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When I was growing up in Los Angeles, one of the hottest tickets was to see Pat Collins, a Sunset Strip impresario known as the "hip hypnotist." Collins, wearing cat-eye makeup and voluminous caftans, called volunteers up on stage, coaxed them into a trance, and then had them do embarrassing things. Audiences howled with laughter, especially when people "woke up" and professed to have no memory of the crazy stuff they'd just done.
It's a far cry from Sunset Strip to the nation's top medical institutions. But that's where hypnosis is taking center stage these days. Doctors are using trance states to help relieve pain, mitigate hot flashes, and manage anxiety -- even enhance fertility. "When I went to medical schools to lecture on hypnosis 25 years ago, it always ended with me being laughed out of the auditorium," says Steven Gurgevich, PhD, director of the Mind-Body Clinic at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. "Now I have more speaking invitations than I can handle."
Doctors have very different techniques and goals than entertainers, of course. But whoever does it, hypnosis generally starts with guiding someone into a state of deep concentration with words that help her focus and relax.
"Have you ever had the experience of being so immersed in a book you're reading that you don't notice somebody walk into the room? That's a trance," says Ted Grossbart, PhD, senior clinical supervisor at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. During a trance your mind is fully focused on something that you are imagining at the direction of your therapist -- a memory or future goal. In this state you're more open to imagery and suggestion, but only to images and suggestions you are comfortable with. Neither a pendant-swinging Svengali nor a psychologist in a lab coat can make you do something that you don't want to do.
When you're in a trance you feel everything you're asked to visualize more vividly and intensely. Whether your goal is to quit smoking, lose weight, or get over a phobia , the trance state allows you to experience, as if it were real, how it feels to resist those urges: breathing fresh, smoke-free air; craving healthy foods; or sitting on a plane without feeling anxious. After the hypnotherapy session those images continue to resonate, helping you resist the inclination to smoke, eat fast food, or panic on the tarmac.
That's how Christine Donohoe, 45, of Holland, Pennsylvania, lost 65 pounds. Donohoe -- who had been virtually living on cake, cookies, and candy -- went to a hypnotherapist so she would stop craving sweets. After four monthly treatments, plus listening to take-home tapes, his suggestions worked. "I actually came home from a hypnosis appointment, gobbled down three chocolate-chip cookies, got sick and didn't pick up another one for six solid years," says Donohoe, who's kept off the weight. "And you're talking to the former cookie monster."
The "realness" of hypnotic suggestion can cause physiological, not just behavioral, changes. That's why it helps with medical conditions as diverse as irritable bowel syndrome, skin conditions, and stress-related infertility. To show how hypnosis works, Dr. Gurgevich invites patients into the Tucson heat, then has them close their eyes and imagine the bone-chilling cold of a Minnesota winter: To their surprise they get goose bumps.
Using this same power of thought can help calm your shaky stomach if you have irritable bowel syndrome or redirect blood flow to minimize a migraine. A recent study at Baylor University found that hypnosis reduces the severity and frequency of hot flashes by 68 percent. "We provided calming images that may have caused women to produce less cortisol, a stress hormone that may trigger hot flashes," says the study's lead author, Gary Elkins, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience.
Hypnosis also helps control pain -- maybe by blocking pain signals from reaching the brain or perhaps just by making people less aware of their discomfort. When German researchers did brain scans on volunteers touched with a heating element, those who were hypnotized showed reduced activity in the areas of the brain that perceive pain. "It's similar to the way a football player doesn't notice pain while he's focused on a game," says Elvira Lang, MD, an associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School. "That's the relief we try to get with hypnosis."
Doctors use hypnosis with procedures such as outpatient surgery and root canal to help patients either forgo anesthesia entirely, thus avoiding side effects, or to reduce the amount needed. In a 2006 study Dr. Lang and her colleagues discovered that hypnotized women reported less pain and anxiety during a breast-tissue biopsy than nonhypnotized volunteers (both groups were injected with a mild painkiller). Women who got the short hypnosis treatment, which was performed in the biopsy room, were encouraged to imagine that their bodies were floating somewhere safe, such as a warm bath -- and told to transform any discomfort into something cooling or warming. These women reported much less distress later because hypnosis had focused their attention on pleasant sensations.
Everyone isn't equally susceptible to hypnosis. Experts have found that explaining how the technique works, however, can help enhance someone's openness to the process.
Four words you most likely won't hear when you visit a hypnotherapist: You are getting sleepy. "People imagine that they're going to be in a coma and can't move or remember anything afterward," says Jean Fain, a psychotherapist who teaches hypnosis at Harvard Medical School. "It's more like sitting in front of a fireplace where you're focused and relaxed." Most sessions last 30 to 60 minutes and begin with a conversation so the hypnotherapist can pinpoint the best types of suggestions and imagery for you. Then you'll be asked to close your eyes or to look at a point on the ceiling and take deep breaths while the therapist guides your mind to a place you've chosen. Once you have entered a trance, suggestions begin, geared toward your goal: Starting today you will savor every bite of food and eat only until you're comfortably full.... When you feel the urge to scratch your rash, you will place your hand lightly on the spot and feel soothing sensations flow from your fingers.
Often a hypnotherapist will suggest actions you can perform to counter the problem. "When someone feels an attack of irritable bowel syndrome coming on, for instance, we tell them to put their hand on their abdomen, feel it become warm and slow the cycle down so they don't have to run off to the bathroom," says Charlene Williams, PhD, a psychologist and the clinical program coordinator of the Mind-Body Medicine Group at UCLA. Fain sometimes suggests to weight-control patients that whenever they put thumb and forefinger together they will automatically feel relaxed and more in control of their eating. After the session -- you may or may not remember all that happened -- you'll likely go home with a recording. Practice helps cement suggestions and, if you need a refresher, you can just pop in the recording. Pat Carroll, of Meriden, Connecticut, takes a portable tape player and headphones with her every time she goes to the dentist.
After almost dying from an allergic reaction to antibiotics while having her wisdom teeth removed, Carroll developed such a powerful fear of the dentist that her husband had to literally carry her into the office. She uses the tape to put herself into a trance while the dentist works on her.
Expect to pay $100 to $250 per session for hypnosis from someone with an MD, PhD, or other professional degree. The number of treatments you may need will vary depending on your problem and response to the therapy.
And be aware that hypnosis is far from a cure-all, especially for its most popular uses: pain management, weight loss, and quitting smoking. Only a few studies have found that people lose more weight with hypnosis than without. While some research shows that hypnosis works better against smoking than a nicotine patch, the success rate is still low. One study comparing the effect of a patch alone to using the patch plus hypnosis found that 24 percent of the combination-therapy group remained nonsmokers after a year (for the patch-alone group it was 16 percent).
So when is hypnosis worth the time and money? If you're very motivated to achieve your goal, believe hypnosis can work for you, and can imagine how it would feel to be free of your problem. "Those are the three main ingredients for success," says Dr. Gurgevich.
Jennifer Walla, 39, Neenah, Wisconsin
I'd tried to quit my pack-a-day habit about 12 times before but nothing worked. I was able to stop when I was pregnant but went right back to smoking. The hypnotherapist put me in a comfy chair and asked why I wanted to quit. He then had me gaze at a spot on the ceiling and began to offer me suggestions, mostly related to what I'd told him: I could work out longer, not smell like smoke, and be honest with my family. It took about an hour. I felt refreshed but not like I'd been asleep. That was almost three years ago and I haven't smoked since.
Carly Milne, 33, Los Angeles, California
After being rear-ended hard I kept freaking out whenever another car got too close. A friend recommended hypnosis and I thought, "I've tried weirder things." During our four sessions the hypnotherapist would give me suggestions such as, "Every time you see red taillights you will feel calm." It didn't change things overnight but my fear lessened each session. He made me a CD, which I downloaded onto my iPod. Now I'm very relaxed when I drive. In fact, when a car suddenly stopped in front of me one day, I stayed totally calm. My fear had vanished.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2009.