About half of Americans are trying to lose weight. In a recent national health survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 49.3 percent of people aged 20 and older said they had tried to lose weight during the past 12 months.
It’s no surprise, considering that nearly 40 percent of American adults are obese ― with a body mass index of 30 or over ― and nearly three-quarters are overweight or obese.
We know that losing even a few pounds can help us enjoy a longer, healthier life, but the task isn’t easy. Our modern-day lifestyles, complete with hours spent at the computer, commuting to work and managing our ever-growing to-do lists, means that the traditional advice to exercise more and eat less is likely to have little effect.
Many of us are frustrated. According to another national survey, about six out of 10 people have tried to lose weight at least five times over the previous five years ― and have failed.
If you’re one of them, you may want to try hypnotherapy. It could be the weight-loss solution you’ve been looking for.
You’ve probably heard of hypnosis. Many of us grew up watching the familiar old cartoon scenes where someone waved a watch back and forth in front of a character’s eyes, soon putting him or her into a trance. After that, the “hypnotizer” could make just about any outrageous suggestion, and the poor, unwitting victim would comply.
True hypnosis isn’t quite that spooky, however, and it is slightly different from hypnotherapy. You can think of one as the tool and the other as a type of therapy that uses that tool.
- Hypnosis: This is the act of guiding someone into a trance-like mental state of focus and concentration. This state is similar to being completely absorbed in a book, meditation or one’s own thoughts. While in this state, a person tends to be more open to suggestion.
- Hypnotherapy: This is the practice of hypnosis for therapeutic purposes. A therapist may use hypnosis to help a patient overcome a mental or physical condition like being overweight or addicted to cigarettes.
Unlike the dramatic scenes we may have seen in movies, true hypnosis is not about someone hypnotizing someone else but, rather, a therapist guiding a patient into a sleep-like trance state. This is similar to daydreaming or that feeling of losing track of time when you’re super concentrated on something. You’re still in control of your mind, but you’ve tuned out the world around you to go into a heightened state of awareness.
The idea that a hypnotist can take control of someone else’s mind and have them do things they normally wouldn’t do is a myth. While under hypnosis, you cannot be forced to do something against your will. During a hypnotherapy session, you are aware and participating.
A hypnotized mind does tend to be more relaxed and open to suggestion, however, which is why hypnotherapy can help you lose weight. People vary in how open to the suggestion they are while under hypnosis — studies have shown that some are more open than others — but while you’re in that trance, your conscious mind is more connected to your unconscious mind, which allows a therapist to help plant helpful suggestions that are likely to stick with you.
The reason why hypnotherapy can help some people lose weight is that we are creatures of habit, and we tend to be driven by our automatic, unconscious thoughts. When you reach for a snack or overeat at a meal, you’re usually not thinking about it consciously — you’re just acting. You’re responding to some drive in your unconscious mind that usually it has nothing to do with hunger.
For example, you may be lonely or bored, anxious or stressed or enjoying the rewarding feelings that come from eating foods you like. Because these impulses are buried deep in your unconscious mind, you usually can’t reach them when you’re trying to change your habits. You can tell yourself not to eat when you’re stressed out, for example, but that rarely helps when you’re stressed and needing some sort of solace.
That’s where hypnotherapy can help.
At the beginning of hypnotherapy, a therapist is likely to discuss with you the potential drives that are behind your overeating. Figuring out exactly what feelings you may be filling with food is part of the process of helping you change.
Then, during a hypnosis session, the therapist will address those feelings, helping to balance the voices in your head. She may suggest, for example, that when you’re feeling stressed out, a bowl of ice cream will only make you feel depressed, but a nice walk around the block will help clear your head. Alternatively, she may suggest that a piece of cake will make you feel heavy and sluggish while a fresh apple will help you feel satisfied and nourished.
When you listen to these suggestions while you’re in that hypnotic trance, they tend to “sink in” to your mind more deeply than they do at other times. Later, when you experience a stressful day and think about scooping out that bowl of ice cream, your mind will be more likely to help you choose the healthier alternatives.
Other examples of positive suggestions that may be made during hypnosis include the following:
- Confidence: You find it easy to reach your weight-loss goals. You are completely capable of adopting a healthier lifestyle.
- Visualization: You look so smashing wearing that new outfit after losing the weight.
- Courage: You are safe and in control. You have nothing to fear when it comes to losing weight.
- Emotions: When you’re feeling bored, you enjoy getting out your yarn and knitting or other various hobbies and crafts that you might engage in. When you’re feeling anxious, you like to practice deep breathing to help yourself relax.
- Behavior changes: When you see that cookie, you feel heavy and tired, but when you see that apple, you feel alive and energized.
- Sensitivity: You are in tune with your body. You can tell the instant you start feeling full, and you like to stop eating immediately so that you don’t have to suffer that stuffed feeling.
There are many examples of how hypnosis can work to stop unhealthy eating patterns. A therapist may help you imagine your food cravings are hot air balloons flying up and away or suggest that cupcakes are disgusting and taste like spinach.
As you accept these suggestions and allow them into your brain, you can later use them to help you make choices that support your weight-loss goals. It is important to realize that just one hypnosis session is unlikely to create lasting results. Hypnotherapy usually requires several sessions but, once you go through the program, you will be able to carry forward the new habits you’ve developed.
We have a small number of quality studies examining the effectiveness of hypnotherapy on weight loss. One thing they have shown is that the therapy doesn’t work for everyone. Some people will find it a miracle cure, some will find it helpful in combination with other weight-loss methods, and some will not find it helpful at all.
If you’re struggling to lose weight and it’s not working, hypnotherapy is worth a try. In a 2005 review of more than 25 trials, researchers found evidence that hypnotherapy could lead to weight loss without side effects.
In a 2014 study, researchers analyzed hypnotherapy for weight loss with overweight women and found that it helped them improve their weight, body mass index (BMI), eating behavior, and even some aspects of body image.
Other studies have shown positive results. In one, more than 100 participants ranging in age from 17 to 67 completed a behavioral weight management treatment with or without hypnosis. Results showed that both programs resulted in significant weight loss. However, after 8 months and 2 years, only the hypnosis clients showed significant additional weight loss while the other group experienced little additional change.
More recent research showed that in addition to weight loss, patients undergoing hypnotherapy also had lower rates of inflammation, were less likely to feel hungry, and enjoyed a better quality of life. Although we need more studies to determine what ultimate role hypnosis may play in weight management, it seems to be a safe and potentially effective tool for many people from what we know so far.
The best way to use hypnotherapy for weight loss is to combine it with other methods. Rather than rely on hypnosis alone, pair it with a healthy change in your diet and a regular exercise program for best results.
If you’d like to try hypnotherapy, your best bet is to find a hypnotherapist with experience in helping patients to lose weight. That therapist can help you identify what may be driving your unhealthy eating patterns, and then use hypnosis to change those patterns.
You also have the option of trying self-hypnosis. There are many resources available to help you, including CDs, DVDs, MP3s, YouTube videos, and so on. With these tools, you can guide yourself into a relaxed state, and then make your own suggestions based on what you know about your eating behaviors.
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