnotist will not take control of your mind.” In fact, she says, “Learning to use hypnosis is the ultimate act of self-control.”

Indeed, “All hypnosis is self-hypnosis,” says Lane, and hypnosis can only be effective if whatever the hypnotist suggests jibes with your moral character. “The big fear is that we can control you. Actually, we teach people to take control,” he says.

To some extent, you could say hypnosis tries to help recipients harness the power of positive thinking. If you’re trying to lose weight, hypnotism can help you conjure an image of yourself looking trim and healthy, and feeling good — an image you can draw strength from the next time chips or cookies beckon. Hypnosis recipients rehearse good feelings and images, Johnston says, and remind themselves to stay calm and steadfast when faced with what would normally bring struggle. In this way, hypnosis can help people gain confidence, and better control or even conquer their fears and phobias, as well as habits such as smoking, Johnston says.

A typical hypnosis session lasts about an hour, and insurance will help with the cost of hypnosis in some instances, but the number of treatments necessary for hypnosis to be effective can vary depending on the situation — although a smoker who is really ready to quit, for example, might need just one session, Johnston says. In general, the outcome of hypnosis “depends on the person’s level of motivation,” she says.

Help for your habits — not your health

What gives you irrational pause? Heights? Spiders? Whether you are determined to overcome a phobia, finally quit smoking, lose weight or achieve some other goal, hypnosis can be a helpful tool, albeit one that is still not fully understood. Research has shown that hypnosis can create a physiological reaction in the recipient’s body, and that it likely works at least partly through the relaxation response or as a sort of placebo: we believe it will work, so it does. Hypnosis has been studied as a therapy for a range of conditions, including headaches, urinary incontinence, hot flashes, chronic pain and irritable bowel syndrome.

It’s best to undergo hypnosis with only a professionally trained hypnotist, particularly one with credentials from the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, says Rebecca Johnston, PhD, a psychologist at the Center for Neuropsychology, Learning and Behavioral Medicine at St. Joseph Hospital.

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