Not exactly how it works.
Once upon a time I loved sleep. It came so naturally. The second my head it the pillow, I’d be out. Actually, if it was after nine at night, I’d fall asleep standing up mid-conversation, mid-sentence. Eight hours later I’d awaken from a deep rest refreshed and excited about 5:30am.
I’ve struggled with sleep for close to four years since my thyroid went haywire. I’m hypothyroid and normally that means I should sleep ten hours a day and never feel rested. Instead, I only get four to six hours of sporadic sleep and never feel rested. For the most part, I just deal with being sleep deprived. Once you’re used to it, it’s actually amazing what you can still do, to a point.
At times I have moments of concern. I read an article reiterating all the things you try not to think about: sleep is when the body heals, lack of sleep increases your chance of gaining weight and making poor food choices, if you don’t sleep you’ll probably get Alzheimer’s. Basically, this sleep thing I seem to have no control of is going to send me to an early grave. Thoughts like that don’t tend to help the sleep cycle.
So when Lynn, a friend and an instructor on the Personal Euphoria team, became a hypnotherapist t I was intrigued to try it, although not initially for my sleep. I was just interested in what it was all about. Hypnotism has always fascinated me. In high school my best friend was hypnotized. She was not herself, flew on an imaginary carpet, and had no recollection of what transpired. I once got called on stage for a hypnotist, but nothing happened. As a curious individual, I scheduled an appointment with Lynn.
The night before my first session I didn’t sleep. I arrived tired and worried that I might actually fall asleep during the session. Years of not sleeping and now I was scared I might—not an entirely uncommon feeling for the sleep deprived. As I walked in the room, Lynn ushered me to the most comfortable chair I’ve ever sat in. If this chair were my bed it might solve all my problems.
We got started. The process involves a lot of visualization and guided meditation—not things I excel at. I knew meditation was tough for me, but I was surprised to learn how bad I am at visualizing. I’m not sure how I never picked up on this limitation, but I need to work on it. Lynn took me through certain visual exercises hunting for the root cause of my lack of sleep. What she does isn’t what first comes to mind when you think of hypnosis. There is no watch waving in front of your eyes. You’re not under a spell where you walk around like a chicken or are unable to lift a balloon. It feels a little like therapy. Therapy makes me uncomfortable and I don’t like it. But unlike therapy, I got to keep my thoughts to myself. Lynn rarely asked me to tell her what I was visualizing and when she did it was usually in reference to what color I was seeing.
As we hunted for the problem, cued by Lynn, I attempted to envision a giant bowl that I filled with everything that got in the way of me and sleep. The bowl grew and grew. She asked me if I had everything in the bowl. I did. And then she asked if I was willing to throw the bowl and all its contents away. That’s complicated. Throw everything away? Most of the items in the bowl had value. My family was in the bowl. Christmas was in the bowl. Work was in the bowl. I’m my boss. I was in the friggin’ bowl.
When I hesitated and told her there were items I couldn’t throw out (heck, my hormones were in the bowl. Now on the right day, I’ll agree to ditch them, but not really) she talked me through not trashing the items as much as discarding the stressful thoughts about the stressors I couldn’t ditch.
After the bowl debacle, I had to visualize myself sleeping eight deep hours and waking refreshed. It was a wonderful dream. She taught me some self-talk where I told myself I was a “Professional Sleeper” and that “I had been sleeping well all my life.” Or “I knew how to sleep and I was good at it. In fact, I was an expert sleeper. I could sleep with the best of them. I may be the best sleeper in the world.” You get the point. I like to say it with the voice of a 1930’s newsreel or a carnival kid trying to entice you to see the bearded lady.
I recited the mantras to myself almost every day for a few weeks. Since then I’ve been a bit sporadic about it. Driving seems to be the best time to get it done. I’m not doing anything else. Remembering is surprisingly challenging and the incantations feel a little cheesy. And I don’t believe saying it makes it true. Still, I definitely don’t sleep on the nights I forget to do it. I catch more “z’s” when I say the affirmations. Research on visualization shows it can work if you are visualizing something you are familiar with. So visualizing a good golf swing won’t do much good if you’ve never golfed, but if you’ve golfed and your body knows what to do or has some experience, the visualization can improve your swing. So, Lynn’s mantras are right. I do know how to sleep. I slept for years. Somewhere along the way I just forgot how.
But the question is: does hypnosis really work? I’m not sure I have an answer. Ben Franklin, who I admire, debunked it in 1784 as part of a commission of the French Academy of Science put together by Louis the XVI. In fairness though, what Franklin and the team discredited was a method of mesmerizing created by Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer, who claimed he’d cured all sorts of ailments including blindness. If you told me hypnotism could cure blindness I’d have my doubts too.
Since Ben Franklin was looking into hypnosis, and particularly since the 1950’s there has actually been a lot of research. Do a google search for “does hypnosis work” and the results don’t really question whether it works. They question why some people can be hypnotized and others can’t. It’s presumed we all agree people can get hypnotized. Researchers at Stamford University think they may know why it works on some people, and the answer might be neurological. People whose brain operates more executive control and has better attention and focus may be more easily hypnotized. Those sound like good traits, so I’m a little bummed about my historical struggle with hypnotism, especially since some studies show your ability to be hypnotized remains constant throughout life. Once hypnotizable, always hypnotizable. So the real question is: can hypnosis alter your subconscious to affect change?
Studies reveal it may in some areas. There have been results in helping diminishing pain with hypnosis. Wouldn’t it be great if you could think your way out of pain or subconsciously trick your brain out of pain? Often with chronic pain doctors can’t find a physical problem, but the brain is giving a signal of pain. And if you get that signal, you’re in pain. What if you could tap into the brain and give it subtle hints that it’s actually not in pain–get it firing properly again? More research needs to be done in this area.
Unlike Mesmer back in the 18th century, I don’t think hypnotherapists are claiming to heal disease, but I think it’s dangerous to even go down that path. My concern is why I hesitate when considering the validity of hypnotism. I don’t believe you can hypnotize or will yourself out of diseases like cancer, fibromyalgia, (the list goes on and on) but the mind is powerful and it can control the body. You can alter your perspective on your situation. Outlook matters. A positive outlook won’t heal you either, don’t get me wrong, but it can help you feel better.
When I was little I remember my Grandfather used to talk to his “good cells” before surgery. When I was worried about a heart procedure or a back surgery he was having he would tell me not to worry because he’d talked to his good, healthy cells and told them they needed to step up and help out the rest of his body. I loved the concept then. I love it now. It’s basically Lynn’s mantras.
It’s my nature to be skeptical—a trait I usually like about myself. I remain uncertain about hypnosis, but my own experience may tell me I shouldn’t. Because here is what I noticed from my mantras:
First, in the middle of the night, usually between two and four in the morning, when my eyes pop open in the dark and I see the glowing clock, I’ve started rounding up. So instead of thinking I got five hours and forty-five minutes of sleep, I’d think I got six hours. It was a subconscious change that happened after I met with Lynn, although realizing that I was doing it has hurt is effects. Still, it reveals just how powerful the mind is because thinking I got more sleep than I actually did made me feel better.
Second, for the first two solid weeks when I was really good with the mantras I did sleep better, at least I thought I did. Was it the hypnosis, the mantras, the dark and cool fall weather, utter exhaustion, the fact that I’d been working on my nighttime routine? I’m not sure. Maybe all played a role.
Most importantly, every time I say I’m a professional sleeper (which I’ve now changed to Super Sleeper), it makes me laugh. It makes me laugh because I’m uncomfortable with the concept of positive affirmations. Right or wrong, I feel silly. But for years my sleep hasn’t been a laughing matter. Lynn gave me tools, but unknowingly she got me to start taking myself less seriously. I’m not sure that was her goal. Sleep had become a stressful and serious issue in my life. And, come to think of it, I’m not sure I thought to put sleep in the bowl.
When I wake up in the night, even if I stay awake, I now think, “It’s okay. I’m a professional sleeper. I got this.” Or “I’ll get it tomorrow.” Or “one night won’t kill me. I rock at this sleeping thing.” It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s not true. Sometimes, in my nighttime delirium I can live in that delusion or potential truth. Perhaps that is precisely what hypnosis is all about or maybe to the brain it doesn’t matter if it’s true. Perhaps if the brain hears it repeated enough it just falls in line.
Hypnosis is not passive though. It seems like it would be. You go into a dim room, someone puts you half asleep and you wake up and will sleep or won’t eat junk food or will stop smoking. It’s isn’t that easy. The visualization takes work. The home practice and remembering to visualize and making time for it takes work. The self-control takes work. If you aren’t motivated for the results and aren’t willing to exert some effort, I imagine that hypnosis would be less effective.
As always, if you’re going to try something like hypnosis you should get a recommendation from someone you trust. It’s just like visiting the doctor, a Pilates instructor, a chiropractor, or anyone else who is going to work with you and your body. Finding the right practitioner is key.
Around the time I met with Lynn I had basically decided to throw in the towel . My response to family and friends when they asked how I’d been sleeping had changed. Instead of saying, “Oh, I didn’t sleep that great,” I started saying, “I just don’t sleep. It is what it is”—accepting that I don’t sleep as a fact of life. The tools the hypnosis session gave me provided a sense of control. And whenever you have something happening to your body, it’s nice to feel you have some control.