Most of us know at least ten people who are trying to give up smoking or lose weight, and in fact at times it seems like everyone is trying to lose weight or is at least 'watching' it (whatever that means... ). For some though this aim is more urgent than others, and if you've tried to lose weight on numerous occasions with no success then it's understandable that it might start to become desperate – at which point you may start looking for more extreme or unusual methods whether it's going to a support group, or whether it's getting acupuncture, and these can work to varying degrees depending on your chosen method and on your own situation and personality (acupuncture won't work other than as a placebo though it's safe to say... ).
One option open to you that might seem particularly interesting is hypnotherapy which is more and more commonly being considered as a way to kick bad habits and alter your behaviour. But can it work or is it just a load of hokum? And if it does work, what's the mechanism behind it? Here we will look at how hypnotherapy is applied to these fields and whether it can help you to pack in the cigarettes or lose those unwanted pounds.
What Is Hypnosis?
To begin it's important to dispel some misunderstandings regarding precisely what 'hypnotism' is and what it isn't. What hypnotism isn't is a magical state in which you'll obey anything you are told – you need to be a willing participant for the most part for hypnotism to work and you need to be open to suggestion. At the same time though, hypnotism is also much more than just a stage act accomplished with stooges – as someone who's experienced it first-hand (Derren Brown froze my hand in place... ) it's fair to say that a hypnotherapist who knows what they're doing can have a profound impact on your state of mind which can be used therapeutically.
When I spoke to one of my psychology lecturers at university he explained to me that all hypnosis was was 'suggestion' and this is a very apt description when you look into it further. The point is that if someone tells you something, you will almost always dismiss it out of hand. If someone tells you to quit smoking then you will think 'it's not that easy', you'll think 'I can't, I'm addicted' or you'll think 'I don't want to – who are you to tell me what to do?'. Unfortunately we can't just change our thinking and become more determined or less interested in smoking because our conscious minds get in the way. What a hypnotherapist does on the other hand is to bypass your conscious mind and thus get you to be much more accepting of what they're saying. They 'suggest' something in such a way that you believe it's true, and that makes you much more likely to accept it – almost in the same way that a placebo can work.
So how does a hypnotherapist bypass the conscious and cynical portion of your brain? There are several methods. The first is to get you into a 'trance' like state. Again there's nothing magical about this state, it simply means relaxing to the point where you are much more receptive to what you are being told and this can be accomplished with breathing and relaxation techniques, listening to a script, or just by being told to relax.
Once you're in a relaxed state the hypnotherapist will then usually use a script – a prepared speech to put you in an even more receptive and open minded condition. Usually this script will begin by observing and describing your current state. For instance the hypnotherapist might say 'you're feeling very relaxed and warm' – which they know to be true because you are in a room that's warm and because you have been instructed to relax. They might comment on your breathing and on the feel of the chair underneath you and all this will convince you on an unconscious level that what the hypnotherapist is saying is true. This is one reason that hypnotherapists classically used to use a pocket watch – because following it swinging with your eyes would make them feel heavy and relaxed and this would then in turn mean you were impressed when the hypnotherapist said 'your eyes are feeling heavy'.
From here the script would go on to include things that aren't necessarily true 'you feel all the tension leave your body, and all the need for a cigarette'. Because everything the therapist has said up until this point is true though, you will then be much more likely to believe this next statement too and the creative part of your mind will make it a reality. If you believe enough that you suddenly feel you don't need a cigarette, then you may find that your symptoms are at least partially reduced – again much like using a placebo.
The hypnotherapist uses other tricks too such as a particular way of speaking that hides the suggestions among the rest of what they're saying and uses assumptions to make them less noticeable. For instance, your therapist might say 'you might notice how good it feels as you lose that urge for a cigarette' and this works even more effectively because the phrasing they've chosen suggests that you've already lost that urge even though they haven't explicitly told you that you have.
A hypnotherapist might also use a bit of behavioural psychology to give you some tools you can use yourself and some cognitive behavioural therapy. Initially they will probably leave you with the feeling that you don't need cigarettes the way you once did, but on top of this they might also create a trigger so that you can bring back your relaxed and calm state. They may for instance get you to associate rubbing your little finger with feeling the need for a cigarette leave your body, and if this connection is strong enough then this can provide you with a great coping mechanism.
Meanwhile most hypnotherapists will also have a background in psychology and this will enable them to treat you in other ways too and to give you more coping mechanisms. They might teach you coping mechanisms for instance such as breathing techniques to help you deal with stress on your own without turning to food or smoking, or they might teach you some positive affirmations or even self-hypnosis scripts you can use yourself when you feel yourself start to slip.
Conclusion – Should You Use Hypnotherapy?
Hypnotherapy certainly does have merit and isn't 'hokum' as I suggested (in a Sheldon Cooper manner) earlier. However that said, it also isn't a magical cure and it requires you to play along and to work hard yourself. Now you understand the mechanisms, if you can be open minded and work with the therapist to try and change your thinking, you might find that it can be useful.
It's also important to consult with the hypnotherapist before you hand over any money. Usually this isn't a cheap method, and there are a lot of 'cowboys' out there who don't really know what they're doing. Make sure you trust the therapist and use your own personal judgment to decide if you can work with them.