Of the many types of mind-body medicine, few are as misunderstood as hypnosis. Because of the unfavorable ways that it has frequently been portrayed in movies and TV, many people have preconceived notions about hypnotism.
The truth is that hypnotism has demonstrated medical benefits and can unlock the power of the mind to improve both mental and physical health. Rather than a strange or eccentric practice, it is instead conducted by trained professionals who can harness this technique to create long-term positive outcomes.
One area in which hypnosis has shown potential is in reducing sleep disturbances. The type of focus it stimulates can eliminate barriers to sleep in people with insomnia, and it may also help manage other health issues that can interfere with quality sleep.
In this article, we provide a general overview of hypnosis, how it can help with sleep, and how you can explore whether this therapy can benefit you.
What is Hypnosis?
Hypnosis is a particular mental state that involves heightened focus and concentration with reduced peripheral awareness. Dr. David Spiegel, the Medical Director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, describes hypnosis as like a telephoto lens: it zooms in on a specific thing and reduces attention to the surrounding context.
Because hypnosis involves such intense focus, it can induce a trance-like state. During this state, people are more prone to follow suggestions. While this does not place someone “under the control” of a hypnotist, as often depicted in movies or TV shows, it can make them more inclined to follow instructions. Practitioners of hypnosis can make positive suggestions to patients in this state to encourage positive health outcomes.
During hypnosis, brain activity changes, and certain parts of the brain can become more or less engaged. While more research is necessary to fully understand how hypnosis works, it appears that the suggestions from a hypnotist can alter this brain activity in ways that reduce symptoms of conditions like pain, anxiety, depression, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Hypnotism and Sleep
Can Hypnotism Help You Sleep?
In the popular imagination, it’s common to associate hypnosis with the phrase “you are getting sleepy.” This is a misconception because the trance-like state is very distinct from sleep, but hypnosis can nevertheless play a role in treating insomnia.
Scientific research into hypnosis as a treatment for sleeping problems is still at an early stage. A 2017 meta-analysis reviewed the existing studies and found that there is reason to believe that hypnosis can help address sleep disturbances. One example of hypnosis, for example, may induce a person to focus on times when they peacefully slept. By helping them hyper-focus on this image, distractions and negative thoughts about sleep can be blocked out, making it easier to smoothly doze off.
Hypnotism does not have to focus specifically on this type of imagery to be successful. There are many methods of hypnotism, and the flexibility of the technique is one of its great benefits. People trained in hypnotism, including dedicated hypnotists and therapists trained in the practice, can customize their approach for each patient.
The ability to tailor hypnosis for each patient makes it viable for treating many health conditions. Many of these conditions, such as pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), have negative impacts on sleep. For this reason, there is evidence to suggest that hypnosis can have a meaningful impact on reducing sleep disturbance in people with co-existing physical or mental health conditions.
Another benefit of the flexibility of hypnosis is that it can be combined with other types of therapy. As a type of complementary medicine, hypnotic therapy can be done in conjunction with other types of talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or treatment with medications. People receiving hypnotherapy may also receive instructions on how to improve sleep hygiene to further remove barriers to sleep.
Hypnosis has shown promise in children as well. Evidence indicates that it may help children in regulating mood and behavior, and this may contribute to better management of conditions, such as ADHD, that can inhibit sleep in young people.
What Are the Potential Downsides to Hypnosis?
There are few established negative effects on hypnosis as a medical treatment. In most studies, patients report no adverse effects regardless of the type of hypnosis conducted. However, in some cases, hypnosis has been associated with dizziness and headaches. Some patients may find it spurs anxiety, leads to the creation of false memories, or worsens symptoms in patients with severe mental illness.
As with all medical interventions, it is best to talk with a health professional to understand the benefits and risks of hypnosis in any patient’s specific situation.
Does Hypnosis Work for Everyone?
While researchers have recognized the power and potential of hypnosis, it does not work for everyone. Every person has a level of hypnotizability, and a percentage of people cannot be hypnotized. One expert estimates that hypnosis cannot help roughly 10% of people with insomnia.
On the flip side, there is a segment of the population, perhaps 15% of people, that are easily hypnotized and can benefit from this therapy more quickly and with fewer sessions. For everyone else, hypnotism can be trained but may require more or less time effort depending on the person.
In addition to a person’s hypnotizability, the success of hypnosis can depend on how motivated a person is to participate in the therapy. Patients who approach hypnosis with an open mind and a more positive attitude are more likely to benefit from the treatment.
How Do You Get Started With Hypnotism?
People looking to start with hypnotism should work with a trained professional who can review the benefits and risks of treatment in their case and can customize a hypnosis approach that is most likely to serve their needs. A doctor or therapist can frequently make a referral to someone with a background in hypnosis. The Mayo Clinic offers a series of questions that can be asked of a hypnotist or therapist to learn more about their experience and training.
Hypnosis does not require any special preparation or equipment. It usually occurs in an office or a comfortable environment and involves two main steps. The hypnotist typically creates a relaxed setting and invites you to focus on a particular thing, such as an image or your breathing. Once you reach an intense state of focus, the hypnotist offers suggestions that help you envision and achieve the goals of the therapy.
In some cases, you may receive instructions for home practice. This can include audio recordings that induce hypnosis. There are tools available online and in smartphone apps for hypnosis, but not all of these resources meet high standards for quality. As a result, it is recommended that you work with a trained professional before attempting to do any self-hypnosis or audio-guided hypnosis on your own.
Learn More About Hypnosis
- SleepHelp: A Comprehensive Guide to Meditation and Sleep. This guide focuses on meditation, another popular type of mind-body medicine, and how it can create a relaxation response to promote high-quality sleep.
- The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH): Tranceformation -- Hypnosis in Brain and Body. This nine-part video series from NCCIH, a component of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), explains the scientific basis of hypnosis and reviews its clinical applications based on the research that has been conducted to date.
- American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). ASCH is a professional organization founded in 1957 that provides training and certification for hypnotists and that promotes the acceptance of hypnosis in health care. The ASCH website includes a section for the public that offers information about hypnosis and how to find a trained practitioner.