How hypnotherapy can be a useful tool to cultivate healthier eating habits.
By Annie Hayes
If you’re hoping to lose weight and you’ve tried every fad diet in the book with no success, you may be wondering if hypnotherapy holds the key. But does it involve swinging a pocket watch in front of your face and clucking like a chicken? According to the experts hypnotherapy isn’t a weight loss panacea, but if carried out correctly, it can be a useful tool to cultivate healthier eating habits.
We spoke to Dr Caroline Houlihan-Burne, clinical hypnotherapist at London Digestive Health; Uxshely Carcamo, psychotherapist and nutritionist at The Food Therapy Clinic; and hypnotherapist Simon Egerton, to separate hypnotherapy fact from fiction:
What is hypnotherapy?
Hypnotherapy is precisely what it sounds like: therapy undertaken in a state of hypnosis. Most people assume hypnosis is a state of unconsciousness, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It merely refers to the trace-like state we all experience from time to time – for example, when you zone out on a bus, get lost in a really good book, or become so absorbed by a task (say, painting) that you lose track of time. It’s best described as a state of deep focus and relaxation.
The only difference between hypnosis and an everyday trace-like state? In hypnosis, you deliberately access this state – in a similar way you might when following a guided meditation – for therapeutic purposes such as stress relief, healing from trauma, or in the cause of hypnotherapy for weight loss, unlearning unhealthy behaviours.
Unlike stage hypnosis, hypnotherapy works with the individual as a powerful imaginative guide to behavioural change.
‘Unlike stage hypnosis – which appears to manipulate – hypnotherapy works with the individual as a powerful imaginative guide to behavioural change,’ says Egerton. ‘It is, essentially, a deep relaxation that enables the unconscious to take on board agreed positive thought patterns.
‘In a typical session, the therapist will ascertain the client’s outcomes and agree together strategies, ideas and motivations to achieve these,’ he continues. ‘This is what will be reinforced within the session. There is no controlling element and the subject remains aware throughout. So it is particularly well suited to sessions online.’
Is hypnotherapy good for weight loss?
Hypnotherapy can be a very effective tool for weight loss, says Carcamo, but success depends on a range of factors. ‘Firstly, it’s important that the messaging used within the hypnotherapy is appropriate and suitable for the client,’ she says. ‘For example, many hypnotherapists will just convey in the hypnotherapy that the client should try to “eat less and exercise more”, without addressing the underlying causes for the client’s overeating.’
Each individual is different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to hypnotherapy for weight loss. ‘Different people have varying issues with eating, which may be related to types of food eaten – for example, sweets, chocolate, cheese, crisps etcetera – or behaviour such as snacking, portion size, or comfort eating,’ says Dr Houlihan-Burne. ‘It’s really important to address the particular issues for an individual because the more personalised the hypnosis is, the greater the effect.’
Additionally, using hypnotherapy in conjunction with other tools and disciplines – including psychotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and nutrition advice – tends to be ‘much more effective than just using hypnotherapy in isolation,’ says Carcamo. Consistency is also key. ‘Research suggests that hypnotherapy and other relaxation techniques are much more effective for weight loss when they are used regularly,’ she adds. ‘Consistency is an important factor in its effectiveness and in building new habits and thinking patterns.’
In a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, people who engaged in a combination of CBT and hypnosis lost significantly more weight than those who solely utilised CBT – more than 9kg on average, while the latter lost around half than amount. They also maintained their weight loss over the course of an 18-month follow-up period, while the sole CBT group tended to regain some weight.
How do you lose weight with hypnosis?
Hypnotherapy helps to break down eating habits that have become deeply ingrained in the unconscious mind, says Dr Houlihan-Burne. It works by tapping into your subconscious thoughts and behaviours. ‘Habits are not fixed, and if there is a true desire to change, suggestions made in a relaxed hypnotic state can help to establish new healthier ways of eating,’ she says.
During your first session, the therapist should explain how hypnotherapy works, address any queries and allay any concerns, Dr Houlihan-Burne continues. ‘I would then take some time discussing the individual’s eating behaviour, lifestyle, and what they would like to achieve, before agreeing on realistic goals,’ she explains.
Suggestions made in a relaxed hypnotic state can help to establish new healthier ways of eating.
Then, they’ll invite you to find a comfortable position and close your eyes. Your therapist will speak in a soothing tone, using specific language to put you at ease. Once her clients are in a relaxed state, says Carcamo, she incorporates tailored messaging that might include visualisations and metaphorical stories.
‘A hypnotherapy session can last anywhere from five minutes to an hour depending on the client and their needs,’ she says. ‘The process will end with the client being invited to re-open their eyes and return to an alert-state.’ You’ll usually be given a recording of the session to listen back to at home, which should help with reinforcement.
Hypnotherapy for weight loss benefits
For many people, taking time out to have a professional assess their eating behaviour – ‘in terms of diet, activity levels, stress and general lifestyle’ – helps unearth the root causes behind their unhealthy habits, says Dr Houlihan-Burne. ‘Making small initial changes increases a sense of taking control, improving motivation and confidence to continue making lifelong changes to lifestyle and eating habits,’ she says.
When used appropriately and with the right messaging, hypnotherapy can help people manage stress, anxiety and low mood more effectively, says Carcamo, which are ‘often factors that drive individuals to overeat’.
As well as helping to build new habits and patterns of behaviour around food, hypnotherapy can also be a catalyst to boost confidence and self-esteem. ‘Often when a client feels bad about themselves and their body, they turn to food to cope with how they are feeling,’ she says.
Does hypnotherapy have side-effects?
There are no negative side-effects involved in hypnotherapy for weight loss. Providing, that is, you listen back to the recordings at an appropriate moment. Plugging into your session while you operate a forklift truck is a no-no. ‘Hypnotherapy is something that someone should only do when they are in a safe space where they feel comfortable,’ says Carcamo. ‘For example, individuals should not listen to hypnotherapy recordings while driving or engaging in other activities, as they will not be as focused on what they are doing.’
You should also choose your hypnotherapist wisely. ‘I would advise seeing a hypnotherapist who is also a nutritionist when dealing with weight loss,’ says Carcamo. Inappropriate or uninformed messaging could encourage eating disorders and eventually lead to binge eating – causing more harm than good. ‘It’s important to work with someone that has a sound grounding in nutrition and ideally, eating psychology too,’ she says.
The only other “risk” – if you could call it that – occurs when an individual ‘is looking for a “magic wand” effect where they can continue eating what they like but still lose weight,’ says Dr Houlihan-Burne. ‘In a state of hypnosis, the unconscious mind will only take on board suggestions made that are agreeable to the individual. If someone doesn’t want to change their eating behaviour, their mind rejects the suggestions, and they continue behaving as they were before.’ Hypnotherapy requires a level of commitment to work.
How long does hypnotherapy take?
Hypnotherapy varies from person to person. Some people are more susceptible to hypnosis than others, and therefore more likely to see benefits quickly. People who possess personality traits such as selflessness and openness tend to be the most responsive, according to a study by Zhejiang University College of Medicine. Ironically, then, those who are cynical about its efficacy are less likely to benefit.
People automatically find it easier to think, feel and behave towards food and eating in a way that is more acceptable to them.
‘After the session, people automatically find it easier to think, feel and behave towards food and eating in a way that is more acceptable to them,’ says Dr Houlihan-Burne. ‘Depending on the individual, they may find they have less desire to eat unhealthy foods, feel more satisfied after meals, have less desire to snack and automatically veer towards more healthy choices.’
How many sessions do you need?
Like any form of therapy, the length of time required varies from person to person. Where some people might feel one session is enough to bring about changes, others could benefit from eight, 12, or 14 sessions.
‘Some people just have one, however more usual is two to three sessions,’ says Dr Houlihan-Burne. ‘Often, once the initial unwanted habits resolve, other unhelpful ones may become more prominent and need addressing.’
Hypnotherapy: the verdict
Hypnotherapy is no magic bullet – but when applied with care, it can help you forge a healthier relationship with food.
‘Hypnotherapy is often used as a support for weight loss, both for staying the course and, crucially, helping to keep at bay the “inner saboteur” that so often lurks within us,’ says Egerton. ‘It can be invaluable in promoting new and positive thought patterns; greater self worth, improved self image and an orientation towards self-care and emotional wellbeing.’