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Hypnotherapy for Health and Happiness

Hypnotherapy is an evidence-based mind-body approach to overall health

By Barbra Williams Cosentino

"Do you promise you won't make me cluck like a chicken?" I asked the onscreen hypnotherapist, who's clad in a jacket and tie and looks more like an accountant than I thought a hypnotist would look. "I can only make you cluck like a chicken if you want to cluck like a chicken," he says, a touch of weariness in his voice as if he has heard this question a million times before, which I'm sure he has.

A close-up of an older man's closed eyes. Next Avenue, hypnotherapy benefits
With the client's eyes usually closed, the hypnotherapist may count down, use imagery to focus the attention, or employ specific techniques such as controlled breathing or progressive muscle relaxation  |  Credit: Getty

Many confuse a stage hypnotist with a hypnotherapist, a licensed and certified practitioner with in-depth training in hypnosis. Most have degrees in social work, medicine, or psychology.

"I need to stop eating Nutella and peanut butter on crackers at two in the morning, okay?" I say, only half joking.

Further, hypnosis is sometimes utilized in conjunction with other therapies such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as more traditional "talk" psychotherapy.

"What brings you here, and how can I help?" the hypnotherapist asks me.

"I need to stop eating Nutella and peanut butter on crackers at two in the morning, okay?" I say, only half joking.

But, in my recurring journey of trying to lose weight, I've decided to try something new and am feeling cautiously optimistic. Hence, my story of hypnotherapy:

But First, What is Hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy is an evidence-based mind-body treatment, approved by the American Psychological Association, with success in reducing pain, helping people break habits such as smoking and overeating, treating insomnia, anxiety or depression, and lessening the gastrointestinal symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), along with the often-associated mood changes. 

People experience a sense of calm and physical relaxation when under hypnosis, and some changes enhance attention, focus and concentration. 

It's been used before surgery, decreasing the patient's need for sedation and helping reduce nausea, pain, and fatigue post-operatively, leading to a speedier recovery. Hypnosis is also helpful in treating phobias such as fears of flying or public speaking.

Interestingly, it's also been used in forensics to help witnesses to a crime recover memories. When it comes to managing chronic pain, hypnotherapy often involves instructions for self-hypnosis that can be done at home to manage the distress. Some people tape their sessions so they can be replayed, too.

Research has shown that hypnosis directly affects cortical and subcortical activity in the brain (such as the anterior cingulate cortex) concerned with the perception and modulation of pain.

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How Does Hypnosis Work?

Although the word hypnosis comes from Hypnos, the name of the Greek God of Sleep, a person in a state of hypnosis is somewhere between wakefulness and sleep. People experience a sense of calm and physical relaxation when under hypnosis, and some changes enhance attention, focus and concentration. 

Alterations in perception are expected, with feelings of heaviness, numbness, and floating or sinking sensations often experienced. It is worth noting that little attention is paid to extraneous stimuli such as traffic noise from outside.

While this is a common fear, a hypnotist or hypnotherapist cannot make you do anything you would not normally do. Even if you are in a deep trance, it can be broken easily if there is an emergency or you are being asked to do something that does not align with your values.

"Hypnosis works by directing attention to a subset of perception within your peripheral awareness," says William Danton, a clinical psychologist in Reno, Nevada specializing in hypnotherapy. "The effectiveness of hypnosis appears to lie in the way in which it avoids the critical censor of the conscious mind, bypassing its critical observation and interference and allowing the client's intentions for change to take effect." 

The hypnotherapist's skillful use of various techniques and interventions implicates engaging the subconscious or unconscious.

The Process of Hypnotherapy

At the beginning of each session, the therapist will take a brief history, including the client's main complaint or condition they would like help with, such as losing weight or becoming more comfortable with public speaking. This enables the therapist to craft statements and subtle suggestions tailored to the person's communication style and needs.

Here's what the path to hypnosis typically looks like: 

· Hypnotic induction — used to induce a state of hypnosis. With the client's eyes usually closed, the hypnotherapist may count down, use imagery to focus the attention, or employ specific techniques such as controlled breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.

· Deepening the trance — takes relaxation and focus to a deeper level. For example, the therapist may use images such as "walking downstairs" or sinking more deeply into a comfortable bed. These first two stages are meant to help you relax enough that you will be open to hypnotic suggestions.

· Deep trance — this is the stage in which treatment occurs, leading to actual change in experience, behavior, emotion, memory or perception.

· Emergence — reverse deepeners (such as going up steps instead of down) are used to bring the client out of the hypnotic state. Once fully "back," there may or may not be a memory of what was said or experienced during the time in trance.

When the client is in a deep state of hypnosis, the hypnotherapist will make suggestions that are received on an unconscious level. 

Being in a trance alone has no therapeutic effect but deepens receptivity for what happens next. When the client is in a deep state of hypnosis, the hypnotherapist will make suggestions that are received on an unconscious level. 

Depending on the person's motivations for treatment, suggestions may entail ways to banish anxiety triggers or transform painful sensations into something less unpleasant.

The hypnotherapist may also use indirect or hypnotically informed language to bypass any conscious resistance. For instance, instead of saying to a person who struggles with insomnia, "you will fall asleep easily and stay asleep all night," the hypnotherapist might say, "think of all the extra energy you will have in the morning when you wake up."

In addition, based on the practitioner, sessions are usually 45 minutes to an hour long, with part of the time spent in discussion and the rest in the state of hypnosis. The number of sessions needed will vary depending on the issues.

"Hypnotherapy may also be used for unconscious exploration, to understand underlying motivations better, or to identify whether past events or experiences are associated with a current problem. This is useful in developing strategies to change thoughts and behaviors," Danton explains.

Along with being effective for behavioral change, exploration, when done as part of the hypnotic process, can be beneficial in relieving anxiety or depression and enhancing self-confidence.

Back to My Journey

I loved my experience of hypnotherapy. It was relaxing, kind of how you feel after a good massage or a meditation session.

Several times every week, I listen to the tape my hypnotherapist made, encouraging me to eat slowly, savor every bite, and cue my body's hunger and fullness signals. And though my cravings for late-night goodies have not entirely dissipated, I can better resist the temptation.

Hopefully, by the time my 50th high school reunion rolls around (it's been rescheduled twice due to COVID and will now be my 52nd reunion), I will be thinner, more relaxed, and ready to wow my high-school boyfriend and the rest of the people "who knew me when."

barbra consentino, writer
Barbra Williams Cosentino RN, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Queens, N.Y., and a freelance writer whose essays and articles on health, parenting and mental health have appeared in the New York Times, Medscape, BabyCenter and many other national and online publications. Read More
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