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Using hypnosis for more than just entertainment

Adam Dachis

Hypnosis is often demonstrated in the entertainment world as someone dangling a stopwatch in front of another’s face telling them they’re “getting very sleepy,” and then when the person awakes, engaging in some bizarre behavior. But there’s more value to hypnosis than just entertainment.

Hypnosis can be used to medically treat disorders that involve the brain -- such as anxiety, stress, pain, and bad habits. This week on “Take Care,” Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford University explainsthe medical value of hypnosis. Spiegel is Willson Professor and Associate Chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Director of the Center on Stress and Health, and Medical Director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Stanford School of Medicine.

Hypnosis is able to treat disorders by refocusing awareness and attention. Specifically, it is a state of highly focused attention coupled with reduction in peripheral awareness, according to Spiegel.

“It’s something like the experience you might have in getting caught up in a good movie—that you forget you’re watching a movie and you enter the imagined world. So you become part of the movie, not part of the audience,” Spiegel said.

This enables you to strongly concentrate on one thing, while disconnecting from the reaction you might normally have to a situation, says Spiegel. In terms of stress, hypnosis can allow you to feel relaxed and uncouple the bad thoughts associated with stress.

How this works, is hypnosis turns down a part of the brain called the salience network, which acts as a worry center and helps in the decision making process of what we should pay attention to or ignore, says Spiegel.

“There’s increased connectivity that is cooperative activity between a part of the brain and the executive control network where we carry out routines…and insulate, which is part of the brain that controls what’s going on in the body,” Spiegel said. “There’s an inverse connection between the executive control network and a part of the brain that’s involved in elimination.”

Although hypnosis can be something that requires some guidance at first, Spiegel says it is something that can eventually be done on your own. As a hypnotist, Spiegel says he identifies how responsive a person is to whatever they are trying to treat, and then he teaches them how to do it for themselves. For example, if a smoker who is trying to quit wanted to smoke, they would be taught to go into a state of self-hypnosis instead of having a cigarette every time they craved one.

However, hypnotism can work better on some people than others. Spiegel says more intuitive and trusting people are often more easily hypnotized, whereas those that are skeptical and constantly evaluating situations have a harder time falling under hypnosis. This could be a result of fearing that control will be lost over their body, but Spiegel says that is not what hypnotism is about.

“Hypnosis isn’t about losing control. It’s about enhancing control over how you think and feel and how your body functions,” Spiegel said.

This logic is why Spiegel says hypnosis can be used to eliminate a number of unhealthy things to the body, such as stress, anxiety, pain, fear, and bad habits. Spiegel compares hypnotizing your mind to training yourself to treat your body as you would treat a child or pet you’re trying to protect.