Hypnosis has come a long way from the watch-dangling stage theatrics of those who practice it as entertainment. Medical hypnosis, or hypnotherapy, has been investigated as a tool for relaxation, relief of stress, chronic pain and insomnia, quitting smoking, reducing hot flashes in breast cancer survivors, aiding those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, and more. In fact, using the principles of hypnosis, you can learn to go into a meditative state all by yourself, help yourself relax, visualize your healthy lifestyle goals, and boost your motivation to stick with them.
What is self-hypnosis? Like meditation and other relaxation techniques, self-hypnosis involves focusing inwardly, quieting your mind, and entering a state of deep relaxation and calm. Once in that deeply peaceful state, your mind is particularly open to suggestion. Call it meditation with a mission: by visualizing an outcome you’re hoping for, you are priming your brain and your body to believe it has already happened, just the way you want it to. Once your self-hypnosis session is finished, you’ll not just feel more relaxed and focused, you’ll have strengthened your belief that the behavior or event is possible.
Perhaps you’re trying to stick with an exercise plan (a proven component of a longevity lifestyle!). You’ve set a so-called SMART goal, and know how many times a week you should be working out, but you are still struggling with taking the first step out the door for your walk, or your class.
How can self-hypnosis help boost your desire to exercise? By vividly imaging yourself performing the activity with enthusiasm, skill and agility, you are helping yourself accept the notion that being active is enjoyable, and desirable. The greater the detail in your imagination, the greater the reinforcing effect. Picture the breeze in the trees as you walk, feel the wind on your face, and in as detailed a fashion as you can, experience the energy you feel as you march down the trail.
Experiment with different suggestions: In his book Self-Hypnosis: New Tools for Deep and Lasting Transformation, professor and director of San Francisco State University’s Institute for Holistic Health Studies Adam Burke encourages trying a variety of hypnotic suggestions. Relating to our exercise example, he offers a verbal suggestion or image such as “I feel great. My body is strong, flexible, vital and alive.” A visual suggestion would help you see yourself as fit, strong, and energetic. A metaphoric suggestion, according to Burke, might help you imagine yourself as a powerful and physically toned animal, like a jaguar. Experiment with different types of suggestions to see which hold the greatest might to influence your motivation.
Prime your time: Burke also recommends a technique he calls “priming”, which involves a brief self-hypnosis session at the beginning of the day. It can take just a few minutes in the morning, and I personally have found it to be a powerful way to prepare for the hours ahead. Whether it’s imagining how a business meeting or sales call might unfold, or a way of mentally rehearsing being patient with your children, using self-hypnosis in this way is a quick and very effective means of jump-starting your own best behavior. Try it as a way of setting the tone to help you exercise and eat right, too.
The big picture: Is visualizing your desired outcome enough? Of course not, if you don’t also create an environment that supports your goals. No amount of self-hypnosis will help you choose healthy foods if you don’t stock them in your pantry. But it can be a remarkable tool to keep you on track, and maintain your enthusiasm and motivation, over time.
Adam Burke. Self-Hypnosis: New Tools for Deep and Lasting Transformation. Crossing Press. 2004.
Hypnosis. US National Institutes of Health: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Public Information Sheet. Accessed September 11, 2012.
Mark P. Jensen, Joseph Barber, Joan M. Romano, Ivan R. Molton, Katherine A. Raichle, Travis L. Osborne, Joyce M. Engel, Brenda L. Stoelb, George H. Kraft, and David R. Patterson. "A Comparison of Self-Hypnosis Versus Progressive Muscle Relaxation in Patients With Multiple Sclerosis and Chronic Pain." Int J Clin Exp Hypn. 2009 April ; 57(2): 198–221.
Relaxation Techniques for Health: An Introduction. US National Institutes of Health: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Public Information Sheet. Accessed September 11, 2012.