You’re probably skeptical. That’s because Hollywood has given us a very specific, and very inaccurate, portrait of what a hypnotist does and is capable of doing. “You won’t turn into a zombie or cluck like a chicken,” says Valorie Wells, Ph.D., a clinical hypnosis practitioner in Kansas City, MO. “Hypnotherapy is really just you telling yourself how you want you to be, whether it’s to sleep better, to lose weight, to drive on a highway at full speed between two trucks.”
And while research is scarce, what we do have says hypnosis works surprisingly well. Early studies found that people who used hypnosis lost more than twice as much weight as those who dieted without the therapy. A study in International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis found women who underwent hypnobehavioral therapy lost weight, improved their eating habits, and improved their body image. Meanwhile, a meta-analysis by British researchers found hypnosis can actually help regulate the release of peptides that control how hungry and full you feel.
Emotional and unconscious eaters are prime candidates for hypnotherapy—the therapeutic use of clinical hypnosis. “By the time a patient comes to me, they’ve usually tried every weight-loss plan on the planet,” says Wells. “They know what they should and shouldn’t eat. They just don’t have the willpower to follow it.”
This is key, because the heart of why hypnosis works is because it teaches you to have more willpower. “People who see me for weight loss, food has taken the wrong place in their mind,” Wells explains. The goal of hypnotherapy is to rewrite this association. “We want to re-integrate the idea that food is fuel.”
No, there’s no watch-waving, no “You are getting very sleepy.” Wells explains that her typical session looks like this: The patient and hypnotherapist have a conversation about what the patient’s goals are, what their triggers are, what food plans do and don’t work for them, and what their body type is. “The suggestions I then make under hypnosis will cater to this,” Wells explains.
Wells adds that nothing she does is scripted and, other than the message that food is fuel, the hypnotic suggestions are customized based on this initial conversation.
After the chat, you move into the hypnosis session, which lasts about 20 to 25 minutes. “What I’m doing is helping this person balance the voices in their head,” Wells explains.
We all have a healthy subconscious—the gut reaction that keeps you out of danger or guides good decisions. “That inner voice is the one that keeps us from acting solely on emotion. During hypnosis, all I’m doing is turning the volume up on that inner wisdom and down on the emotional part,” she explains.
What does that actually sound like? Wells says an example of a hypnotic suggestion might be: “You will reach for fresh fruit. You will recognize sweets are too heavy for you and that fresh fruit will make you feel satisfied and nourished.”
Hypnosis isn’t teaching you to never have cravings, but it’s training your brain to hear, “Man, I’d love something sweet,” and follow with, “No, I probably don’t really want that.” “It’s about recognizing that while we feel like doing something, we don’t have to act that out,” she adds.
“Someone under hypnosis can hear everything; they’re still in full control,” Wells assured. It’s kind of like when you fall asleep with the TV on—you’re vaguely aware of a hum but not actually tuned in to the dialogue.
And if you’re worried about a nefarious hypnotist training your brain to do weird things, keep in mind your subconscious never turns off. “If a hypnotist were to inadvertently give a suggestion against your moral fiber, your subconscious would bring you out of hypnosis. It’s just like how you can pick out a real, alarming scream among a chorus of kids squealing. Your subconscious overrides the blur of the background,” Wells adds.
Most hypnotists will want you to come in for about half a dozen sessions total, but you should start to see changes in your automatic thinking after just two. Wells says if her patients don’t see improvement after three sessions, she re-evaluates with them because their issue is probably one hypnosis isn’t going to resolve. If your food issues actually stem from, say, a childhood phobia, hypnosis is the wrong tool to remove that roadblock.
A study out of Stanford found that one-quarter of people can’t be hypnotized because of how their brains are wired. And if you don’t truly want to lose weight—if you’re, say, just considering this avenue because your doctor suggested it—hypnosis isn’t going to work either, Wells says.
Other folks who hypnotherapy might not be right for: anyone with a mental health disorder that is based on a brain-pattern change, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. “Going into deep hypnosis can actually trigger a cycle, so I wouldn’t treat someone with this kind of disorder without approval from their psychiatrist first,” Well says.
Because hypnotherapy doesn’t require a license, anyone who can wave a watch can claim to be a hypnotist, Wells points out. Find a local practitioner through a reliable database, like the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis or the National Guild of Hypnotists. Can’t find someone in your area? A lot of hypnotists, including Wells, can conduct sessions over the phone.
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