Hypnosis is misunderstood. The idea that somebody could seize control of your mind and rummage around in there without your say-so is frightening. But, says New York based Clinical Hypnosis Practitioner Shauna Cummins, it’s an unfounded fear — hypnosis is a powerful self-help tool with a science-backed record for helping curb post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and addiction. You might have even hypnotized yourself without realizing it.
Culture Trip: What are the historical origins of hypnotism?
Shauna Cummins: The earliest records of hypnosis are dated back to ancient Egyptian “sleep temples”, which were regarded as the original hospitals. Patients would be induced into a hypnotic trance state and suggestion therapy was used in conjunction with chanting, drumming and dream interpretation with the intention of healing physical, psychological, spiritual ailments.
CT: How does hypnotism work exactly?
SC: The etymology of the word “hypnosis” originates from the Greek word for “sleep” and when we access a hypnotic state we enter into a relaxed alpha or theta brain-wave phase, similar to the sensation of falling asleep. In this state we are able to bypass the critical or conscious mind and everybody is naturally more suggestible.
It’s an ideal time to reinforce what we really want for ourselves. During the trance state we can narrow and focus our attention, increasing the ability to concentrate intensely on a specific thought or memory, while blocking out sources of distraction. Trance states are naturally occurring and happen multiple times a day, like when you’re watching a movie or driving on the highway for long stretch of time. With hypnosis we utilize this state to reprogram old limiting thoughts and beliefs with more positive beneficial ones.
CT: Is everybody equally susceptible to it?
SC: It’s understood that the majority of the population (about 80 percent) are moderately suggestible, 10 percent are more resistant and 10 percent are highly suggestible. However, it is an ability that can be learned and improved—in my experience if someone is willing, then they can be hypnotized. We are in and out of hypnosis multiple times a day—advertising, for example, uses hypnosis techniques to influence our desires.
CT: In popular culture hypnotism isn’t always portrayed in a positive light. Can it be used for evil, so to speak?
SC: Contrary to popular misconception you cannot do anything you don’t want to do in the state of hypnosis. It’s a tool to enable positive change, and when used therapeutically that is exactly the intention. For example, when someone is truly ready to quit smoking but they’re having a hard time on their own, hypnosis works well.
When performing hypnosis on the stage, the intention is to entertain, and in hypnotherapy, the intention is to help—hypnosis is the tool but like any tool it can be manipulated for good or bad. Hollywood movies [like Get Out] tend to play on our fear of not being in control of our own minds and the portrayal of hypnosis on screen is often exaggerated.
CT: What is self-hypnotism and how did you discover it?
SC: There’s a saying in hypnosis that “all hypnosis is self-hypnosis”, meaning that on some level we all have a natural ability to influence ourselves. We can do this by employing self-induced hypnosis techniques, which could also be described as “guided mediation with an agenda”.
By bringing yourself into a relaxed state and working with learned techniques to tackle a certain issue, self-hypnosis can be very beneficial. At the start, it’s easiest to use self-hypnosis audio tracks as a guide, but it’s definitely a skill that can be mastered and even experienced spontaneously. When I was in my hypnosis training, I realized that I had practiced self-hypnosis as means to heal and soothe myself as a child.
Having suffered from many unexplainable allergies, pneumonia and stressful hospital stays, I would use my imagination to envision myself well, calm and healthy. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, by creating a calming environment in my mind I was activating healing hormones and chemicals in my body, enabling it to relax.
Research on the brain suggests that by changing our thoughts we can change our behavior—a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. They say “the neurons that fire together wire together”, meaning that the brain is capable of creating new neural pathways. Using verbal repetition and visual imagery in hypnosis we can reprogram our thoughts and associations to form new, beneficial behaviors.
CT: How can hypnotism and self-hypnotism be used to increase wellbeing?
SC: Similar to a mindfulness practice, where you begin to observe your thoughts and feelings, hypnosis also enables us to monitor our responses. We begin to learn how to utilize our minds and have a more collaborative, compassionate relationship with our best selves.
CT: Have there been research studies into the benefits of it?
SC: Yes! Hypnosis has been used for centuries as a means for healing. John Houston made a film called Let There Be Light about soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after WWII, where hypnosis was used to successfully help them recover.
Recent studies have confirmed its effectiveness as a tool to reduce pain. Leading researcher in the field, Guy H Montgomery, examined the effect of a 15-minute pre-surgery hypnosis session in a clinical trial with 200 breast cancer patients. He discovered patients who received hypnosis reported less post-surgical pain, nausea, and fatigue. The study also found that patients who were hypnotized required less of the analgesic lidocaine and the sedative propofol during surgery.
In 2007, American Health Magazine conducted a study into the effectiveness of hypnotherapy as a therapeutic treatment and discovered it had 93 percent success rate after just six sessions, compared with 72 percent for behavioral therapy and 38 percent for psychoanalysis.
CT: Finally, what are your tips for self-hypnotism?
SC: Choose an issue you want to work on—maybe you want to stop overeating sweets, for example.
Get into a nice comfortable position. Take three deep breaths and find where confidence lives in your body. Breath into confidence. Find where that old craving for sweets is in your body and feel yourself breathing or draining it out.
Count down from five to one and visualize yourself arriving some place that brings you peace. Somewhere in nature, a calming place. Use your imagination to be there, experiencing the place with your senses: feel the temperature, see the color, smell the breeze.
Create a room in your mind where you see your best self doing well, then imagine a reflection of yourself that you want to improve. Merge into your best self and experience moving through your day as that self. Using your senses and imagination, really feel yourself doing well. See yourself walking by the sweets and choosing to feel free and light. Envision yourself a few months from now not having eaten sweets and think how good that feels.
Get a sense of what states of mind resonate with yourself doing well. Choose three words that capture that healthy feeling: for example light, empowered, and healthy.
Bring yourself out of the trance by counting from three to one and repeat the three words: “I am light, empowered and healthy”.
Repeat them to yourself before you go to bed and when you wake up in the morning. Have them on repeat throughout the day, and whenever that old sweet craving comes up feel yourself breathing into confidence and repeat “I am light, empowered and healthy” three or more times. By doing this you not only interrupt the old neural pathway habit of eating the sweets but you create a new resourceful neural pathway association that strengthens your resolve and changes your mind.