Of all the various mind-body disciplines, hypnosis is probably the most misunderstood. Misconceptions from portrayals on television and in movies—scenes of people being hypnotized into doing the bidding of the hypnotist—keep many people from exploring whether this technique would be effective for them. But studies have shown that hypnosis-based interventions, either as a stand-alone therapy or part of a multi-pronged approach, can be effective for many health issues, including pain, anxiety, depression, and even the side effects of cancer treatment.

With the opioid crisis showing no signs of abating, hypnotherapy offers a drug-free alternative for many conditions typically treated (though not always successfully) with medication. Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware of its usefulness or how to find a qualified practitioner. Here’s what you need to know.

Understanding hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy is a psychological technique that can help ease the symptoms of certain medical conditions and/or help you change unhealthy habits. The practice of hypnotherapy involves being induced, or guided, into a deep state of relaxation to activate your subconscious mind, which is more receptive to suggestions than your conscious mind.

To do this, a hypnotherapist might use a soothing voice to describe scenes that create a sense of calm. Once you’re in a relaxed state, he or she will offer previously agreed upon suggestions to help you achieve your well-being goals, such as better managing pain, handling anxiety over getting on an airplane or going to the dentist, or quitting smoking, to name just a few examples.

He or she may prompt you to clearly picture achieving these goals. At the end of the session, he or she will help you return to your normal state of alertness, though many people can do this for themselves.

Hypnotizability: An innate trait

Hypnosis has been used for a long time and has much research to support its benefits. One limitation, though, is that not everyone responds to it equally well. That’s because not everyone can be guided to the deeply relaxed state necessary to benefit from it. In other words, not everyone is hypnotizable to the same degree.

Hypnotizability—the ability to experience change through hypnosis—varies from person to person and is considered a natural trait, like eye or hair color. Some people have it to a higher degree than others. It’s estimated that 15 percent of people are highly hypnotizable and are likely to benefit the most from hypnosis. About two-thirds of adults are at least somewhat hypnotizable.

What accounts for this variability? Among the different factors, brain imaging research has shown that high hypnotizability is associated with greater functional connectivity between two very specific regions of the brain, the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.

Unlike other mind-body approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or deep states of meditation that you can get better at over time, you can’t deepen your level of hypnotizability through practice.

It’s possible to find out your level of hypnotizability. A hypnotherapist will do a hypnotic induction followed by a set of specific suggestions. He or she will then give you a hypnotic induction profile (HIP) score based on your responsiveness from 0 (no responsiveness) to 10 (most responsive). People who score above 8 are considered highly hypnotizable.

Important: Hypnosis is safe for most people, but it’s not appropriate for people with certain conditions, including neurological disorders like seizures and serious psychiatric disorders, like bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or severe major depressive disorder with thoughts of suicide.

A breakthrough to increase hypnotizability

Researchers at Stanford University recently conducted a study aimed at broadening the number of people who could be helped by hypnotherapy. The double-blind study used noninvasive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate in order to temporarily boost the ability to respond to suggestions in hypnosis. The specific technique developed is called Stanford Hypnosis Integrated with Functional Connectivity-targeted Transcranial Stimulation, or SHIFT.

The research focused on people living with fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by chronic pain. Prior studies found that hypnosis has a highly effective analgesic effect with a far better risk/benefit ratio than pain medication, such as opioids. One-half of the 80 participants received SHIFT, and the other half received a sham version. Brain imaging was used to precisely target the location for the stimulation.

The pre-to-post SHIFT change in the HIP scores was significantly greater in the group receiving SHIFT compared with those in the sham group. Though SHIFT has to be repeated right before every hypnotherapy session (it doesn’t create any permanent change), less than two minutes of stimulation is needed to increase hypnotizability.

Now that there’s an answer to the question of whether our brains can be made to act more like that of a highly hypnotizable individual, the next step is to work on clinical adaptations of SHIFT—developing and testing treatments that, once given FDA approval, could be used by any clinic or hospital with a TMS machine.

Finding a hypnotherapist

You don’t have to wait for SHIFT to become widely available to find out if hypnosis can benefit you. But it is essential that you work with a qualified and experienced medical practitioner  who is certified to assess your hypnotizability and treat you.

The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) has a search tool at https://www.asch.net/aws/ASCH/pt/sp/find-professional. Its ASCH Certification in Clinical Hypnosis is available only to bona fide healthcare professionals licensed in their locality to provide psychotherapeutic, medical, or dental services, not to people trained only in hypnosis without the medical training to apply it effectively. A number of leading medical institutions with comprehensive brain centers or complementary and integrative medicine programs offer hypnosis as well.

Hypnosis at Your Fingertips?

Stanford University’s David Spiegel, MD, a pioneer in hypnotherapy for 40 years, has developed an automated digital self-hypnosis app called Reveri (www.reveri.com) to make the benefits of hypnosis more accessible. During self-hypnosis, you reach a state of relaxation and calm without a healthcare provider’s guidance.

Although some people may benefit more from face-to-face treatment, there’s been a lot of positive feedback regarding the app’s guided sessions, which are designed to help with issues such as stress, pain, trouble sleeping, losing weight, and stopping unhealthy lifestyle habits like drinking and smoking. It’s an inexpensive way to try hypnosis on your own, even if you’ve never had hypnosis treatment before. There’s a large and active online user community as well as virtual workshops and events.

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