Despite decades of scientific and anecdotal evidence for hypnosis’ ability to help with everything from quitting smoking to conquering phobias, it’s still thought of as being a bit out there. But, thanks to a recent spate of research, the method has been gaining ground. One notable study, by Stanford University in the US, used MRI to observe the brains of 57 participants under hypnosis and found it altered their brains in certain ways, one of which led to a disconnect between a person’s actions and their awareness of their actions.
Every brain is different, so is there such a thing as an average hypnotherapy session? “It will typically last between one and two hours,” explains Darren Marks, hypnotherapy instructor for The International Association of Counsellors and Therapists. “Your hypnotherapist will ease you into focused concentration, similar to meditation and, though people talk of ‘going under’, you won’t be ‘under’ for the whole session. It has a wave-like quality – you’ll be deeply absorbed one minute, distracted the next.”
Intrigued? We spoke to four women who’ve been there, done that and got real results.
In two minds
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems in the world and, according to a study published in the journal Brain And Behaviour, women are more likely to suffer than men. Olivia Ebeling, 34, had her first panic attack 11 years ago in the wake of a breakup, and in the years that followed her anxiety came in waves. She was prescribed medication to slow her heart rate during panic attacks but, understandably, rummaging around in her bag for an emergency tablet wasn’t the first thing to spring to mind in the grip of an episode. Four years ago, in search of a more long-term solution, she tried hypnosis for the first time. “The session began with a short meditation to help me relax,” Olivia explains. “I was so aware of my surroundings that I worried it wasn’t working, but about half an hour in, I felt a shift. It’s similar to the feeling of dropping off to sleep. My hypnotherapist, Chloe, would do simple visualisations: I’d imagine carrying a heavy backpack, unloading it onto a hot air balloon and watching it float away. And within these visualisations she’d embed calming phrases, like: ‘The stressful period is now behind you,’ designed to reprogram my subconscious.”
Within days of her first session, Olivia felt like a totally different person. “It was as if a switch had been flicked. I could feel the negative thinking patterns trying to form, but it was like they were bouncing off me, as if there was a firewall in my brain,” she recalls.
“Eventually, they stopped completely.”
For Sarah Harris*, 45, sitting down to eat a meal came with a side helping of debilitating problems. The stomach pain, bloating and diarrhoea that followed most meals began when she was a teenager, but seemed to worsen with age. It was only after reading about the success of clinical trials for hypnosis as a treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) that Sarah decided to give it a go. “In my first session, I talked about the history of my symptoms, my diet and any other sources of stress or anxiety I was experiencing,” Sarah recalls. “Then my hypnotherapist talked to me in a calm, soothing way. He told me to visualise my digestive system relaxing deep within me, creating an easy, healthy passage for my food.” Sarah began to listen to a recording of the visualisations each night for a month and, with practice, she learnt to relax her body during and after every meal.
While it could be argued that the effects are nothing more than a placebo, a study published in the journal Gut found that 71 per cent of patients with IBS responded positively to hypnotherapy. “It’s all down to the close link between the mind and digestion,” says Olafur Palsson, professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina. The brain sends signals to the gut, influencing how food moves through your intestines. Hypnotherapy can help iron out these mind-to-gut missives, so your intestines contract just as they should.
Can’t get no sleep
When insomnia becomes a nightly struggle, it can render your working day a nightmare, and for 22-year-old student Eloise Sutton, it hit during exam season. Unable to sleep because of a buzzing mind, she’d become increasingly restless, and the resulting stress proved just another barrier to nodding off. She had read about hypnotherapy and, despite feeling that it was “a bit hippy”, she found a local clinic and booked two sessions. After her first, she felt calmer and found it easier to fall asleep, but it was the second that changed everything. “My hypnotherapist played relaxing music before introducing imaginary scenarios,” Eloise explains. “While she was talking, it was as if time had slowed down. In one scenario, she helped me to imagine I was standing near the edge of a mountain, held back by ropes. Gradually, the ropes loosened until I was released and free. When I opened my eyes, I felt energised.” Along with visualisations, Eloise learnt coping strategies for restless nights, so that instead of becoming agitated, she felt able to accept being awake. Nine months on, a full eight hours is her new normal.
People with stress-linked sleep disturbances are thought to be great candidates for hypnotherapy. A study in the journal Sleep found that women who listened to a sleep hypnosis tape experienced up to 80 per cent more restorative slow-wave sleep compared with when they heard a neutral spoken text. Sweet dreams.
The pain game
Suggest to a woman in pain that it’s all in her mind and it could be the last thing you do. Yet studies show hypnosis can lessen the chronic pain that comes with conditions such as fibromyalgia and old injuries. When you’re hurt, the nervous system sends pain cues to the brain until the injury or issue heals. But with chronic pain, these neurons misfire, ensuring the signals – and agony – continue. “Hypnotherapy can help reduce these signals,” says David Patterson, professor of psychology at the University of Washington.
Say you see a hypnotherapist for a bad back – they might suggest putting the pain into a series of progressively larger boxes, locking each one shut, then putting the last one on a train to take it away for good. And back pain isn’t the only ouch that hypnosis can help with. Hypnobirthing has become hugely popular, no doubt thanks to the likes of Kate Middleton and Angelina Jolie, who both reportedly gave birth this way. “Contractions are fuelled by oxytocin – the cuddle hormone,” explains hypnobirthing coach Siobhan Miller. “But when a woman feels stressed during labour, adrenaline diverts blood away from the uterus, making it more painful. Hypnobirthing is rooted in relaxation in order to discourage this.” Siobhan discovered hypnotherapy while pregnant with her second child and describes the labour as a “peaceful home birth” – vastly different from the 48-hour labour she had with her first child. “The prospect of labour can leave women feeling terrified,” she explains. “Hypnobirthing reframes the experience to one of relaxation and confidence.”
In a typical session, Siobhan will teach some simple breathing exercises before going into visualisations of positive, empowering stories. “One example is I talk the women through a magic carpet ride. They fly through the sky and they end up meeting their baby,” she says. “The idea is that, when the times comes, they go into labour feeling empowered.” Sounds good to us.
*Name has been changed.
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