This Misunderstood Practice May Actually Help With Inflammation, Gut Health & Anxiety
Hypnosis is a powerful, ancient healing tool; humans have been using it with great success for thousands of years. It helped me quit smoking (after just one session), and since then, I’ve been on a mission to help people with hypnotherapy and make hypnosis mainstream.
Hypnosis is considered to have powerful health benefits for numerous conditions including anxiety, inflammation, and gut health. The Hindus of ancient India practiced a deep, trance-like "temple sleep," which was a precursor to modern hypnosis. And Avicenna, the Persian physician, noted the restorative powers of the relaxed trance-state of hypnosis as early as the 11th century. In the last 100 years, though, hypnosis has had a bit of an identity crisis. Hollywood and comedic stage hypnotists have hijacked the field.
Here’s the truth: Hypnosis can be a powerful form of therapy. It won’t make you quack like a duck or never want to work again (a la Office Space). And there’s an increasing amount of small, but very promising, research which suggests hypnosis actually works.
In fact, at many top research hospitals like the Mayo Clinic, hypnosis is now a "front-line therapy" for gut disorders like IBS.
But you might be wondering: Why is it such a powerful form of therapy? That’s, of course, a lengthy discussion (which I cover in depth in my new book, Close Your Eyes, Get Free), but a simple way to think about hypnosis is as meditation with a goal.
We use hypnosis to reach the same relaxed, theta brain-wave state as we do in deep meditation. And when we’re in this relaxed, safe space, we can provide the mind with helpful, more positive ways to manage stress, behavior, our emotions, and our health. Here’s some of the science behind hypnosis:
How hypnosis can help with anxiety.
Hypnosis has been found in a number of studies1 to help with anxiety. Put simply, in hypnosis, you feel safe and relaxed. When you are relaxed and feeling safe, you become open to suggestions. That said, despite what Hollywood wants you to believe regarding "mind control," you truly only become open to the suggestions you want to absorb. For that reason, there is a direct correlation between how much you want to manage your anxiety and how quickly you will see results during your hypnotherapy sessions.
Hypnosis is a deeply relaxed, theta brain-wave state. It’s the brain wave we reach just before sleep. This deeply relaxed safe state is so different from our normal waking state of stress and anxiety that simply being in hypnosis can have a powerful healing effect on the body and mind, regardless of what you’re actually working on.
For people who are "highly hypnotizable" (about 10 percent of the population, according to Stanford researchers), complex changes take place in the brain during hypnosis. New connections are forged; hard-wired connections are reduced. Anxiety diminishes; creativity and creative problem-solving increase. In this space, people are more willing to learn without thinking critically, feeling anxious, or questioning new information.
Many of our thoughts, emotions, and actions are moderated by a complex highway of neural pathways. Our minds use a so-called top-down regulation system2. This means, you feel a stimulus (like an anxiety-fueled situation), which asks the brain for input on how to respond. Then, the brain compels you to act based on your past experiences and stored memories. Research suggests hypnosis is an effective tool for moderating this top-down system.
Hypnosis has been shown to improve feelings of anxiety and hopelessness3 significantly over traditional therapies. Because it can alter brain activity, it has even been effective in treating anxiety in pediatric burn patients4.
How hypnosis can reduce inflammation.
One of the most commonly cited benefits of hypnosis is stress reduction, which directly correlates with the reduction of inflammation. One small study5 found that when 11 people followed a 12-week self-hypnosis program, a significant portion of them had much lower levels of inflammation, as measured by the presence of cytokine IL-6.
Oftentimes stress isn't just something you experience as a result of a stressful situation—it’s conditioning that can result from almost any experience.
Stress is damaging for many reasons, not the least of which is inflammation. Under stress, the body produces a substantial amount of the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone plays an important role in the regulation of inflammation. Researchers have proposed that "prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to the hormone."
How hypnosis can help heal your gut.
You’ve likely already heard about the gut-brain connection. The gut and brain are in constant communication, but this communication can get muddled.
Your brain might become, for example, hyper-focused on the spasms in the gut caused by IBS, and as a result, you notice them more and they cause more pain. Gut-directed hypnosis has been shown to be effective for people of all ages, including children6.
Gut disorders, especially IBS, can begin with negative thinking, stress, and anxiety—not just food. Sometimes, a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle are not enough to minimize symptoms of IBS. That’s where hypnosis comes in. Research has found that hypnosis has a substantial therapeutic impact7 on IBS.
Hypnosis has also been shown to help balance the autonomic nervous system8 in some IBS sufferers, which is an important, and often overlooked, part of IBS treatment. You may know that the autonomic nervous system is comprised of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (or the fight-or-flight response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (or the rest-and-digest system). It also has a third component, the enteric nervous system, which is found in the gastrointestinal lining9 and is often linked to digestive disorders10. This is the largest and most complex part of the autonomic nervous system, and it has been referred to as the brain-in-the-gut11.
These hypnosis success stories are likely only the beginning. As more studies are done, we'll likely see even more benefits. If you're skeptical, just remember that meditation was overlooked by the modern healthcare industry for decades before it became a near-overnight sensation. I believe we're on the verge of the same thing happening with hypnosis.
Grace Smith is a renowned hypnotherapist, founder of Grace Space Hypnosis, a provider of hypnosis education, products and services, and Grace Space Hypnotherapy School, a hypnotherapy certification program. Smith is a recurring guest on CBS’s hit show The Doctors, and her work has been featured in BuzzFeed, Bustle, the Atlantic, Marie Claire, Forbes, InStyle, and more. Her private clients include celebrities, CEOs, professional athletes, and government officials; her keynote speeches and workshops have taken her to Procter & Gamble, Summit.Live, Women Empowerment Expo, Ritz Carlton, PSE&G, Soul Camp, and Verizon.