How This Freaky Technique Might Help Solve Your Anxiety, IBS & More

For most people, the word hypnosis conjures images of swinging a pocket watch or a grown man quacking like a duck — not medical treatment. But a number of experts want that to change. In recent years, scientists have learned more about hypnosis’ effect on the body. And though researchers still have questions about exactly how hypnosis works, there is a growing body of evidence that it might be able to provide relief for patients suffering from a diverse set of conditions, from chronic pain to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Ahead, we dive into the latest on this storied technique — why it’s so misunderstood, what it’s really like, and how it might help you.

Coming Back From A Dark History
People’s faith in hypnosis as a clinically useful treatment has ebbed and flowed over the years, in part because of hypnosis' associations with sideshows and other New Age pseudo-treatments — like healing crystals, hypnosis even has some occult associations. But the bigger issue is that in the wrong hands, the practice really can have unpredictable effects: In the past few years, several weird instances have made headlines — back in 2011, for example, a school principal in Florida was fired after it was found that he was regularly hypnotizing students, including three boys mere days before they committed suicide. That may have been an extreme case. But it is possible to use hypnosis for more nefarious purposes, admits David Spiegel, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University who has studied hypnosis for decades. Some have used hypnosis to create false memories or leave a patient vulnerable to manipulation. “People who are hypnotized are intensely focused, [and] more trusting of others at the time,” Dr. Spiegel says. “People are scared of the idea that they can be influenced that much, so they dismiss hypnosis as nonsense. But it’s vastly safer than any other medication we use." And as the list of conditions that hypnosis — or hypnotherapy, as it is called when it’s being used as medical treatment — might help grows longer and longer, interest in hypnotherapy is now on a slow upward swing, Dr. Spiegel says.
How Hypnosis Heals The conditions that hypnosis may improve usually have one major thing in common: The brain is the locus. The technique seems to be most helpful for patients with psychological conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, or anxiety, Dr. Spiegel says. Research also supports hypnosis’ usefulness in relaxing people before or after difficult medical procedures or helping them break destructive habits — like compulsive hair-pulling (just ask Olivia Munn). Hypnosis may also help treat pain, which is particularly exciting right now, when the U.S. is in the throes of an opioid epidemic fueled by easy access to potent painkillers. One 2007 study showed that patients who are hypnotized need less anesthesia during minor surgery and reach for fewer painkillers afterwards. Other studies have shown that hypnosis can help reduce the pain of childbirth. When it comes to pain relief, it’s not totally clear how it works on a neurological level, but it could be that hypnosis changes how people feel about their pain, which helps the experience actually hurt less. “When you feel pain, there’s an emotion related to it,” explains Bruno Falissard, a psychiatrist and professor of public health at the University of Paris-Sud. “That can depend a lot on the environment, or a person’s level of anxiety. It’s possible that hypnosis works mostly on the emotional part of pain.” In one Danish study, for example, a group of first-time mothers were taught self-hypnosis techniques in the weeks leading up to the birth, while another group was not. The training not only helped the mothers relax in the weeks leading up to birth, but it also changed how they remembered it. When asked six weeks later about their memory of the birthing experience, the women who were hypnotized remembered much less pain than the un-hypnotized women. Finally, there is evidence to suggest hypnosis could be used in the case of IBS, especially for those with severe symptoms that don’t respond to other treatments. In one study, published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers recruited 138 IBS patients and separated them into two groups: Half of the patients got “gut-directed” hypnotherapy, in which patients were directed to specifically focus on their guts and imagine their symptoms resolving. The other half got a more standard form of hypnosis. After three months, patients in both groups had improvements in their symptoms, but the gut-directed group felt even better.
What Hypnosis Is Really Like Whether your frame of reference is Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, the 2001 film Zoolander, or Bugs Bunny, you’ve probably seen hypnosis employed as a tool to make someone do something they don’t want to do. But the real definition of hypnosis is simply the induction of a state of sustained, focused attention. People who’ve experienced it often describe it as feeling heavy, having tingly arms or numb legs, a trance-like relaxation, or “a euphoric state of peace.” Falissard says the hypnotic state is simply “altered consciousness.” For its part, the American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists adds that it’s “a natural state” that all of us are familiar with: “In fact, each of us enters such a state — sometimes called a trance state — at least twice a day: once when we are falling asleep and once when we are waking up,” the group’s website reads. To get there, a typical hypnotherapy appointment might go like this: First, the therapist will give the patient a rundown of what will happen during the session, making sure he or she’s as comfortable as possible. The hypnotherapist will instruct the patient to close their eyes or look up and then calmly describe soothing images — “to make them [both] physically comfortable and mentally alert” — all with the intention of prompting the patient to turn inward into a state of relaxed focus, Dr. Spiegel says.

People are scared of the idea that they can be influenced that much, so they dismiss hypnosis as nonsense. But it’s vastly safer than any other medication we use.

David Spiegel, MD
Though it remains unclear exactly what happens in the brain during hypnosis, this acute state of focus resembles the one that can be reached during meditation. “The ability to focus in this way gives you the ability to alter your attention,” Dr. Spiegel says. “It can enhance the typical mind-body control.” In other words, hypnosis might work by distracting you from symptoms of IBS or anxiety and help you literally think your way into relief. These days, you can find a hypnotherapist with a simple Google search. But in order to get the most out of the treatment (and to avoid any funny business), the best advice is to seek out a mental health professional, like a psychologist or psychiatrist, who is also trained and licensed in hypnotherapy, Dr. Spiegel says. A good place to start your search is an integrative or complimentary medicine center affiliated with a local hospital. The Limitations There is one major caveat to all of this: As many as one-third of adults are simply incapable of being hypnotized. Part of the reason hypnosis might not work is a patient’s attitude, Falissard adds — if you don’t think it’s going to work, it won’t. But there may also be physical differences between people who are hypnotizable and those who are not. For one thing, there is evidence that there’s a genetic component to “hypnotizability” — one small study found that some people who are hypnotizable have a genetic mutation that enables their brains to make more dopamine, a chemical essential to attention. In another study, Spiegel and his colleagues compared the brain waves of people with high and low hypnotizability while they were at rest. The people who were highly hypnotizable had greater connectivity between the two sides of their brains, indicating that they likely have stronger executive control function, the ability of the brain to prioritize one thing over another at any given moment. “When the two [sides of the brain] work together, you tend to get more engaged in what you’re doing, because you’re not worried about what you’re not doing,” Dr. Spiegel says. For similar reasons, it doesn’t seem to work so well for people with bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia. That's because these illnesses act on the parts of the brain that help you pay attention, making it harder for sufferers to focus hard enough to actually achieve a state of hypnosis. Because of all this, a hypnotherapist will usually first conduct a pre-hypnosis assessment to see where a patient lies on the hypnotizability scale and whether or not they can be hypnotized at all, Dr. Spiegel explains. While it’s not right for everyone, there’s lots of room for hypnotherapy to be adopted by even more people as a compliment to traditional treatment, especially for those suffering from complex conditions like IBS or chronic pain. For these conditions, Western medicine is sometimes just not enough, Falissard says. “People are searching for something less conventional, less biological.” Only time will tell if hypnosis really can be the answer.

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