As a kid, I bit the hell out of my fingernails. In young adulthood, I shifted my attacks to the skin around them: pulling and picking, nibbling and tearing, sometimes until it bled. On a bad day, it looked like I'd just bottle-fed a barracuda. "Ooh, what happened to your fingers?" people would frown and say if I failed to keep them hidden. Um, I ate them?
Manicurists would literally yell at me and yank my hands over to show colleagues. I wanted to stop but couldn't. Until a few months ago. I walked into a hypnotherapist's office at 10 A.M., walked out at noon and haven't nibbled my fingers since.
The word hypnosis may conjure visions of the time you saw The Amazing Boris get the shyest wallflower to dance like a chicken, or of a creepy B-movie guy swinging a watch, chanting, "You arrrre getting sleeeeepy." But unlike stage and screen hypnosis, hypnotherapy — in which patients are verbally guided into a "trance" by a trained psychotherapist — is a legitimate treatment tool endorsed by the American Psychological Association. And it's becoming more and more mainstream.
"Hypnosis has a long and checkered history," says Jean Fain, a psychotherapist who uses hypnosis in her Massachusetts practice. "But there's a growing body of quality research showing that it can help with everything from behavioral problems and bad habits to anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome."
How hypnotizable are you?
If you think you could never relax enough for hypnosis to work for you, that may be a sign you're the perfect candidate.
The brain"Being anxious means you have a very vivid mind that can easily make up a worst-case scenario," says Elmira Lang, M.D., an associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School who has done research on hypnosis. If you can do that, she says, then your mind is also well-suited to make up a better story line — and imagine yourself changing.
You may also be a strong candidate if you're a dreamer, "the sort of person who gets lost in a movie or fantasy easily," says David Spiegel, M.D., associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. Ten percent to 15 percent of people are considered highly hypnotizable, and another 50 percent moderately so, he says. That leaves about one third who are hard to entrance. They tend to be logical, thinky people who would rather read while relaxing than daydream.
Still, experts say the strongest predictor of success in hypnotherapy is motivation to change, whether it's quitting smoking, losing weight or dealing with anxiety — the most common issues for which women seek hypnosis. "You don't need to 'believe' in hypnosis for it to work," says New York City psychotherapist Ana Tucker (the hypnogoddess I went to). "You just have to be willing to go through the process."
Many who do like the results. Recent research from North Shore Medical Center in Salem, Massachusetts, found that half of people who used hypnotherapy to stop smoking were still cigarette-free in six months, versus just 16 percent of nicotine-replacement users and 25 percent of people who went cold turkey. As for weight loss, a review of previous research found that people who did hypno- and talk therapy were able to lose more than twice the weight of their counterparts who did talk therapy alone — an average of almost 15 pounds instead of six.
How it works
Hypnosis appears to circumvent the part of the brain that says, There's no way this will help. If someone said to you right now, "The next time you see a cheesecake, you'll want a carrot instead," you'd laugh (and dig in). But if someone makes that kind of suggestion when you're under hypnosis, it sneaks past your rational mind and into the part of your brain that influences action.
Brain imaging studies have illustrated just how this sidestepping may work. Generally, if you see the word red written in green ink and someone asks you what color you see, it takes your brain an extra moment to sort out that the word is red but the ink is green. But when people are hypnotized and told that they'll have no trouble naming the colors they'll see, their brains sort it out with zero hesitation, researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City found. Brain images showed that during the experiment, the part of the brain that would normally kick in to resolve conflict wasn't active at all — hypnosis actually changed the way the subjects' brains functioned.
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OK, so there may be scientific proof that hypnosis does something to your brain. But outside the lab, does it feel as wacky as those B-movie scenes? Actually, no; it's more like therapy. In my appointment with Tucker, she started with general questions about my gross finger-picking habit. When did I do it most? (When restless, overwhelmed or trying to concentrate on work.) How does it make me feel? (Crappy, ashamed and immature.) How would I feel if I didn't do it? (Awesome.) Once she had enough background, I sat in her giant hypno-Barcalounger and she guided me verbally into a deep relaxation — a trance — telling me to envision a light over my head warming my body, and to imagine each part of my body getting heavier and heavier.
This kind of relaxation, it should be noted, isn't the passive, on-the-beach variety. The trance state is actually an active, focused type of concentration. "It's like looking through a telephoto lens in a camera," Dr. Spiegel explains. "What you see is visible in great detail, but you don't notice the surroundings."
Once I was relaxed, the real work began. Tucker guided me, with more and more pointed questions, to envision just what part of me was responsible for this nail- and finger-biting business — and what that part of me was getting out of it. It felt like the whole world had dissolved down to just my head and Tucker's voice; I was able to answer her questions spontaneously and reflexively — and what came out was that I was nibbling to distract myself, to take a breath, to think about fewer than seven things at once, to relax. When it all came together, I felt myself tear up. I could have spent years in therapy figuring out, you know, how my parents were to blame or something; here, the whole thing took just about two hours.
After Tucker gradually brought me out of the trance, not two minutes had passed before I found myself reaching to pick at a finger. The difference this time? I noticed, and stopped. Before, I'd have peeled off a hunk of skin before even realizing my hand was in my mouth. But this time I felt like I had a choice. The same thing happened the next day, and the next. I remain completely amazed.
Of course, not everyone can expect such a quick change. For people with less, er, bite-size problems than mine, up to six sessions or more (at $65 to $300 per session), combined with traditional talk therapy, may be recommended — along with ongoing practice at home, possibly with a CD recorded during the session — and some people still won't get the results they want. (Tucker gave me a recording that I've listened to several times to relax — but I haven't needed it for any "relapses.") In fact, you should be wary of hypnotists who promise instant success. A reputable hypnotherapist is a licensed psychologist or social worker who has had special training. You can find a list of therapists in your area through the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis at asch.net — and don't be afraid to ask a practitioner what kind of education she's had.
Can you do it yourself?
"It can be very helpful to have a therapist guiding you, but ultimately, all hypnosis is self-hypnosis," says Cleveland psychotherapist Belleruth Naparstek. One way to do it yourself is with an audio CD or download much like the ones that therapists may send patients home with after a session. If you decide to try it, look for an audio program labeled "relaxation," "guided imagery," "guided meditation" or "self-hypnosis," says Naparstek — and, of course, it should focus on the specific problem you want to address. You might even try a hypnosis script that you read to yourself (many are available where audio programs are sold). Megan Key, 25, of Seattle, used one to help herself relax and stop grinding her teeth at night: "After doing it once a day for a week, I no longer woke up with my jaw clenched." (And she saved the $500 she was going to spend on a mouth guard.)
Five months after my hypnotherapy session with Tucker, my hands all pretty and healed, I've actually lost the urge to bite most days. During occasional moments when I do feel a desire to nibble, or I see a hangnail emerging, I can say, "Eh, I'll leave it until I can get a nail clipper." And then I can actually think about other things, like writing this story, or getting my nails done without getting yelled at. Imagine that.
Ex-nail biter Lynn Harris is the author of “Death by Chick Lit.”
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