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When I hear that phrase "You are getting sleepy," all I get is skeptical. Hypnosis makes me think of a pendulous stopwatch and audiences at comedy shows quacking like ducks. You too, I bet. But it's making a comeback. Celebs have been lining up to try it: Ellen DeGeneres, Drew Barrymore, and Matt Damon all have used it to quit smoking; Mandy Moore and Fergie, to reduce anxiety; and Lily Allen and Courtney Love, to drop pounds.
There's a good reason for the resurgence: A pile of new research shows that it works. "In the past 10 years the empirical data on hypnosis has exploded," says Guy Montgomery, PhD, director of the integrative behavioral medicine program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "Hypnosis has been shown to be effective in hundreds of rigorous studies." Plus, there's more awareness and acceptance of alternative therapies now; nearly 40 percent of us use some form of alternative medicine, according to a new government survey of more than 23,000 U.S. adults.
While most researchers and doctors agree on the definition of hypnosis -- an altered state of consciousness characterized by heightened suggestibility and receptivity to direction -- the jury's still out on how it works. Some scientists theorize that hypnosis bypasses your conscious thoughts and goes directly to your unconscious mind, while others believe that it helps you change the way you perceive the world. One thing that's clear is the strength of the mind-body connection. Simply thinking a negative thought triggers the release of stress hormones, but focusing on happiness, love, or joy produces feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin and endorphins, which diminish anxiety, says Tracy Latz, MD, a psychiatrist and coauthor of Shift: A Woman's Guide to Transformation.
Still skeptical? You don't have to schedule an appointment to reap the benefits. We sorted through the research and grilled the experts on how you can think yourself into doing almost anything. Hypnotists have an arsenal of mental tools you can borrow and use on your own that range from "hypnosis light" -- visualization exercises and positive thinking -- to outright self-hypnosis. Get ready to master them -- and run faster, face your fear, feel less pain, and more.
What do supermarathoner Kara Goucher and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez have in common? They, like many other pro athletes, have coaches who help them harness the power of the mind to conquer performance obstacles. "I use hypnosis on athletes to help them tap into issues they aren't consciously aware of -- fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of not being perfect -- that hold them back during competition," says sports psychologist Jim Taylor, PhD, author of Prime Sport: Triumph of the Athlete Mind. "Hypnosis can help people let go of those fears and clear the path to their goals through the power of suggestion."
Imagine your thought process as a traffic light, explains Kristine Eiring, PhD, a psychologist and author of Mindfulness and Sport Psychology for Athletes, whose clients include triathletes, golfers, and basketball players. A negative thought, such as "I can't do this," is a red-light thought. It puts the brakes on your progress, making you tense up, so you don't perform your best. But positive thoughts, like "I will finish this race" and "I'm excited to hit this ball," are green-light thoughts, which help you zoom toward your goal. Simply put, psychologists use hypnosis to encourage the green lights and banish the reds by putting athletes in a relaxed state and having them focus on what they want to happen (hitting a home run) instead of what they don't (striking out).
Try this at home: Use your vocab to think positive. Enlist a partner -- a friend, your spouse -- to say "Switch" every time you utter a negative word, so you can swap in a positive one. For instance, if you say "I'm worried; I've never gone this far" before a long run, your buddy says, "Switch." Then you turn your statement around to "I'm going to feel so great when I accomplish this." "Even if you're not being hypnotized by an expert, with practice your unconscious mind will zone in on those positive words and help you get the outcome you want," says Yvonne Oswald, a hypnotherapist and author of Every Word Has Power.
Here's the new and improved to-do list for moms-to-be: (1) Get a copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting, (2) attend childbirth classes, and (3) learn self-hypnosis. In a 2004 study in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, women who used hypnosis during labor were less likely to have an epidural and reported feeling less pain than women who weren't hypnotized.
Similar outcomes with breast-cancer-surgery patients were observed by researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine: Two hundred women scheduled to undergo surgery received either 15 minutes of hypnotherapy or a talk session with a psychologist. Those who were hypnotized needed less anesthetic and reported less pain and discomfort afterward. "It's not magic; we used hypnosis to manage their expectations," says Montgomery, the lead author of the study. "Our research showed that by lowering how much pain patients expect to feel, we are able to decrease the amount of pain they actually experience." How? Because the women learned relaxation techniques that gave them a better handle on their stress hormones (remember, these little buggers amplify feelings of pain), they may have released less cortisol during and after surgery.
Try this at home: Turn down pain with self-hypnosis. Next time you're going to the dentist or you have a pounding headache, lie down in a quiet spot, close your eyes, and breathe deep, Montgomery advises. Imagine that you're at the top of a flight of 10 stairs. Slowly walk down them, feeling each step under your feet, as you count backward from 10. When you reach the bottom, you should feel deeply relaxed, and your subconscious will be more receptive to your suggestions. Tell yourself "When I go to the dentist this afternoon, I'm going to feel comfortable and relaxed" or "I will release all the tension in my head. My head feels wonderful." It's similar to meditation, Montgomery says, in that it allows you to assess your expectations and change them in the hope of promoting a better outcome (read: less pain).
Heights. Spiders. Public speaking. Water. We've all got something that freaks us out. But during hypnosis, you can use visualization to help work through it. If you are a swimmer but fearful of deep water, Roberta Temes, PhD, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hypnosis, might walk you through an exercise like this: Visualize yourself in three feet of water, feeling comfortable, and remind yourself that you know how to swim. Then see yourself in four feet of water, and so on. You're mastering the situation, and you feel confident and proud.
Your emotions and brain are intrinsically linked, and fearful feelings set off a series of physiological reactions. (Sweaty palms, anyone?) "When you visualize a positive result over and over, your mind believes it," Oswald says. And you can kiss those sweaty palms good-bye.
Try this at home: Succeed by using your imagination. Do you freeze up before presentations? There's a reason you feel anxious: Your subconscious is getting in the way. Right before your talk, sit at your desk and imagine a successful conclusion. "Turn up the sound of the applause in your mind, focus on the sight of your boss's approving smile, and then channel the feelings of accomplishment and let them flow into your body to feel the release," Oswald says. "You'll ace any event by focusing on the end result with excitement." Now go get 'em -- in a relaxed, Zen sort of way -- tiger.
So, does it work? Results do vary, but almost half the hypnotherapists in a recent survey said they'd seen an increase in weight-loss clients in the past year. So I decided to give it a try on my 15 extra pounds. I called Sean Wheeler, an Atlanta-based member of the National Guild of Hypnotists (the main accreditation board), and scheduled an appointment.Week 1
I was sitting in a recliner, listening to Wheeler's voice telling me to relax. Seriously? This didn't seem so different from hypnosis in the movies. I told myself to go with it, and I felt my body sink deeper into the chair. About 10 minutes later he started talking about food. "From this point forward, you become aware when your body is full and stop eating. You're attracted to healthy food." I left with a CD of our encounter to listen to daily to carve the mantras into my brain.
The next day, I paused when I was halfway through my lunch -- and dumped the rest. I wasn't hungry. I know what you're thinking: Sounds suspicious, a little too easy ("Poof! You're not hungry!"). I thought so too. But a couple of days later I realized that either (a) hypnosis didn't work like magic or (b) the spell had worn off when I downed an entire bag of chips while playing cards with my sister.Week 2
At my second session, I told Wheeler about my successes and slip-ups. He said that was progress; then I settled in for another round of hypnosis and eat-right suggestions. That night I had dinner at a Cuban restaurant and sipped water (no margaritas!).Week 3
After eight weeks I had dropped seven pounds. I'm too much of a skeptic to say whether I was making healthy choices solely because of hypnosis, but the process taught me to be more mindful. True, the whole thing felt a little hocus-pocus. But I'm not complaining -- and neither are my skinny jeans.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, February 2011.