Ilana Kaplan felt like she had hit rock bottom with her mental health. She was battling debilitating anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and resulting insomnia. Medication and talk therapy weren’t bringing the relief she needed. Then, her therapist suggested she try hypnosis.
“I was really skeptical. I had trouble believing it would actually work. But when you’ve reached a point in your mental health where nothing is working, you’re also really open,” said Kaplan, a journalist based in New York City who wrote about her experience for the New York Times.
Her therapist referred her to a hypnotherapist on Long Island, and Kaplan started making the three-hour round-trip commute for her sessions three times a week.
“After meeting my hypnotist, she just made me feel so at ease, and I just started believing in it. Honestly, it took a little bit to work for me, but I don’t know what I would’ve done without it,” she said.
Hypnosis, or hypnotherapy, involves putting a patient in a relaxed, trance-like state that makes them more responsive to suggestion or direction, explained HealthyWomen Women’s Health Advisory Council member Dr. Rena Ferguson, a psychiatrist in Port Jefferson, New York, who trained in hypnotherapy. A trained hypnotherapist typically guides the patient with verbal cues and descriptions to prompt mental images that can help the patient make progress.
“Being in this state can allow patients to uncover things that their day-to-day ego, that their worries, kind of suppress,” Ferguson said. “It’s to the benefit of the patient to have some of these layers maybe lifted a little bit so that the stuff they really need to work on comes to the surface a little more easily and a lot less painfully.” Simply put, patients let their guard down, which allows them to absorb guidance more effectively.
Typically, sessions will begin with talk therapy. Then, the hypnotherapist may ask you to move to a more comfortable seat and offer you a blanket. They’ll say some repetitive phrases and, once you’re sufficiently relaxed, will describe different scenarios for you to visualize. Then, they will slowly bring you out of this relaxed state. The whole session can last between one to two hours, and audio of these sessions may be recorded, with instructions for you to listen at home before returning for your next visit.
Hypnosis has been used for millennia — documented in early Egyptian hieroglyphics and ancient Indian texts — before being used in modern medicine. Yet it continues to have a New Age “quack science” reputation, driven largely by pop culture imagery and fear that the person being hypnotized will be forced to do something embarrassing.
“I think the biggest misconception is that hypnotism is going to make you something you aren’t, like you’re going to cluck like a chicken or be embarrassed on stage,” said Ferguson, emphasizing that people don’t lose control over their behavior and can’t be cajoled to do things they don’t want to do. “What’s sad is that this idea is also propagated among professionals as well, and as a result, it is a branch of treatment that I don’t think is used as often as perhaps it could be.”
Hypnosis has been studied as a way to treat a variety of issues, including mental health conditions such as anxiety and trauma, and chronic disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). One study found that 71% of participants saw IBS symptoms improve after hypnosis, and 81% of those people experienced long-term improvement. Hypnosis has also been studied as a method of encouraging behavioral changes, such as quitting smoking and losing weight. While more research is needed, one study review found that people who were treated with hypnotherapy combined with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) lost more weight than those who were treated with CBT alone. Additionally, hypnosis can help with controlling pain. A clinical trial at MD Anderson Cancer Center even studied hypnosis as an alternative to general anesthesia during surgery. Only one out of 50 trial participants ended up needing anesthesia during surgery, showing the power of hypnosis to mitigate pain.
While it’s not completely understood how hypnosis works on a physiological level, scientists at Stanford identified three changes in the brain in people under hypnosis: how the brain processes what’s going on in the body, a decrease in the person’s awareness of their actions, and an ability to get hyperfocused so the person isn’t distracted by other worries.
While 10% to 15% of people are highly responsive to hypnosis, about 10% of people are unable to be hypnotized — and most other people fall somewhere in between. While hypnosis has the potential to help a lot of people, it is not recommended for people experiencing hallucinations or delusions or those suffering from dissociative disorders because the experience may lead these people to develop false memories
The benefits of hypnosis aren’t always immediate. For most patients, it takes a series of sessions to see results, Ferguson said. “It’s not a magic bullet. It takes time to build trust between the patient and the hypnotherapist, and that’s key for hypnosis to work.”
Kaplan consistently went to sessions for a year and a half. Her hypnotherapist would start off with talk therapy, and then have her lie back in a recliner and listen to musical chimes. Once Kaplan was in a hypnotic state, her hypnotherapist read and repeated various statements that Kaplan said noticeably made her feel calm.
She was devoted to listening to the audio of her session recordings at home. Six weeks in, Kaplan was able to sleep through the night. Three months in, she could feel the veil of depression lifting, and after six months, she saw all of her symptoms improve. “I expected everything to happen all at once, but that wasn’t the reality,” she said.
If you’re seeking a hypnotherapist, start by asking for referrals for a certified hypnotherapist from mental health, medical or alternative medicine professionals you already have a relationship with. You can also research hypnotherapists in your area and check out their websites and reviews.
Many hypnotherapists offer a free phone consultation where you can share your symptoms and better understand whether they’re the right fit for you. This is the chance for you to ask them about their training, their approach, the types of conditions they have the most experience with, and to feel out whether your personalities will jibe with each other.
“Find someone who can accurately tend to your needs,” advised Kaplan. “The one that I go to, for example, specializes in OCD, anxiety and depression.”
Before you undergo hypnotherapy, make sure you understand what the fees are and what you’ll have to pay out of pocket. Sessions can range from $75 to $300, with some therapists offering package discounts. Some private insurances do cover hypnotherapy in certain cases, so contact your insurance company ahead of time to understand its guidelines. Even Medicare has a billing code for hypnotherapy, which means that there may be some instances where it’s covered, but it will depend on the diagnosis and treatment plan and will likely require a referral from your doctor.
While Kaplan doesn’t call hypnotherapy a cure, she credits it with being pivotal to her recovery and continues to sporadically attend sessions when needed. “My biggest regret is that I didn’t try it sooner,” she said. “If you need help, this is definitely worth a try.”
And don’t worry. There’s no clucking involved.