Is hypnosis the new meditation?

The practice can help you sleep more soundly and perform better in the gym.

Hypnosis is one of those wellness practices that sounds too good to be true. But there’s both anecdotal and science-backed evidence that it can work. Studies have found that hypnosis could help people with sleep issues, mitigate chronic pain, and may lessen symptoms of anxiety, depression, and irritable bowel syndrome. What's more, it could actually benefit your fitness routine.

“I had a trainer who was practicing aerial silks but experienced a bad fall and started to get fearful about the practice,” recalls Morgan Yakus, a hypnosis practitioner based in Los Angeles. “She was playing a script in her head about how scary it would be to get back into it.” During a session, Yakus asked her to see herself playing in the silks and being confident. That night she went to class and did the move effortlessly. “The idea is that the mind can know it's safe and possible,” Yakus explains.

Similarly, when Yakus had a client training for a marathon, she asked them to visualize the end result and get excited about it. “This way their brain knows that they can complete the process and then they can become more present and focused on setting short-term goals and having the motivation for crossing the finish line,” she explains.

People are also beginning to turn to the alternative practice as a complement to traditional forms of therapy. “The techniques used in hypnosis are similar to those used in cognitive behavioral therapy,” says David Spiegel, a hypnosis researcher and medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine in California. “Both involve restructuring your thoughts, though CBT is a bit more of a structured practice where you have homework that you do a certain way and certain time. Hypnosis can be more emotionally experiential, but also a little more intense, because it’s really an active way of shifting your thinking where you have to be really present.” He adds that CBT and hypnosis are complementary, so many people use them together to overcome challenges.

Here’s what you should know about the alternative practice.

What is hypnosis?
You could almost consider hypnosis a guided version of meditation. Contrary to how it’s typically portrayed in pop culture, “hypnosis isn’t a form of mind control nor a trance-like state where you lose consciousness,” says Joseph Green, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the Ohio State University in Lima, Ohio, who studies hypnosis.

When you work with a hypnotist, you’ll first have a conversation about your goals and what’s holding you up from achieving them. The practitioner will listen closely to what words you’re using—this helps them to formulate the words and images they’ll choose during the session. Using relaxation techniques like deep breathing and visualization, they’ll help you unwind and then begin offering positive suggestions. Someone who has trouble falling asleep might say they are a “bad sleeper” or “can’t ever turn off their brain before bed.” During their session they might hear “you are a good sleeper” or “you are able to relax before you sleep and drift off effortlessly.”

Why does hypnosis seem to work?
The breakthroughs may come because hypnosis uses two avenues: words and relaxation. “We’re always talking to ourselves, that’s called self-talk, and sometimes the words we choose close us off from change or living the life we want,” explains Sara Wendt, a hypnosis practitioner at Holistico in New York City. “Hypnosis helps to alter those words and therefore thoughts and actions.”

Being relaxed helps too. “In that state, the mind is very receptive and you're able to access the deeper, unconscious part of the mind that might hold unhelpful thoughts and patterns,” says Wendt. “Our deeper minds hear things freshly, as if they are new to that moment.” So if you’ve always told yourself that you’re “a bad public speaker” and you switch that to “giving presentations comes easily to me” during hypnosis the mind can readily adapt these new thoughts or images because the subconscious perceives them as being in the present.

Scientists are also looking into how the brain responds to hypnosis. When Spiegel and his team used MRIs to look at the brains of people receiving a hypnosis session, they found that it impacts areas that help us make choices and facilitate mind-body control.

“I think one of things hypnosis does is, through these brain changes, it kind of frees you of the constraints of your usual assumptions about yourself and who you are and what you can do,” Spiegel says. “We think these findings are important because they show that hypnosis is a naturally-occurring, understandable brain-related activity that has the potential to help us use our brains better to control a variety of problems, including pain, stress, and anxiety."

Who should try it?
“Hypnosis is for anyone who wants to change something in his or her life but feels stuck,” says Wendt, who has had clients come in for insomnia, anxiety, smoking cessation, and infertility. But she’s also helped people overcome phobias, gain the confidence to leave a bad relationship or job, or boost athletic performance.

How many sessions does it take to see results?
It depends on what you’re coming in for and how “blocked” you are. Wendt says that most people typically come in for four to six sessions, though some don’t need more than one.

A perk of hypnosis is that once you learn what phrases and images are most helpful for you, you can use them any time you need. “Whereas we might start hypnosis treatment with suggestions provided by a therapist, with time and a little practice, patients learn to give themselves suggestions,” says Green. “They quickly learn that they can guide themselves toward relaxation, feelings of security, and clearer thinking.”

If you’re interested in trying a hypnosis session, finding an experienced practitioner who you have good rapport with is key, says Wendt. Look for hypnotists who are certified—like members of the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners or the National Guild of Hypnotists—and have a few years of experience working with the particular issue you’re hoping to address.