3 Easy Self-Hypnosis Exercises, From An MD Who Studied It For 40+ Years
Image by David Spiegel, M.D. / mbg creative
September 11, 2023
When you think of hypnosis, you probably imagine a dangling watch, stage performances, and a complete loss of control. But according to psychiatrist David Spiegel, M.D., co-founder and chief scientific officer of Reveri (click here for a free 7-day trial), hypnosis is a powerful therapeutic tool that can help with anxiety, sleep, pain management, and more. He would know—he’s spent over 40 years studying the topic!
“Hypnosis is in no way a loss of control,” he shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. “It’s a way of enhancing control over your mind and body.” Below, find a few of Spiegel’s tried-and-tested exercises to take better control of your sleep, stress, and physical comfort:
“We’ve done randomized controlled trials showing that people undergoing surgical procedures that don’t use general anesthesia can reduce their pain by 80%1 by just learning self-hypnosis,” says Spiegel.
See, hypnosis can help narrow your focus and detach your mind from situations that can amplify the pain (anxiety or worry, for example). Spiegel references a patient he treated who was experiencing back pain during pregnancy: “The bigger the baby got, the more back pain she had,” he recounts. The patient wasn’t able to take any pain medications, so she thought she’d give hypnosis a try.
Spiegel asked her what habit gave her the most comfort during pregnancy. Her answer: a warm bath. “I said, ‘You’re in your bath. Let the warmth of the bath filter the hurt out of the pain. Focus on that sense of floating, lightness, and warmth,'” he shares. “Within a few minutes, her pain went from a seven to eight out of 10 to a three.”
It’s easier said than done, of course, but the key is to somehow take your attention off the sensation itself; you’d be surprised by how much power your mind can have over pain.
“When you’re having trouble getting to sleep, you usually do the wrong thingsright away,” Spiegel declares. You look at the clock to calculate how much sleep you’re losing, or you think about your jam-packed to-do list the next day, which only arouses you more. “Your body gets tense, your muscles get tight, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, and you have more trouble sleeping,” he adds.
Instead, he recommends comforting your body. “Imagine you’re floating in a bath, a lake, a hot tub, or floating in space,” Spiegel says. You also may want to practice what he calls a cyclic sigh, “where you inhale halfway, hold your breath, and fully and slowly exhale through your mouth,” he explains. “As you do that, you trigger the soothing parasympathetic autonomic system and help your body relax.”
Keep floating in your imagination, and if you have any negative thoughts about your sleep habits or upcoming work schedule, detach them from your body—project them as if you were watching them on a movie screen. “You may even think of something you can do to help with the problem, but you’re experiencing your thoughts as if they were just flowing through you, not something you need to act on,” Spiegel adds. “And that can help people get to sleep.”
Just like with sleep, it’s important to make your body feel comfortable in the face of stress. Stress often results in a snowball effect, Spiegel says, where you “have an interaction with your body that makes things worse rather than better.” Your body experiences a fight-or-flight reaction (muscles tense, heart races, skin feels clammy), and you feel even worse from those physical effects—which then feeds into more anxiety.
That’s why Spiegel recommends calming down the physical body. “That’s an area where you actually have control, regardless of how stressful things are,” he notes. Again, “imagine being in a place where your body feels most comfortable, like a warm bath, floating in the air, or taking a swim in a mountain lake. Whatever makes you feel good, and just affiliate with that feeling,” he adds. “Once you get that sense, you’ve already taken a step toward diffusing the stressor, because it’s not making your body feel so bad.”
Next, he recommends picturing events or experiences that actually went well the day before. What did you do that helped somebody else or made you feel good? That way, you can take control over what your mind focuses on while makingsure your body doesn’t distract you. “Take care of the physical part of the anxiety, and then think about a way of dealing with the problem,” he shares.
Spiegel has hypnotized over 7,000 people in his career, and he has seen firsthand the immense power of the mind-body practice—it’s high time we stop overlooking it as a therapeutic tool. The best part? Everyone has the ability to wield it at home. “All hypnosis is self-hypnosis,” Spiegel notes, which may make it one of the most accessible mental health treatments of all.