Picture a hypnotist in your head. You're likely imagining a man with a beard wagging a gold watch in front of a subject’s eyes. Maybe he has an accent, maybe he doesn’t. What’s for sure is that he’s likely intoning, as an audience looks on, “You are getting very sleepy.”
Hypnosis has long been associated with sleep, but is often lumped into the same hokey territory as Las Vegas magicians. But far from the quackery that would literally have you quacking like a duck in front of an audience, hypnosis is a means to break a habit — and not sleeping is a deeply ingrained habit for an insomniac.
Over the last few years, hypnotherapy — a form of psychotherapy that applies hypnosis for treatment to create subconscious change in a patient — has increasingly been used to treat sleeplessness with positive results. Whether by suggesting changes to help you relax or by addressing the thought patterns that result in a restless mind, a hypnotherapist can ease months of tossing and turning with just one or two sessions.
Boiled down, hypnosis refers to “a place in our consciousness spectrum between wakefulness and sleep,” says Toronto-based hypnotherapist Andrew Gentile. “People who have insomnia, their nervous system is having trouble winding down. The process of teaching them to go into hypnosis is to teach them how to go to the doorway to sleep.”
Used in conjunction with a proper psychological analysis and a healthy sleep-hygiene routine, hypnotherapy has been shown to decrease insomnia and even reduce such REM-threats as sleep paralysis, night terrors and general bad dreams. The effectiveness stems from hypnotherapy’s ability to put the mind into a state where it is no longer susceptible to the distractions that keep one awake.
(It’s important to note that there’s a difference between hypnosis and hypnotherapy. A hypnotist uses hypnotic suggestions in hopes of addressing a behavior. They find patterns and remove them using influence, and their suggestions need weeks or months to stick. A hypnotherapist has a more powerful deck of cards and is often able to find the causes of these patterns by digging deep into a patient's mind. They’ll then use suggestions, which will last for a few days right away.)
Now, compare the act of going to sleep to the lowering of lighting in a room. In a sense, we’re decreasing the amount of electricity going through our body. “There’s a dimming, the body gets heavy, our muscles are relaxing,” says Gentile. “We feel limp, weak. Our nerves are sending fewer signals, the muscles are getting fewer impulses to be active.”
The brain is part of that nervous system. Therefore it, too, is going into a resting state and all the functions of the conscious mind— analysis, problem solving, criticism, judgment, discernment — subside as we drift off.
“When we are asleep we have the experience of dreaming,” says Gentile. “We are not analyzing — we’re in a state of radical open-mindedness and acceptance of whatever we’re being presented with.” When we’re dreaming, he adds, we get a huge amp up in other parts of the mind including imagination and non-linear thinking.
A great deal of what keeps insomniacs awake, per Gentile, are the unresolved problems, thoughts of the future, regrets from the past and other such distractions. But if you can escape into a fantasy for a few minutes, that could help you drop into sleep.
When hypnotized you enter into a trance similar to that of a day dream, one where your mind is free and able to drift off. In this state you are more open to manipulation either by a phrase or visual image. These can be used for the purpose of telling you to ignore your troubles and thoughts that steal sleep.
On a scale of one to 10, think of ten being highly awake, and 1 being deeply asleep. In hypnosis, the goal is to train someone with insomnia to get to five — that halfway place.
“By the time they’re at five they’re at a very relaxed state,” says Gentile, “The imagination is active and tangential thoughts become full-on dreams which facilitate sleep.” So long as we’re alive, our minds are active. So if we’re not consciously thinking about things, then we’re going into mini-dreams or tangential thoughts.
“In hypnosis, we are priming the pump for dreams to occur,” says Gentile. “We’re constructing dreams intentionally, which gets the imagination pumping and flowing. When you get to a relaxed enough space, these become self-sustaining. The mind is in the altered state of the dream — you’re forgetting about all our regular feelings and thoughts, and off you go into sleep.”
Melissa Tiers, a NYC-based certified hypnotherapist, teaches very specific methods of escaping the roaring mind.
“Some insomniacs react well to direct suggestion — being told under hypnosis that he or she can fall asleep quickly and easily,” says Tiers. “Ten to 20 percent will respond to that.”
Otherwise, she teaches practices that help shift attention away from or slow down racing thoughts. Here are some ways she teaches her patients to calm their mind:
1. Slow down the movie
One thing insomniacs share in common is the inability to ramp down their internal dialogue. Tiers asks an insomniac to close his eyes and imagine he’s in bed and trying to sleep. Then she asks how he’s thinking.
“Typically, an insomniac’s internal processing is really revved up,” she says. “Their internal dialog loop is very sped up. They think in disjointed images or movies — and it’s always too fast.” So, she teaches how to manipulate their thoughts by slowing them down. “From the outside, I can see people are slowing down their internal images, because they’ll relax and breathe differently.”
2. Shift into peripheral vision
If slowing down the internal dialog doesn’t help, Tiers recommends stopping it altogether. Try this: Focus on a point in front of you on the wall or ceiling. Without shifting your gaze, try seeing the objects in your peripheral vision. Now further shift your perception to include the area behind you, encompassing the entire room.
“This process is calming — for people with anxiety and stress, it makes the internal dialog quiet,” says Tiers. “They’re not used to a quiet mind so they get discombobulated. They get dizzy from the quiet.”
3. Breathe from the heart
Tiers teaches a method she calls “heart-breathing” in which you, well, focus on the heart as you breathe. This, she says, helps the mind slow down. “It’s as if they have meditated for 30 minutes in that it takes the brain waves from alpha into beta,” she says. “Some even slip into theta — and then sleep.”
4. Take an imaginary sleeping pill
Another technique Tiers finds effective is teaching patients how to go into self-hypnosis, and while they’re in it to induce a re-creation of taking a sleeping pill.
“I have them imagine the feeling they used to have when medications were effective for them,” Tiers says. “Then I teach them to associate that feeling with a squeezing of the thumb and forefinger, as if they were holding the pill. When they squeeze again, it’s like a dose from an Ambien. I can tweak what might have worked in the past but doesn’t anymore — once I do that, we can segue from hypnosis to sleep.”
If these methods don’t help, Tiers ramps it up.
“I have to go a little deeper — making sure there’s not a reason why the conscious mind is a little overdiligent,” she says.
But, as any hypnotherapist will tell you, the suggestions will more often than not stick. And the insomniac will be able to slow down his or her thoughts long enough to sleep.