I’ve been practising self-hypnosis for almost two weeks now and I am clucking like a chicken at the sight of mustard or roses. No, not really — it turns out hypnotism is nothing like my assumptions had led me to believe. I haven’t stared at a single rocking pendulum or swirling monochrome image (to my slight disappointment), but instead have been engaging in the practice alone with just the support of a few new apps on my phone. And, it’s working.
The majority of my understanding of hypnotism has been through movies and TV. I once watched a live Paul McKenna show in the West End where members of the audience were brought up on stage and made to act ridiculously — one man could only talk in a made up Martian language and a woman believed she was a cheerleader for the entirety of the show. I remember thinking I wouldn’t have been so easily put under, that I was made of stronger stuff.
But hypnotism is not just an entertainment gimmick — it has for a long time been used to alleviate a myriad of issues and an endless roster of celebrities have turned to the technique to improve their lives. Tiger Woods uses it to help his game, Lily Allen tried it for eating habits, Eva Mendes to cure her arachnophobia, Reese Witherspoon for panic attacks and dozens of stars including Drew Barrymore, Adele, Matt Damon and Ellen DeGeneres used it to quit smoking. Of course, A-listers have been known to favour plenty of woo-woo trends that I don’t plan on copying — just because a woman in a Marvel film puts a crystal egg in her hoo-ha doesn’t mean I’m going to be squatting over geodes anytime soon.
Even if you doubt the judgement of the rich and famous, you may be more won over by the list of scientists using the practice. Even Albert Einstein swore by it. Now, scientists and doctors are prescribing hypnotism to patients. Earlier this year, the UK’s Royal College of Anaesthetists called for more healthcare staff to give patients hypnosis recordings before undergoing surgeries. Trials have shown that patients often required fewer sedatives when used in conjunction with hypnosis. When it comes to childbirth, hypno birthing has developed a cult following with even the Princess of Wales allegedly using the technique with her children.
The idea of being easily hypnotised sounds slightly worrying — like I’d get brainwashed into a cult
The benefits of hypnotism are wide-ranging and now you don’t need to go see a specialist to reap the rewards. Multiple apps have popped up promising to train users in the skill. Whether you have a phobia, anxiety, chronic pain or high levels of stress, there’s a different programme to help. My issue is sleep. I lie in bed awake for hours and when I do get to sleep I regularly wake up in the middle of the night for no evident reason. I was keen to see if any of these new apps could help me with my problem. Two of the best are Reveri and Oneleaf, both launched within the last year, raising millions in investment.
The mind behind Reveri is Dr David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford University, and a well known figure in hypnotism having practised it for over 45 years. Dr Spiegel describes hypnotism as “a state of highly focussed attention”. You’ve probably experienced the state Dr Spiegel is referencing “when you get so caught up in a movie, that you lose yourself and start to believe in the imagination”. According to him, hypnotism takes advantage when some parts of the brain are ‘disconnected’ from distracting thoughts in turn making it more suggestive.
It works like this: our brains have three core networks — the salience network, the executive control network and the default mode network. The salience network helps us to monitor information, the executive control network manages cognitive abilities like problem solving or reasoning, and the default mode network is what you’re using when your mind wanders. During hypnosis there is a reduction in activity of the salience network so you can be less distracted while the connection between the executive control network and a part of the salience network is enhanced, helping to focus attention.
The people who are most hypnotisable are those who are imaginative
The first thing I’m asked to do on the Reveri app is test out how hypnotisable I am. I’m not sure which way I want the results to go. On the one hand, the idea of being easily hypnotised sounds slightly worrying — like I’d be the first to get brainwashed into a cult — but on the other, Dr Spiegel told me that often the people who are most hypnotisable are those who are imaginative. The test involves an interactive recording that leads you into a state of hypnosis, checking in on you as you reply to your phone. At one point you imagine your hand is as light as a balloon and then see if your arm has floated up or feels less connected to your body. My arm is very much reaching for the sky and I get my final score: Moderately hypnotisable, a seven out of 10. I’ll take it.
Almost all the sessions on the Reveri app begin the same way, by getting you into this state of hypnotism. The deep melodic voice runs you through the three steps: “On one, do one thing: look up. On two, do two things: slowly close your eyes and take a deep breath. On three, do three things: let your breath out, let your eyes relax but keep them closed, and let your body float.” Then while in this state you are encouraged to refocus your thoughts, or imagine your stresses on a screen in front of you, or consider your worries in a new light.
It sounds almost too simple to work but after I complete each of the suggested sessions I’m surprised by how genuinely calm I feel. And after practising for a few days I start to see the impact at night. It’s not immediate like a sleeping pill, it doesn’t knock me out, but it helps to remove some of the barriers I now realise were keeping me awake. I’m not thinking through every worry, moment that went wrong or task I still have to do. I’m simply winding down.
But on the third night I wake up at 1am and as much as I try to imagine myself floating, I can’t. I try to use Reveri’s ‘get back to sleep’ recording but it’s only a few minutes long and when it ends I feel the same. So I try a Oneleaf session.
Even though both apps are for self-hypnosis with similar goals and claims, the listening process is very different. Reveri feels like lying on a chaise lounge in a psychiatrist’s office, OneLeaf feels like you’re in a tent with a self-proclaimed healer wearing too many bracelets. The voices aren’t authoritative but relaxing with calming music in the background.
This time the recording is 30 minutes long. I put in my earphones and start cynically listening, immediately finding the American attempt to calm me annoying. Yet I can’t tell you much more than that because I never got to the end of the recording, and was woken up by my alarm several hours later.
Before I looked into hypnotism I thought it sat beside crystals and horoscopes, believed by some but not for rational thinkers. But I was wrong. It’s closer to mindfulness, but while mindfulness is all about becoming hyper-aware of your surroundings — what you can feel, hear and taste — hypnotism is about disassociating and instead going into an imaginary world.
A quick way to determine how effective hypnotism will be for you is to see if you can shut your eyes and convince your body you’re floating. Can you feel it? A floating sensation using just your imagination? If not, it might not be for you. But if you can, if you can do it well or easily, you should try it. I used to feel sorry for the easily hypnotisable I watched up on stage, now I’m jealous of them.