This summer, I realized my relationship with food was taking a physical and emotional toll on me. I was filling and refilling my plate with junk food at social gatherings, snacking nonstop on dried fruit, nuts, and chips, then eating just one or two meals a day in a desperate attempt to make up for it all. I was constantly either starving or overfull, and my focus and energy were lacking.
I knew all the tricks to prevent unhealthy eating, like frequently serving myself small amounts of healthy food and choosing filling foods with protein and fiber.
My problem lay in executing these tips. I couldn't will myself to eat breakfast when I knew skipping it was an easy way to cut calories, to order the salad that left me hungry instead of the pasta, or to resist the cake my boyfriend put in front of me. Something in my brain just hadn't clicked.
So, I decided to try a method designed to make your brain click: hypnosis.
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Hypnosis is all about changing people's attitudes, which in turn shape their reality.
That's how certified hypnotherapist and professional hypnotist Richard Barker explained it to me. People who see a hypnotist to improve their health often have deeply ingrained beliefs like, "I can't motivate myself to get to the gym" or "I have irresistible chocolate cravings” that persuade them they’re not in control.
But these destructive thoughts are often the very reason people get stuck in behavioral ruts—they're self-fulfilling prophecies.
A hypnotist or hypnotherapist aims to get to the roots of these thoughts and replace them with more helpful ones. For example, one of Barker's clients had a stutter because of a childhood incident. During hypnosis, Barker walked his client through that experience but changed the ending. Afterward, the client actually lost the original memory—and his stutter.
It may sound out-there, and although hypnosis-related research isn’t extensive, what there is suggests this method can work.
A small 2014 study reported in the International Journal of Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis analyzed 60 obese women, finding that they lost weight following two different kinds of hypnosis.
Another 2014 study, this one involving 164 people and published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, suggested that hypnotherapy helped smokers kick the habit more than nicotine replacement therapy did.
However, according to the American Psychological Association, hypnosis is most effective in reducing pain.
Support for the concept that hypnosis can create lifestyle changes is less conclusive.
The APA also only recommends that hypnosis be performed by psychologists in combination with other forms of therapy. Psychologist Nancy Mramor Kajuth, Ph.D., author of Get Reel: Produce Your Own Life, does it as part of a treatment plan that includes other tactics, like cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s best to have someone with a psychology-related degree perform the hypnosis because deep-seated issues could come up during the process, she explains.
That said, she’s a big believer in hypnosis' potential to improve health. “Hypnosis has the capacity to get below the consciousness mind into the subconscious, which is where the decisions are made," she tells SELF.
As it turns out, she was right—at least when it came to my experience with hypnosis.
Because this is the 21st century, I opted to do a hypnosis session with Barker via Skype.
He had me lie down, asked me to briefly describe my problem (I went with "overeating, emotional eating, and eating unhealthy foods"), then played a 16-minute recording of himself that he uses to put clients into a hypnotic trance.
In the recording, he told me to relax my whole body and picture myself drifting, floating, and melting. He had me imagine myself on a beach, watching the ocean glisten and collapse into the sand.
By the end, my body felt exhausted and I experienced a rare calmness. I thought back to something my boyfriend had said just an hour earlier that offended me, but I wasn't upset about it anymore. My work stresses didn't seem like problems either.
Now speaking to me live, Barker first told me that if I continued down the path I was on, I'd be at high risk for health problems. Of course I'd read the studies on how excessive fat and sugar consumption can lead to heart disease and diabetes, but this time, the possibility hit me hard. "I could one day have trouble walking, be in constant pain, or even die sooner than I planned," I thought.
Barker proposed that if I want to avoid overeating, I try eating half of what's on my plate at every meal. Ideally, this gives your body a chance to feel full before going overboard. (This is a common tactic that registered dietitians recommend when training yourself to eat more mindfully, too.)
He also stated that from now on, when confronted with a meal, I would think, "only half." He described how good I’d feel after having lots of water and fresh, healthy food.
But most importantly, he said this was all within my power. That’s when I realized I'd been feeling like a helpless victim, unable to say "no" to what was placed in front of me.
Barker recorded our hypnosis session and told me to listen to it before bed for 30 days.
My stomach felt extremely full right after our first session—partly because earlier I'd eaten a burger and fries past the point of satiety, but also because I was suddenly more aware of how the food felt in my body.
That feeling lasted. The next day, all I ate was some yogurt and fruit around lunchtime and some chips and a pear at night.
That’s not exactly healthy—getting enough calories throughout the day is essential for everything from metabolism to cognition, and skipping meals can set you up to overeat later—but I didn't really feel hungry. Barker said that’s actually a common effect of this kind of hypnosis.
The day after that was more challenging. I had breakfast with my boyfriend and his parents, who served five kinds of bread with cheese, meat, and Nutella. I wanted to try a bit of everything, but I skipped out on the Nutella since I already had a jar at home. Baby steps!
Then, my boyfriend stopped to get a beer and offered to buy me one. I didn't want to miss out on the day-drinking, so I accepted. Afterward, I noticed that it didn't sit well in my stomach, and I felt overfull.
According to Mramor Kajuth, hypnosis aims at “pattern interruption,” or getting to the roots of a pattern and changing what causes bad habits. And boy, was I starting to see a pattern emerge.
After a few days of this heightened awareness, I realized that a lot of my eating habits stemmed from fear of missing out on what people around me, including my boyfriend, were having. Actually, it became obvious that my boyfriend was the number one obstacle to my health goals.
I promised myself I would stop consuming food or drinks just because he gave them to me or because he was enjoying them. I reminded myself that by resisting, all I'd really be "missing out" on was feeling stuffed, sick, and out of control.
That was easier said than done, since I didn't want to deprive myself of all culinary pleasures either. But the following weekend, after my boyfriend got ice cream, offered to buy me one, and I ended up feeling sick after eating it, I told him I wanted his help with my mission to eat healthier. On the way home, we swung by the grocery store and stocked the fridge with yogurt, fruit, and vegetables.
After that, things started to change.
I listened to Barker's recording most nights, which also helped me fall asleep.
Clichéd as it may seem, choice is a central component of hypnosis. My hypnosis session was supposed to reiterate that I have a choice whenever there's an opportunity to eat or not eat, to eat healthy food or less healthy food, and to eat too much or just enough, Mramor Kajuth says.
I soon realized I could make small changes without feeling deprived. The next time we got coffee, I ordered a latte but settled with a bite of my boyfriend's doughnut instead of getting my own. When I met friends at a bar, I ordered wine instead of a cocktail. I spent more time working in cafés rather than at home, where I'm more prone to snacking. I started leaving some dinner left over, knowing I could finish it later if I got hungry again.
I wasn't able to follow the "only half" mantra, though. That didn't seem realistic, since in many cases it would mean ending the meal while I was still hungry. But I was more conscious of my impulse to eat as much as possible. I realized this behavior isn't resourceful when you don't need the food anyway.
It turned out I didn't have to see a huge change in my eating habits or body to feel better. I just had to feel in control again.
I thought it would be really hard to change my eating habits because my desire for sweets, snacks, alcohol, and large meals was too strong.
But once I confronted that desire, it wasn't all that scary—because often it wasn't strong at all. I hadn't really wanted to eat all the food I was eating; I'd just felt like I had to. But the same way you eventually learn to stop stockpiling coupons you'll never use, I saw I didn't need to eat just because I could.
Sure, I still want to eat ice cream sometimes, but it’s because I'm actually hungry for it, not because it's available. Although I don't weigh myself, my body image has improved, and I no longer feel like sandbags are in my stomach when I walk around.
As anyone who's changed their eating habits knows, it takes awareness and effort to stay on this path. But I do believe I first started on mine during hypnosis, when Barker informed me that no matter how it feels sometimes, I’m truly in control.