Hypnosis for Sleep: What the evidence says about its benefits
When some of us think of hypnosis, we may think of a man swinging a pocket watch back and forth, or some poor soul being randomly picked out of an audience, dragged onto a stage and clucking like a chicken in front of a studio audience. However, hypnosis is actually an empirically-supported therapeutic technique used in the treatment of a variety of sleep disturbances.
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People come to hypnotherapy for a broad range of reasons. Some may be interested in it as a supplemental treatment alongside other sleep therapies and some because they’ve been discouraged by the results and side-effect-laden sleep medications that are often prescribed.
Let’s take a look at what sleep hypnosis actually is, how it works, and what the research says about its benefits. We’ll end with some recommendations for where to find some high-quality guided hypnosis content to help with a good night’s sleep. And if you find yourself getting sleepier and sleepier while you read this, well then, that could be a good thing right?
What is hypnosis?
The etymology of the word "hypnosis" comes from the Greek hypnos, meaning “to sleep”. When hypnosis is used for therapeutic purposes (such as to sleep better) by licensed physicians and psychologists, it goes by the name of hypnotherapy.
The trance-like states produced by hypnosis are not fully exclusive nor mysterious. We may enter similar states of single-pointed concentration when we are absorbed in a good book, completely immersed in a movie, or in a flow state while playing a sport or other type of activity.
However, hypnosis is unique because the altered state of awareness or brain activity is the result of an induction procedure that produces the state of focused attention and absorption.
An induction procedure is essentially a method used by the hypnotherapist to induce a hypnotic state of unconscious concentration on themselves and their suggestions. These suggestions are necessary to produce the hypnotic state. They can be verbal cues or they may involve single-pointed attention on a sound or object. Inductions can last anywhere from a few seconds to over thirty minutes.
In addition to one-on-one guided sessions with a hypnotherapist, you can also hypnotize yourself. Self-hypnosis is usually taught to patients in order to reenter the hypnotic state when needed. In self-hypnosis, suggestions are given by oneself rather than the hypnotist. In the hypnosis world, this is referred to as autosuggestions.
How does sleep hypnosis work?
Hypnosis for sleep creates a natural state of deep relaxation and focused attention to more easily fall asleep and stay asleep. The combination of deep physical relaxation coupled with an active and focused mind allows new thoughts to be evaluated and incorporated into the hypnotized person’s thinking.
This may, for instance, update repressed memories, unconscious thoughts, or destructive behavioral patterns that may be interfering with sleep. Engrained thoughts such as “I’ll never be able to sleep” or “I still have work to do” can be challenged and replaced.
Additionally, the deep relaxation and clarity of mind produced by the hypnotic state may interrupt these thought patterns that can interfere with sleep, thereby priming the mind to sleep well.
Sleep hypnosis commonly involves verbal suggestions that the patient repeats. This could be mantra-like phrases such as “there is nothing to do”, “let go”, “relax”, or “on each out-breath, I will relax deeper.”
Frequently, sleep hypnosis involves guided imagery that can produce progressively more intense relaxation. This could be the visualization of relaxing environments, such as a peaceful summer scene or walking down a descending staircase.
Hypnosis and the brain
Although hypnosis can create physiological changes in the brain that can lead to an easier transition into a restful sleep, brain activity in hypnosis looks similar to that of a person who is awake.
According to a recent review on the neural correlates of hypnosis, a brain under hypnosis shows more cognitive flexibility and enhancement of alpha wave activity (8-13Hz), which is correlated with awake relaxation. In highly hypnotizable people, EEG recordings demonstrate increases in theta wave activity (4-8Hz), a brain wave pattern associated with deep relaxation and REM sleep.
Similar to the neural effects of relaxation techniques like mindfulness meditation, recent evidence has suggested that hypnosis alters the activity of the default-mode network (DMN) in highly-suggestible individuals. This group of brain structures becomes active when a person is mind-wandering- that is, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, or planning for the future.
Some evidence also points towards reduced brain activity in regions of the brain that process sensory input, even though the areas that receive the input are functioning normally. This may explain why hypnosis can reduce pain through the reduction of brain region activity that would otherwise make us attentive to painful stimuli.
Not all hypnotees react the same
People may differentially respond to hypnosis based on their suggestibility. Suggestibility is the single most important factor to reap the benefits of hypnosis. It is the trait-like tendency to be able to be hypnotized and varies across the population in a bell-shaped distribution.
High-suggestibility people have the best results with hypnosis, and make up approximately 10-15% of the population. Generally speaking, these individuals tend to want to be hypnotized, are “fantasizers,” and are highly open to new experiences. They may have an enhanced ability to exert control over their sleep processes and cognitive activity related to sleep.
On the other hand, about a quarter of the population do not respond at all to hypnotic suggestions, and so are not able to be hypnotized. This trait of suggestibility tends to be fairly stable throughout ones lifetime. Increasing ones suggestibility has been shown to be possible thought consistent hypnotic induction and certain drugs.
Does sleep hypnosis work? What research says about the benefits
Nearly 35-40% of Americans suffer from inadequate sleep. Poor sleep is often related to being overly aroused prior to and during sleep. Hypnosis is one way to reduce arousal through the deepening of relaxation and clearing away thoughts.
In support of this, a review study evaluated a total of 502 subjects who were treated with hypnotherapy to alleviate insomnia symptoms. Hypnotherapy was found to significantly reduce sleep onset latency compared to controls.
However, hypnosis may have positive effects on sleep in more surprising ways.
Hypnosis may improve deep sleep
Hypnosis may have beneficial effects on slow-wave (deep) sleep. Deep sleep is a period of crucial mind and body restoration. Growth hormone is released, cells repair, memories are consolidated, and the immune system is stimulated.
In a 2014 study of highly suggestible women who listened to a hypnosis recording, researchers found an 81% increase in slow-wave sleep compared to the control group who listened to a neutral text. Additionally, time spent awake decreased by 67%. These results were only found in subjects who were sensitive to hypnotic suggestion.
Hypnosis may improve sleep-walking and other parasomnias
Parasomnias are a medical word for abnormal events or experiences that occur near or during sleep. One 2007 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine set out to determine the effects of hypnosis on parasomnias not produced by an organic cause (e.g. neurodegenerative disorders).
The majority of the subjects suffered from sleepwalking, night terrors, and nightmares. The researchers found that, when subjects were treated with just one to two hypnotherapy sessions, over 50% reported no parasomnia events or a significant improvement in their symptoms after 18-months. These results remained high in a five-year follow-up, with over 67% reporting improvements after five years.
Sleep hypnosis may relieve both primary and secondary insomnia
Besides addressing sleep disturbances directly, hypnotherapy may be a useful intervention for alleviating sleep disruption due to disorders that commonly interfere with sleep, including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
A 2018 review published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine examined 24 studies on the effects of hypnosis for sleep. Over 58% of the studies showed a beneficial effect on sleep outcomes in either primary insomnia or secondary insomnia caused by conditions such as chronic pain, depressive disorders, or cancer.
Of the included studies, over half of them were randomized and controlled. Since many of the studies evaluating hypnosis for sleep have been designed with low sample sizes, further randomized and controlled studies will have to be conducted to validate these promising results.
How to get started with hypnosis for sleep
Find a local hypnotherapist specializing in sleep hypnosis
Licensed and accredited hypnotherapists can give the best guidance through personal hypnosis sessions. They can also tailor an individualized plan for your unique needs and teach you how to perform self-hypnosis techniques to sleep better.
Many psychologists and licensed counselors also have accredited hypnotherapy backgrounds and may integrate psychotherapeutic techniques which can help support the treatment.
Well-trained hypnotherapists may be members of professional organizations such as the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis or the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners. Credentialed hypnotherapists can be found on the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists.
Be sure to check their reviews online and don’t be afraid to shop around for the best fit. Oftentimes, these services are covered by insurance.
Try free guided sleep hypnosis recordings
Youtube is a fantastic resource for finding free, high-quality sleep hypnosis recordings.
Michael Sealy's Youtube channel is by far the most popular resource for sleep hypnosis, with videos ranging from thirty minutes to two hours long. He is trained in hypnosis and clinical hypnotherapy. His recordings, along with other high-quality hypnosis recordings, are also available on Spotify.
Additionally, if you have Amazon Prime, many free sleep hypnosis recordings are available for streaming under Amazon Music. Indian Sleep Meditation by Ts Chopra is one particularly powerful sleep hypnosis recording that is available for streaming.
The bottom line
Sleep hypnosis is cost-effective and safe, carrying none of the adverse side effects that sedative-hypnotic medications can produce. Based on the available studies evaluating hypnosis for sleep, relatively few sessions are needed to produce its beneficial effects on sleep outcomes.
Regardless of your inherent suggestibility, it’s important to make sure any sleep disturbances you may have aren’t caused by an underlying medical condition. It’s always a good idea to speak to a medical professional before attempting to tackle your sleep problems with hypnosis.
Rather than used as a standalone treatment, hypnosis may be the most effective when used in the context of an integrative sleep treatment plan that addresses both physical and psychological concerns.
It may be the most effective when combined within a cognitive-behavioral framework, such as alongside Cognitive-behavioral Therapy for Sleep (CBT-I). This behavioral treatment can teach positive sleep hygiene habits and further reinforce the adoption of beneficial thoughts and behaviors for a more restful sleep.