You’re Getting Very Sleepy…

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Does hypnotherapy work?

One snowy night 27 years ago, I sat in a conference room with about 100 people I’d never met. Our singular mission: to stop smoking. We each paid $30 for a session in hypnosis. I was skeptical but to my surprise, 30 minutes later I was and continue to be a non-smoker.

The American Psychological Association defines hypnotherapy as a “procedure during which a health professional suggests that he or she experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts or behaviors.” Such behaviors include smoking cessation, weight loss or anxiety. It’s also useful in controlling pain.

When I related my hypnosis experience to Thomas Rostafinski, PhD, a clinical and pain psychologist and clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Loyola University Medical Center, he came back with some interesting statistics. “Nicotine addiction is very tough to overcome. Probably no more than 5 out of your 100 had success without further instruction; 10 or 20 might have been significantly helped and probably half came away thinking, ‘Oh well, $30 down the drain,’” he said.

Dr. Rostafinski’s rule is to never use hypnosis without being able to keep an eye on everyone in the group. Often, he says, for every occasion such as the one I attended, there are one or two ‘casualties.’ Hypnosis can bring up unpleasant memories and past traumas, even those we don’t remember. But in a controlled environment, hypnotherapy’s benefits are huge. His work includes many patients with chronic pain. “It’s no magic bullet,” he says, “but patients find the self-soothing techniques for calming and for transforming pain very helpful.”

When Rebecca Lauer, a certified hypnotherapist and a master practitioner in neuro-linguistic programming, founded Hypnosis Chicago, she never imagined what an emotionally rewarding career it would be. “I’ve been fascinated by the power of the human mind all my life,” she says. “I even tried to hypnotize myself as a teenager. I love that I can make a significant difference in people’s lives.”

Ms. Lauer says she sees hypnosis as helping us to use our imagination for rather than against ourselves. If you have the power to scare yourself, she reasons, you have the power to calm yourself as well.

Laurie Keefer, PhD, a health psychologist, associate professor of medicine and director, Center for Psychosocial Research in GI at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, finds gratification in helping her patients, too. Her patients suffer from a gamut of painful gastrointestinal diseases, including Crohn’s Disease, colitis, IBS and esophageal issues like heartburn.

“Under hypnosis, you can actually regulate how food moves through the GI tract,” Dr. Keefer shares. “The gut is a muscle, so you can control functions between it and your brain.”

In speaking about who makes the best subject for hypnotherapy, Dr. Keefer believes that 90 percent of the population are hypnotizable (although not all on the first session). Anxious folks may take longer to become relaxed, but only those who are the most skeptical, or have thought disorders, can’t quite achieve the state.

As the tongue-and-cheek title of this article suggests, there are certainly misconceptions about hypnotherapy. Between Hollywood scenes of a watch-swinging goon and Las Vegas floor shows with people clucking like chickens, the word ‘hypnosis’ conjures up some pretty unflattering images. So what do the experts have to say?

“By far the biggest push back I hear is losing control,” Ms. Lauer says. “The truth of the matter is that everybody hears, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to follow the suggestions. But not everybody remembers the suggestions once they’re brought out of hypnosis. Furthermore, hypnosis actually gives them more control over their mind and emotional state.”

Dr. Rostafinski chuckles at his childhood memories of ads in the back of magazines. “It was the old Svengali thing, the idea that a hypnotist can bend people to his will. It’s simply not true, nor is it magic.” Dr. Keefer agrees and adds that although misconceptions exist, for those patients who’ve already been through a great deal of treatments, hypnosis is a behavioral tool they’re willing to try.

All a far cry from the well-known phrase, “You’re getting sleepy.” Hypnosis, in fact, is not sleep nor is it meditation. Rather, hypnosis is focused attention with imagery to help the subjects achieve their goals. In my case, it was apples. The practitioner in that hotel told us afterward that our post-hypnotic suggestion was to eat an apple each time we craved cigarettes. And 27 years later, I still believe an apple a day keeps the cigarettes away.

Rosemary Fanti Illustration

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About Judy Pearson

Judy Pearson is a graduate of Michigan State University who's written nearly two decades worth of newspaper and magazine articles and has published three books. Her biography of Virginia Hall, Wolves at the Door: the True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy, has been optioned for a movie. Her most recent book, It’s Just Hair: 20 Essential Life Lessons, is a 2012 International Book Award finalist. Ms. Pearson is also the founder of Courage Concepts, an organization that cultivates courage in women and provides workshops/keynotes for corporations and other organizations.