Close your eyes and repeat after us: I will get ripped

Pro athletes, Hollywood stars and fitness enthusiasts everywhere have started turning back to history’s oldest brain hack – hypnosis – for some good old-fashioned motivation. But can a temporary trancelike state really change our habits, or have we merely been brainwashed by the latest get-fit, feel-better fad? Our correspondent investigates…

by Scott Christian

 Roger Clemens clucking like a chicken. Of all the many pop culture references that exist for hypnosis, that’s the one that keeps popping into my head. It’s from a scene in The Simpsons, the softball episode, in which Mr Burns has his team of professional ringers hypnotised to improve their performance. But thanks to an inept hypnotist, Roger Clemens ends up clucking like a chicken.

My hypnotist reassures me that this won’t happen to me, though.

“Hypnosis is nothing more than a deep state of relaxation with an acute focus,” says Alexandra Janelli, one of New York City’s premier hypnotherapists. She assures me that, rather than some sort of trance, the hypnotic state is actually more of an intense form of focus. “It’s when you stop actively listening and you just hear,” she says.

It’s in that state that you become more susceptible to suggestion – that is, more capable of behaviour outside your normal comfort zone. Which is actually the whole point of hypnosis therapy. Of course, I’m not anywhere near that state myself. At least not yet. Instead, my mind keeps drifting, first to Roger Clemens, then to the smell of the office, which reminds me of a new-age beauty shop – a bit of lavender, a bit of sage, a general earthiness.

When my mind veers too far, I try to reel it back in and focus on Janelli’s crisp yet soft voice. She’s guiding me through a series of relaxation techniques, the first of which involves visualising a physical location, one where I can feel calm and happy. I choose a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean in southern France on a perfect summer day. She then tells me to concentrate on the details of the location. Is it day or night? What’s the temperature? What are the smells? The point is to dislodge me from any thoughts of the future or past and to instead root me squarely in the present. From there, it’s more relaxation. She has me focus on my arms, my legs, my neck. Each time I do, she tells me to release any tension located there. To liquefy those muscles. Given my preternatural gift for avoiding relaxation, I worry it won’t work. Surely this is a fool’s errand. But then something clicks. She tells me to visualise a warm golden ball enveloping me. Suddenly my mind stops drifting, and I can feel the tension in my neck dissolve.

“Can you feel what your eyes are doing?” she asks me.

I can’t.

“That’s how I can tell you’re in a hypnotic state,” she says. “Your eyes start ping-ponging back and forth.”

And that’s exactly what they are doing, as if I’m watching a very fast tennis match behind my eyelids. Turns out I’m hypnotised. And if you’re wondering what brought me here to begin with, the answer’s quite simple: fitness.

By most measures I’m relatively fit. I lift, I ride my bike, I occasionally go to yoga. But lately my motivation has begun to flag. Work happens, life happens, and suddenly the very thought of going to the gym becomes a grim existential wrestling match.

I know a few people who have used hypnosis to quit smoking. Many athletes have turned to it to improve their game. But when I heard actress Olivia Munn say that hypnosis was the sole reason she hit the gym, I was sold.

Back to the lounge, Janelli takes me through two swings around the hypnotic bend. The first is a longer induction exercise, one meant to establish a behavioural shift through relaxation and positive reinforcement – essentially, to couple a relaxed and happy state with the act of going to the gym. To do this, she speaks words of positive affirmation. “Push through all your anxiety. What you’re afraid of is totally achievable. You will be successful. You look forward to the fitness you’ll get from working out.”

This is meant to replace those thick waves of existential dread with eagerness and hopeful anticipation. Or, if you’re trying to quit smoking, it’s the reverse – replacing the positive emotion, the addiction, with some existential dread. All told, it’s a remarkably simple process. Isolate the issue, focus on relaxation, attach positive or negative feelings to the issue, and then you’re out.

The second induction is merely an abbreviated version of the first. Janelli instructs me to close my eyes again and focus on any remaining tension in my body. She tells me to melt back into the chair. Then it’s a few more positive words on going to the gym. “You want to be healthy, you look forward to the shape your body will be when you exercise.” All in all it’s about 30 minutes of relaxation, visualisation, and positive reinforcement. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. Of course, the question afterwards is, has my brain been hacked? Am I now a fitness-seeking machine? Honestly, I have no idea. Other than feeling a bit looser than usual, I don’t feel any different. It’s time to pack my gym bag.

Hypnosis as a medically sanctioned form of therapeutic practice has been around for more than half a century. Many nations, including Australia, have officially endorsed hypnotherapy as a legitimate form of treatment for a variety of conditions. But as a phenomenon, hypnosis is considerably older.

“It’s the oldest Western conception of psychotherapy,” says David Spiegel, the associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford University, US, and one of the world’s leading experts on hypnosis. The form we know today dates back to the late 18th century, when a German-born doctor named Franz Anton Mesmer first introduced the idea of “mesmerising” clients with dim light and ethereal music.

But as psychotherapy evolved throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, hypnosis slowly shed its association with spiritualism and the occult and eventually became a clinical tool in the arsenal of such psychiatric luminaries as Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet. It wasn’t until the emergence of the US Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis in 1949 that hypnosis gained wider clinical acceptance.

Today, though the scientific base for hypnosis is stronger than it ever has been, much of its rise in popularity comes from its association with mindfulness, a vague term meant to describe anything that focuses your attention on the present, a fad currently in vogue among celebrities.

Of course, while much of that mindfulness is centred on meditation – which is designed to, as Janelli describes it, “push out” or clear your mind of mental clutter – hypnosis is designed to “bring in” or process information in a way that organises and positively utilises that clutter.

Advances in neuroscience have also helped legitimise the practice. “We’re using techniques, like functional MRI, that make a huge difference in our ability to put people in different states and see what’s happening in their brain,” says Spiegel. However, as Dr Peter Halligan and Dr David Oakley, two UK-based neuroscientists, write in Hypnosis and Cognitive Neuroscience: Bridging the Gap, “From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, relatively little is known about the underlying processes involved in the hypnotic state itself.” What we do know, says Spiegel, is that it involves a heightened degree of focus brought about when two parts of your brain are working together. In other words, look at a person’s brain on an fMRI during hypnosis and those two regions will be lit up like a Christmas tree.

In this state, your brain becomes more malleable, and you become more open to suggestion. The most obvious example of this can be seen in hypnotism stage shows. Despite his objections to such displays, Spiegel says, the hypnotism is real.

The trick, he explains, is in finding people in the audience who are highly hypnotisable. During any stage show, you’ll see the hypnotist bring up 20 or so audience members. The hypnotist will then whittle the number down to one or two by performing quick induction routines, essentially a sped-up version of Janelli’s relaxation techniques, then look for things like eyes rolling up into heads or muscle catalepsy, an occurrence in which the muscles become rigid. Janelli calls these people somnambulists, which essentially means sleepwalkers. Though only about 15% of the population is thought to be so highly hypnotisable, everyone is, to some degree, hypnotisable, says Richard Barker, who largely uses his own stage act as a marketing tool for his clinical practice. You can’t be made to cluck like a chicken, but you will achieve a heightened state of focus. “If you want to work with me and be receptive, then you can and will be hypnotised,” he says. “The only real block for hypnosis is a lack of concentration.”

Part of what makes everyone hypnotisable to at least some degree is also what inspires dissension among researchers: differing opinions on what, exactly, the hypnotic state is. Typically, hypnosis is defined as a trance state brought about by an induction procedure. Today, induction is most often a script used to speak someone into a hypnotic state – usually a series of breathing exercises done while focusing on a mental image.

But more and more, researchers are defining hypnosis as a subject’s heightened susceptibility to suggestion irrespective of whether an induction procedure was used. Dr Elvira Lang, a former associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, US, and the CEO of Comfort Talk, a company that uses guidance in self-hypnotic relaxation to aid in patient recovery, says that the hypnotic state can occur in all manner of situations, even by simply visiting the doctor’s office. Dr Lang points out that medical professionals often unwittingly increase a patient’s pain by simply suggesting that a procedure will hurt. When we’re in that “zone”, our brains can change our perception of an event based purely on suggestion.

Not that we can be persuaded to do just anything, Barker explains: the brain does have a mechanism called the “critical factor”, which protects us from doing something that could cause harm or that goes against our moral beliefs, like robbing a bank.

So how does all of this get you to do something like go to the gym? For some people, one trip to the hypnotist is enough to change their behaviour forever. Spiegel sees a lot of success in dealing with anxiety: “Half the people I see for one session for something like an aeroplane phobia are either improved or cured.” So if your aversion to working out is the result of anxiety – fearing the discomfort of it, or even fearing the gym itself, with all its mirrors and judging stares – it’s entirely possible that one session could fix the problem. Or one session followed up by periodic rounds of self-hypnosis.

Keep in mind, though, that for the process to succeed, there has to be a mental investment by the patient. After all, the hypnotist only guides you toward a mental state in which you want to change that behaviour. That’s why for many patients, following up with self-hypnosis is key.

Janelli also suggests framing everything in a positive light. “Avoid what I call ‘negative self-talk’ ,” she says. “Beating yourself up over what you’re failing to achieve.” Dr Lang fully agrees that language is essential when it comes to altering perception and behaviour. “A lot of it is just changing the wording and the expectation,” she says. For my session, Janelli has me avoid platitudes like “No pain, no gain” since they allow for negativity – ie, pain. Instead, I’m told to focus purely on the gain – which is surprisingly effective, at least in the moment. During the session I really do feel the anxiety drift away and in its place a sense of world-conquering optimism.

It’s now a month since I went through my hypnosis session. And while I haven’t achieved a Hugh Jackman level of fitness, I have noticed a measurable difference in my approach to working out. Not only am I getting to the weights room more often, I’m also feeling a greater sense of calm, both before going to the gym as well as during my workout. And while I do more often feel the urge to actually get on my bike and ride there, it’s not an overpowering one. It feels like an established habit, similar to brushing my teeth. It’s just something I do because it’ll feel weird if I don’t. Which is why hypnosis is probably best viewed as a tool to help effectuate change rather than some miracle cure that will forcefully impose it. As Spiegel describes it, “Hypnosis is all about learning how to better manage your mind and your body.” Of course, staying the course at the gym is all about forming good habits and keeping a positive outlook – and anything that can help establish those habits is worth a shot.

One recommendation if you’re thinking of trying hypnosis: don’t let up on the homework. Because, while I have no idea how long the feel-good feelings will last, I’ve found that returning to the self–hypnosis exercise about once a week clears my mind and firmly re–establishes that positive connection.

Something I can guarantee: either way, you won’t end up clucking like a chicken. Unless, of course, that’s what you’re going for.


How to Hypnotise Yourself in 7 Easy Steps

Want to really change your habits? Well, it’s as simple as managing your anxiety and calming your mind. Here, courtesy of Comfort Talk CEO Dr Elvira Lang, is an easy self-hypnosis technique that will help you do just that:

1) “Whenever you feel your anxiety rise, the urge to smoke – or any behaviour you’d like to counteract or do more of (such as hitting the gym) – sit down, pick a spot in front of you at eye level, and focus on it.”

2) “While keeping your eyes focused on that spot, take a gentle breath in. Feel yourself grow tall as the air streams gently into your lungs. Hold your breath for a moment and then relax, breathing out all your tension with it.” 

3) “With your next breath in, gently push your feet against the floor, tensing your ankles, calves and thighs. Become tall in your chair, hold your breath and breathe out, focusing your eyes on the spot.”

4) “Now tense your entire body. Hold your breath for a moment and then breathe out, releasing all the tension along with your breath.” 

5) “Keep focusing on your spot as you breathe, taking in strength and clarity with each breath in and releasing tension with each breath out. You may feel yourself swaying a little and sense your focus shifting.” 

6) “Now engage in any pleasant scenario that comes to mind – a wonderful place, a beautiful day or just an imagined pleasant sense of floating somewhere safe and comfortable. Enjoy it with all your senses and bring to mind your goal. Think about the positive emotion that will come from achieving it.”

7) “You can then quickly come out of this eyes-open self-hypnosis simply by blinking your eyes. If you wish, you can always re-enter it quickly by performing the breathing steps listed above while focusing on your preferred spot.”