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Using Hypnosis to Enhance Mental & Physical Health & Performance

Key Takeaways

  • Stage hypnosis and self-hypnosis are not the same – stage hypnosis is used to perform and frankly make people look foolish; self-hypnosis is a therapeutic tool used to enter a state of focused attention

  • We are most hypnotizable between the ages of 6-10 years old; our hypnotizability becomes fixed by our early 20s

  • About 1/3 of adults are not hypnotizable, 2/3 are hypnotizable – with about 15% extremely hypnotizable

  • “We underestimate our ability to regulate and change responses – to be cognitively, emotionally, and somatically flexible.” – Dr. David Spiegel

  • Dissociation is part of the adaptive strategy in trauma; self-hypnosis allows a safe way to activate state-dependent memory and re-confront event and restructure understanding

  • Self-hypnosis provides an avenue to lean into phobia and trauma and reconnect the events or objects to more positive associations so other centers of the brain are activated

  • Clinical applications of self-hypnosis: sleep, trauma, pain, phobia, stress, anxiety – and emerging research with grief in cancer patients

  • EMDR may incorporate some elements of self-hypnosis and suppression of the amygdala which brings people into a calmer state but is likely not as effective as psychotherapy and confronting the issue

  • Breathing is a bridge between conscious and unconscious states: we can modulate our internal state and produce a change we want to see in our body – this can be leveraged to augment hypnosis

What Is Hypnosis?

  • Hypnosis: a state of highly focused attention, like looking through a camera lens

  • Any experience that draws us in is a form of hypnosis

  • Hypnosis involved a narrowing of context and loss of self

  • An experience is not considered hypnotic if the physical reaction is distracting or makes you think about something else

  • Stage hypnosis: what we stereotypically think of – someone performing with a pen or hypnotic tool trying to alter the state and actions of others for entertainment, basically making fools of people

  • Clinical hypnosis: enhances control of mind and body by inducing cognitive flexibility and allowing you to shift set easily and change the way you evaluate events

  • Clinical hypnosis allows you to suspend judgment and provides an opportunity for therapeutic benefit

  • Hypnosis has been useful for enhancing focus and narrowly focusing on something

  • “We underestimate our ability to regulate and change responses – to be cognitively, emotionally, and somatically flexible.” – Dr. David Spiegel

Neuroscience Of Hypnosis

  • Induction state = deep hypnosis

  • Three things characterize entry into a hypnotic state: (1) turning down activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) responsible for cognition and motor control; (2) dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPC) has higher connectivity with insula (part of mind-body control system); (3) inverse functional connectivity between DLPC and posterior cingulate cortex (part of the default network, activity decreases in things like meditation)

  • Reducing the activity of dACC makes it less likely that you’ll be distracted and pulled out of whatever you’re in

  • The posterior cingulate cortex allows for the dissociation piece in hypnosis and allows you to put things outside of conscious awareness without worrying what it means, adding to cognitive flexibility

  • It’s likely that these specific brain networks are getting stronger with repeated self-hypnosis

Clinical Applications Of Self-Hypnosis

  • Hypnosis is an effective problem-based treatment

  • Clinical applications: sleep, trauma, pain, phobia, stress, anxiety – and emerging research with cancer patients

  • Enhancing the mind-body connection is good for stress relief because it allows for the dissociation between somatic and psychological reactions

  • Self-hypnosis can be extremely helpful in falling back asleep when you wake up in the middle of the night

  • Hypnosis allows you to confront phobias: if you avoid your phobias or things you fear, the only association you have of those things/events/objects is tied to being afraid without any good experiences

  • Self-hypnosis allows for a wider array of experiences that aren’t negative and might even be positive for treating phobias

  • You have to confront trauma to restructure your understanding of it

  • Hypnosis is usually quicker than traditional psychotherapy approaches, allowing to go deeper into feeling states

  • State-dependent memory: when you’re in a certain mental state you enhance your ability to remember details about it

  • The essence of trauma is helplessness – you feel in control with self-hypnosis because you can turn it on and off

Starting Self-Hypnosis

  • It’s best to see a specialist who can be sure to address underlying issues requiring hypnosis, and not just the symptom

  • Self-hypnosis often requires just 1-2 visits or periodic sessions, not regularly

  • A physician or practitioner will assess how hypnotizable you are and take you through self-hypnosis, teaching you how to do it so you can practice on yourself later

  • Even a 1-minute refresher has been shown to be quite helpful

  • The goal is for self-hypnosis to become an acquired skill without needing to see a clinician


  • Hypnotizability: capacity to have hypnotic experiences

  • The peak period of hypnotizability is childhood, around 6-10 years old

  • Dentists and phlebotomists can use hypnosis to shift focus

  • By the time you’re in your early 20s, hypnotizability becomes fixed

  • Rates of hypnotizability: about 1/3 of adults are not hypnotizable, 2/3 are hypnotizable – with about 15% extremely hypnotizable

  • Are you hypnotizable? Try the Spiegel eye-roll test

  • There’s a correlation between the capacity to keep eyes up and hypnotizability

  • Tilt your chin back so you’re looking up toward the ceiling

  • Direct eyes upward while open

  • Close your eyes, trying to keep the eyes up while closing the eyelids

  • If eyes roll back and you see the whites of your eyes, you’re highly hypnotizable; if eyes roll down and you see the iris (colored part of the eye) you’re less hypnotizable

  • Highly hypnotizable people have more functional connectivity & synchroneity between dACC and left dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (key in executive control)

  • Some people are not that hypnotizable: people are overly controlling and busier evaluating than experiencing

  • Sometimes we’re too rigid and controlled and don’t let emotions guide us to protect ourselves or other

  • People with OCD are generally difficult to hypnotize because the evaluative component of the brain overrides the experiential side

  • People with superstition are also difficult to hypnotize because the imagination supersedes the reality

Eye Movement Desensitization And Processing (EMDR)

  • Eye movements have a lot to do with consciousness: stimulants make eyes big, opioids constrict pupils, rapid eye movement takes place during sleep

  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) EMDR: psychotherapy designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories by reducing activation of the amygdala and associated anxiety and reducing the amplitude of threat reflex

  • EMDR is most successful for single event trauma, like a car crash, robbery, etc. – not prolonged experiences like childhood abuse, divorce; it may be helpful but is ultimately an incomplete treatment because it doesn’t change the narrative of the event

Overcoming Obstacles

  • “It’s not just about the state you get into but whether you brought yourself there voluntarily.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman

  • The hallmark of treatment and getting over things is confronting it head-on