Whenever a friend tells me they’re considering undergoing hypnosis to quit X bad habit (and in Brooklyn I hear it a lot), I think about the hypnotist my college hired at the beginning of every year to humiliate my classmates in front of each other. It was the high point of every homecoming: A guy wearing a Britney Spears–style hands-free microphone would invite a few of the bravest and most annoying students onstage, put them to “sleep,” and ask them to do something embarrassing, like gyrating along to a recording of a nursery rhyme, or shouting the name of the person they had a crush on. Obviously, I never volunteered—both because I was sure hypnosis wouldn’t work on me, and also because I was afraid of what my subconscious might do if it did.
So when I was offered the opportunity to receive hypnosis from a woman named Grace Smith (who goes by Grace Space on her website and app), I was both skeptical and afraid. Smith specializes in “virtual hypnotherapy”—she conducts sessions over video chat, and offers recordings that subscribers can listen to on their phones or computers. Even though I’d be in my own home, being hypnotized over Skype instead of onstage, and even though Smith would be aiming to help me rather than embarrass me, I still felt defensive about the prospect. Something about having to close my eyes made it feel so much more vulnerable than a regular therapy session.
Smith, too, started off as a skeptic. She got her bachelor’s degree in human rights. But in her desperation to quit smoking in her 20s, she decided to try hypnosis. Much to her surprise, she says she was able to quit after just one session. Smith was so moved by her experience that she decided to quit her corporate job and become a hypnotherapist herself. “From a human-rights perspective,” she says she thought at the time, “if there’s a tool that’s this effective in ending suffering, why is this not mainstream, and why is it so misunderstood?”
While hypnosis may look like sleep (or even mind control), it’s simply meditation with a goal, says Smith. When I tell Smith that I find it nearly impossible to meditate, she says she’s not surprised, because most Type A personalities find it difficult to meditate. Having met her over Skype about two minutes earlier, I am slightly shook.
The good news, Smith says, is that hypnosis is easier than meditation for most people. Meditation is typically more open-ended, and self-guided, whereas hypnosis has an end goal in mind. You also aren’t expected to totally clear your mind. “The conscious mind isn’t our goal,” says Smith. “Ultimately we’re focused on the subconscious. You can think thoughts and still be hypnotized. Ninety-nine percent of people will [still think other thoughts].”
With the general process explained, and my misconceptions dispelled, Smith told me we were ready to begin. I’d decided to focus our sessions on my generalized anxiety, of which I have plenty left over even after Prozac and regular therapy. To begin our first session, Smith asked me to close my eyes and rate my current stress level on a scale between zero and 10. I said four. Sitting on a wooden chair at my makeshift desk (a folding table near my living-room window), next to a busy Brooklyn street, I was doubtful I would be able to get that number any lower. But Smith has an unusually soothing voice, and she’s earnest without crossing over into woo-woo territory. I would rather die than attend any event requiring audience participation, but somehow, when Smith asks me to repeat lines after her, or to converse with my 16-year-old self, I don’t resist. (Admittedly, I don’t have many other options, though I suppose I could have hung up on her.) This is the simplest understanding of what it is hypnosis can do: lower your guard, just a little bit.
According to David Spiegel, a hypnotherapist and psychiatry professor at Stanford University, the primary effect of hypnosis is that it allows people to separate their physiological reactions from their psychological reactions. “Typically, when we’re anxious about something, our bodies react to that,” he says. “Your muscles tense up, you may start to sweat, you breathe faster, and then you notice that, and you think, ‘Oh God, this is really bad,’ and then your body says, ‘Oh, now she’s feeling really bad.’ It’s kind of a snowball effect.” Hypnosis helps us to isolate our thoughts from our feelings, so to speak, so that we can think about what’s causing us stress without getting absorbed in our physical responses to that stress.
Brain scans of hypnosis patients show reduced activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which Spiegel describes as the part of the brain that decides what to worry about, comparing it to an air-traffic controller who has three planes to land and only one runway. Hypnosis “turns down” this part of the brain, so that patients can focus on what they want to focus on with fewer competing planes, so to speak. In my sessions with Smith, this translated to an unusual sense of calm as I answered her questions—I was able to rate my anxiety, for instance, without wondering what the number I chose meant, or what Smith would think it meant, or any of the other sorts of hypotheticals I often dedicate so much time to.
Hypnosis isn’t just good for anxiety, either. Alison Snow, the assistant director of cancer supportive services at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, employs hypnosis as a tool to ease the suffering of cancer patients—partly their anxiety, but also their pain. Currently, she and a colleague are studying its effects on patients with neck cancer, who were randomly assigned to receive either hypnosis or more traditional therapy. They haven’t finished collecting data yet, but Snow says the existing research supports their efforts, as do her patients. “I had one patient who was a hypnotherapist herself,” says Snow. When the patient was randomized not to receive hypnosis, she quit the study, and asked to get hypnosis anyway.
Snow finds hypnosis especially useful for cancer patients who want to treat their pain and anxiety, but don’t want to take more medications. “The patients I work with obviously have a reason to be anxious, and so we normalize that, and understand that, and we try to teach them skills like self-hypnosis to manage their anxiety.” Snow has a certification in hypnosis from the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (which she says required 200 hours of training), but she says anyone can learn to practice self-hypnosis—which is not dissimilar from meditation in appearance, but involves working toward a specific goal. Her patients are given a CD with guided hypnosis, and sometimes record their sessions so they can listen back and practice on themselves.
Why hypnosis works is still something of a mystery, but Snow says researchers know it goes beyond the placebo effect. “We don’t know exactly what the mechanism is, but for pain, especially, there is a mechanism where you’re helping change the pain signal,” says Snow. In one study, when compared to a number of alternative pain therapies including yoga, meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exercise, hypnosis was shown to be the most effective pain-management tool among cancer patients. A 2008 study found that hypnosis affects actual brain chemistry, not just the patient’s experience. So it doesn’t only work if you believe that it will.
It’s true: I went into hypnosis as a nonbeliever, and it worked on me anyway. This is not to say that I no longer suffer from anxiety, but that I felt, for the rest of the day after my session, as though I had taken a Xanax. Only I hadn’t. Somehow, with her voice, Grace Smith relaxed me over Skype. I’m not really a meditation-app kind of person, but my experience was good enough to make me download hers immediately. I have yet to use it, because changing one’s beliefs is hard, even when you have evidence to support doing so. But it is there on my phone, ready for me the next time I need it, and that alone feels good.