May 16, 2023 – You might know hypnosis as cheesy stage act. But for the past 3 decades, evidence has been piling up that hypnosis – or hypnotherapy – can be a powerful treatment for medical problems like chronic pain, hot flashes, and anxiety, and even help you lose weight.
Hypnosis “leverages the power of words to transform lives,” said Steven Jay Lynn, PhD, a professor of psychology at Binghamton University, in Binghamton, NY. “With suggestions that you provide a receptive person, you can modify their thoughts, their feelings, their behavior.”
The question is: Would hypnosis work for you?
Soon, a simple blood or saliva test could tell you – thanks to Stanford University researchers who recently developed a device, small enough to fit in your hand, that analyzes DNA for a hypnosis-related gene in just minutes.
People, especially females, with variations of this gene – called catechol-o-methyltransferase (COMT) – were more likely than others to respond to hypnotherapy for pain, the researchers found.
The gene helps make an enzyme that regulates dopamine metabolism in the brain – a process linked to attention.
“Hypnosis is a highly focused state of attention,” said study author Dana Cortade, PhD, a former doctoral student at Stanford. “And the dopamine pathways that regulate attention are impacted by COMT as it goes to your prefrontal cortex.”
In previous research, people with different variations or levels of COMT used different brain pathways when asked to take a test. This suggests the gene is linked to attention abilities, which could translate to the ability to be hypnotized.
The Stanford test is not commercially available yet, but someday, health care providers could use it to screen patients for “hypnotizability” – for example, before surgery to see if hypnosis could help reduce a patient’s pain, said Cortade.
A Test You Can Try Right Now
You could book a formal screening to see if hypnosis would work for you. The tester may encourage you to, say, raise your arm to see how you respond to suggestion, or try to hypnotize you and ask what you remember. Insights are graded on a scale ranking your hypnotizability. The problem is that trained testers can be hard to find, the Stanford study notes.
For a DIY test, try this visualization: Imagine you’re walking through a rose garden, surrounded by vibrant flowers. Can you hear the birds chirping and bees buzzing? Can you smell the floral air?
If so, you’re likely to be more hypnotizable, said Gary Elkins, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, TX. “Some people are like, ‘I can hear you, and I didn't experience anything.’ Other people: ‘I could really imagine it.’ And then there are those who report: ‘I can actually smell the rose, the aroma. I felt like I was in the flower garden.’”
About 10% to 15% of people are very hypnotizable, while 15% to 20% struggle to be hypnotized, and everyone else falls in between. Still, hypnotizability can be learned, Elkins said.
It “operates similar to intelligence,” he said. “If a person is in the high range of hypnotizability, they'll probably notice the benefits quicker. If a person is in a lower range, they may have to practice for 2 or 3 weeks.”
But Elkins’s research suggests that nearly everyone can achieve a “clinically significant reduction in symptoms” with hypnosis, regardless of their hypnotizability.
Apps are an easy, inexpensive way to practice. Elkins works with a company called Mindset Health, which offers hypnotherapy apps for sleep, irritable bowel syndrome, hot flashes, and smoking cessation. There’s also Reveri, developed by Stanford psychiatrist and hypnosis researcher David Spiegel, MD, (also a co-author of the Stanford study mentioned above).
How Hypnosis Works
Hypnosis is a state of being very focused and very relaxed at the same time. As Spiegel has described it, it’s like getting caught up in a good movie. You’re so absorbed in the story that you “enter an imagined world,” and your physical surroundings fade away.
Most sessions start with a “hypnotic induction”: You’re asked to sit comfortably and focus on an object or a spot on the wall, said Elkins. The hypnotist will try to get you to relax and induce a hypnotic state. Once you go under, they may describe “pleasant mental imagery” or “positive metaphors or stories” and suggest ways to achieve your goals, he said. It’s all intended to help shift your thinking, feelings, and behaviors.
Despite growing interest in hypnotherapy, little is known about what happens in the brain during this state. But Stanford research suggests a few things are going on.
First, activity goes down in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (linked to attention control), reducing the noise and distraction of what’s happening around you. Then circuits light up between the insula and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, areas linked to body control and executive function, respectively, bolstering the body-brain connection. At the same time, there’s less activity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network (involved in self-referential processing), helping you feel less self-conscious.
Taken together, these changes may help you let go of your surroundings and focus on body and emotional control.
What Can Hypnosis Treat?
Scientists are still looking into all the ways hypnosis can help your health, but plenty of data backs it up for a variety of uses.
“The scientific rigor, the quality of randomized clinical trials and research, has really increased in regard to hypnosis research over the past 20 or so years,” Elkins said.
Here’s what recent research shows:
- Chronic pain: Eight or more hypnosis sessions can reduce musculoskeletal or neuropathic pain, according to a study review. And cancer survivors who listened to hypnosis recordings daily for 28 days saw reductions in pain and anxiety, University of Washington researchers found.
- Acute pain from medical procedures: Hypnosis can reduce pain from tooth extractions and other dental surgeries, according to a study review. And in a clinical trial, breast cancer patients who were hypnotized before their mastectomy had lower pain intensity than those who did not do hypnosis, and pain interfered less in their sleep and daily lives.
- Anxiety: In an analysis of 15 studies, University of Connecticut researchers concluded that hypnosis works very well in treating anxiety, especially when combined with other therapies.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): “Gut-directed” hypnotherapy can reduce belly pain in IBS patients by 57% after 3 months, report researchers in Australia. (People in the study used the Mindset Health app Nerva.)
- Hot flashes: Hypnosis helped postmenopausal women have fewer hot flashes, regardless of whether they expected it to work.
- Weight loss: People in a health education program who did hypnotherapy once a month for 3 months lost nearly 5% of their body weight – about 1.5% more than those who skipped the hypnotherapy. Those who also practiced self-hypnosis on their own time lost even more (6% of their body weight).
- Smoking cessation: Some small studies suggest that hypnosis could help curb cravings and reduce the number of cigarettes people smoke as they try to quit. But more research is needed, according to a Cochrane Review. One upside: no significant side effects.
- Sleep: Evidence is still too thin to know whether hypnosis can help ease insomnia, researchers in France concluded. Still, it could be worth a try. Elkins and colleagues found that postmenopausal women who practiced self-hypnosis reported longer sleep times and better-quality sleep.
Interested in Seeing a Hypnotist?
Step one is to talk to your primary care doctor, who may suggest other interventions first. Hypnosis is “rarely a standalone treatment,” Lynn said, and is “combined, ideally, with a well-established empirically supported intervention for a particular problem.”
Look for a qualified professional, preferably one who is also a therapist, social worker, or licensed health care provider. The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis has an online directory, and the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis keeps a list of certified professionals. Hypnosis teletherapy can be done.
A session lasts about 45 minutes, Elkins said. You’ll likely see results after two or three weekly sessions. But for full benefits, you may need up to eight sessions. To boost your results, your practitioner may provide audio recordings so you can practice at home.