Thanks to a spate of recent research, the practice has gained more legitimacy and is often combined with talk therapy or meds.
Despite the fact that people have been using hypnotherapy for decades to help them ditch behaviors like overeating and smoking—and that major medical organizations recognize it as valid therapy for a range of health issues—it's still viewed as mental sleight of hand, a tool of stage performers, not doctors. But thanks to a spate of recent research—most notably a study that showed, via MRI imaging, how the brain actually changes during hypnosis—the practice has gained more legitimacy and is often combined with talk therapy or meds.
Now, "people are signing up for it at the recommendation of their physician," says health psychologist Laurie Keefer, Ph.D., director of psychobehavioral research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
During a session, a therapist will ease you into a hyper-focused relaxed state (by having you concentrate on, say, soothing words), then give you suggestions to help you conquer your health problem. You'll be physically alert but mentally calm, similar to what happens when you are driving and reach your destination but don't remember how you got there. Here, why over a half a million people couch-surf away what ails them each year, and what you can expect.
New York City writer Patricia Morrisroe could fall asleep easily. But four hours later, she'd be up again, her mind reeling. The problem started in childhood and gradually worsened. Patricia tried cognitive behavioral therapy and meds; when they didn't help, she decided to visit a hypnotherapist. Patricia was hypnotized once, then given a recording to listen to nightly. Immediately, the then 50-year-old had what she describes as "the best sleep of my life." The results wore off after 10 days (Patricia's hypnotherapist suspects this is because she was only partly susceptible to hypnosis; about a third of the population can't be hypnotized at all), but many people see results as long as they listen to the recording.
People with stress-linked sleep disturbances are great candidates for hypnotherapy, says psychotherapist Marty Lerman, Ph.D., author of Mindshift. That's because hypnosis can teach you how to acknowledge and release spinning thoughts. The payoff: A study found women who listened to hypnotic suggestions for sleep (such as a fish swimming deeper into water) at night experienced up to 80 percent more restorative slow-wave sleep compared with when they heard a nonhypnotic text.
That stress connection is why you'll see the best results if you have a session or two with a therapist who can tailor a recording to your specific stressors. For example, if a jam-packed schedule is stealing your Zs, she might include a statement like "You have time to complete all your daily tasks." Nonpersonalized sleep hypnosis apps are okay, say experts, as long as you choose one that's been created or vetted by a certified hypnotherapist (check the description in the app store). Try Sleep Well Hypnosis (free), a 25-minute session you listen to nightly; it promises consistent, deep sleep in one to three weeks.
When she was 25, Amber Ponticelli started getting sharp abdominal pains every time she ate. ER and gastro docs thought she had IBS, but their suggested dietary tweaks (like eating six small meals a day instead of three large ones) didn't ease her symptoms. Finally, an M.D. diagnosed the culprit: rapid gastric emptying, a condition that causes the body to force undigested food through the gut. She was referred to a doctor who was using hypnotherapy to treat GI patients. Amber didn't have great expectations, but the now 35-year-old Chicago Pilates instructor was desperate.
People with gut problems often find relief with hypnotherapy—on average, 75 percent of women get significant relief after treatment and more than 80 percent continue to feel better for up to six years later—because of the close link between mind and gut, says Olafur Palsson, Psy.D., a professor of medicine at The University of North Carolina's Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders in Chapel Hill. The brain sends signals to the gut to influence how much it should contract or relax to move food through your intestines. But sometimes that message can come across too intensely (which can lead to diarrhea) or not firmly enough (resulting in constipation). Hypnotherapy can help iron out these mind-gut missives so your intestines contract properly, says Palsson.
Each session, Amber would stare at a penny glued to the ceiling to help her relax. Then her doctor would describe a soothing location and say how Amber should tap into it to ease her symptoms (think: being on a beach and feeling the warm sun moving through and healing her intestines, and her stomach acting like the waves, breaking down food).
Amber saw her symptoms ease up immediately; the majority of people find relief after six sessions (most women have one every other week over the course of about three months). People who begin to experience pain again (to date, Amber hasn't) can go back for "tune up" visits or listen to a taped session provided by their doctor or therapist.
Twenty-five-year old Megan McGovern has relied on hypnotherapy to help manage her anxiety for nearly a decade. She first tried it when a therapist suggested it as an alternative to medication. It was good advice: Research shows adding in hypnotherapy can make regular therapy sessions for depression or anxiety significantly more effective.
"My first time, I was worried I would be out of control of my body or say something embarrassing," says the Denver resident. But that wasn't the case. Once Megan was put into a relaxed state, her hypnotherapist talked her through ways to release negative thoughts. When Megan was anxious about an upcoming trip, her therapist helped her envision going through the process—packing her bags, driving to the airport, getting through security, boarding the plane, the actual flight—without anxiety. It worked; she was far less tense than usual during her trip.
Hypnosis is similarly successful for depressed individuals, who often receive messaging geared toward identifying and releasing uncomfortable emotions ("As sad feelings surface, you can let them go"). When hypnosis is incorporated into cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, it usually reduces the number of sessions needed by at least half, compared with using behavioral therapy alone.
Today, Megan's anxiety is managed with self-hypnosis, a technique she learned during her sessions. She relaxes her mind, then repeats some of her therapist's frequently used phrases in order to guide herself through whatever upcoming stressful situation (like going to the dentist) she's facing.
Rumor has it Gisele Bundchen and Kate Middleton used hypnotherapy to ease labor contractions sans epidural. The Gisele anecdote, together with the documentary The Business of Being Born, helped convince Lauren Fong Barlow, the CEO of a Los Angeles digital production company, to enroll in a hypnobirthing class when she was five months pregnant.
For the next four months—and during the 36-hour unmedicated birth of her daughter—she listened to recordings and birthing affirmations (e.g., "My muscles are working in harmony to make birthing easier") recommended by her teacher. During delivery she had periods of discomfort, "but I was never in pain or screaming," says Lauren, now 37 years old.
Experts aren't positive how hypnosis helps with labor pain, but Palsson suspects it may lessen the so-called fight-or-flight response, which can cause muscle tension that makes it harder for the baby to move through the birth canal.
Baby-delivering pains aren't the only ouch hypnosis can heal, though. Studies show it can lessen the chronic pain that comes from conditions such as fibromyalgia or even a years-old injury (to, say, your back or ankle). Here's how: Typically, when you're hurt, the nervous system sends pain cues to the brain until the problem heals. But with chronic pain, the neurons misfire, making the signals—and the agony—continue. Hypnotherapy can help tamp down these signals," says David Patterson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology in the departments of rehabilitation medicine, surgery, and psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
So if you see a hypnotherapist for that bad back, her suggestions might be about ways to ease or completely get rid of the discomfort. (One example: Telling you to imagine you're putting your spinal pain into a series of progressively larger boxes, locking each one shut, then putting the last box on a train to take it away for good.) Most patients with chronic pain report feeling less achy after a single appointment and significantly better after about four sessions.
Ready to coax your brain to better health? If you suffer from a condition that hypnotherapy can help with, doing your research is key because most states don't require hypnotherapists to be licensed. Ask your primary-care doc for a referral, or contact the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. The latter requires therapists to be health-care professionals who are licensed in their state to provide medical, dental, or psychotherapeutic services, and to have completed at least 20 hours of hypnotherapy training, learning the process of hypnosis for a variety of conditions. Expect your initial appointment to last about an hour and to include more background-gathering than actual hypnosis so that your mental state and the root of your issue can be determined. Sessions (you'll probably need five to seven) cost about $100 to $150 a pop—though they may be covered by insurance if the therapist codes them as regular psychotherapy sessions.