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Like any form of hypnosis, sleep hypnosis is a procedure that aims to guide you into a relaxed state of awareness. When in this state, you’ll be more accepting of suggestions—the hypnotherapy part of the exercise—that can help you deal with common sleep problems and even serious sleep disorders, from occasional hot flashes to chronic insomnia.
Coupled with guided meditation or other therapies, sleep hypnosis is one alternative to sleep aids that can help some people fall asleep fast, enjoy deep sleep, and wake up feeling more refreshed.
Hypnotic suggestion is not for everyone, but if you have sleeping problems, studies show that sleep hypnosis may help you fall asleep faster and improve overall sleep quality, resulting in a more restorative deep sleep.
What is hypnosis?
Hypnosis gets a bad rap in movies and the popular media; however, it’s not a stage trick.
Psychologists widely accept hypnosis as a useful way to help people relax and improve overall well-being (American Psychological Association, 2008; Chamine, 2018).
So, what is it? Think of it this way: hypnosis is like getting lost in a good book when your attention detaches from reality, and the imagined feels real. You can also think of it as a meditative state (Williamson, 2019).
Hypnosis by itself is not a therapy nor a treatment. It’s a procedure that can facilitate therapies and treatments (American Psychological Association, 2008). As one researcher puts it: “Hypnosis does not make the impossible possible, but can help patients believe and experience what might be possible for them to achieve” (Williamson, 2019).
Hypnotherapy has been found in scientific studies to be effective for treating pain, depression, anxiety, and other mental and physical health problems (Jensen, 2015). And, as we’ll see below, it’s been shown to help people sleep well, too.
What is sleep hypnosis?
Sleep hypnosis is not hypnosis while sleeping. It’s hypnosis aimed at helping people get to sleep and then experience better sleep.
When a person is under hypnosis of any sort, brain activity that’s usually involved in paying attention to many things at once decreases. Other brain systems that help the brain process and control what’s happening to the body become more active.
Trouble sleeping: causes and what you can do
Additionally, connections in the brain that make us aware of what we’re doing decrease. This causes a “disassociation between action and reflection” that allows a person to do things suggested by a hypnotherapist “without devoting mental resources to being self-conscious about the activity” (Jiang, 2017).
Can sleep hypnosis fix sleep problems?
Sleep hypnosis is viewed as a safe and promising treatment for people who have sleeping problems. But there are only a few studies in the field, and they tend to be small and often of low quality. A review of the scientific literature on sleep hypnosis found 58% of the studies reported positive effects, 13% yielded mixed results, and 29% produced negative results (Chamine, 2018).
Though not as well studied as some psychotherapies, like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or mindfulness meditation, sleep hypnosis “seems to benefit” people with insomnia and other sleep problems such as hot flashes in women who are transitioning to menopause, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and sleep terrors (Becker, 2014).
It’s not clear exactly how hypnosis helps with stress relief or other mental health problems, but the reasons seem to vary by individual and include: psychological factors such as a person’s expectations, motivations, and willingness to be hypnotized; social factors like rapport with a hypnotherapist; and biological factors such as how each person’s brain is constructed and how it operates (Jensen, 2015).
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): what is it and what does it work for?
One study illustrated the importance of a person’s tendency to be hypnotized, whether based on willingness, desire, or susceptibility:
Scientists divided women participants into two groups: those who were most susceptible (also called “suggestible”) to hypnosis and those who were not. Both groups listened to sleep-hypnosis recordings that encouraged them to simply “sleep deeper” before taking naps, and a subset of each group listened to neutral recordings unrelated to sleep.
As they napped, an electroencephalogram (EEG) measured their level of slow-wave activity, a marker of deep and restorative sleep. On average, the susceptible women who listened to the “sleep deeper” message enjoyed 80% more slow-wave sleep, and the time they spent awake was reduced by around one-third, as compared to those who’d heard the neutral message. Those who were not as suggestible to hypnosis also didn’t benefit as much from hypnosis (Cordi, 2014).
What deep sleep hypnosis looks like
The approach to sleep hypnosis varies greatly, ranging from 13-minute, deep-sleep hypnosis audio recordings used at home to several planned sessions of guided hypnotherapy lasting an hour each in groups or on an individual basis. Often, sleep hypnosis targets not sleep itself but underlying issues like stress or pain that contribute to sleep troubles. Hypnosis is sometimes combined with other proven sleep-trouble therapies, such as CBT (Chamine, 2018).
Entering hypnosis involves focusing attention (called hypnotic induction) on such things as the flame of a candle, some sleep music, chanting, or muscle-relaxation tactics (Williamson, 2019).
A sleep hypnosis session might encourage you to focus on memories of when you slept better and when falling asleep was easier. You may be instructed on visualization techniques, such as imagining relaxing scenes like fish diving deeper and deeper into the water (Chamine, 2018).
Sleep hygiene: what is it and 20 tips for better sleep
One goal of hypnosis is to teach people how to do it themselves. Research finds self-hypnosis can be taught and that it can be effective (Williamson, 2019). For example, through self-hypnosis, menopausal women who reported poor sleep and hot flashes experienced, on average, a “significant reduction of poor sleep,” and a majority slept longer after using self-hypnosis (Otte, 2020).
Are there any risks to sleep hypnosis?
Hypnosis for sleeping problems, a potentially useful alternative, is considered safe. However, after a hypnosis session, you may not recall the experience (Chamine, 2018; Becker, 2015).
If you can get past any doubts about deep sleep hypnosis, if you’re willing and motivated to give it a try, and if you find the right hypnotherapist to suit your needs, you might find it helps you get a good night’s sleep. And here’s the best part, according to Maren Cordi, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland: “In contrast to many sleep-inducing drugs, hypnosis has no adverse side effects” (Cordi, 2014).
There are many other ways to tackle sleep problems, including regular physical activity, a good diet, setting a sleep schedule, and avoiding stressful activities in the evening.
- American Psychological Association. (2008). Hypnosis today: Looking beyond the media portrayal. Retrieved Aug. 18, 2021 from https://www.apa.org/topics/psychotherapy/hypnosis
- Becker, P. M. (2015). Hypnosis in the management of sleep disorders. Sleep Medicine Clinics,10(1), 85-92. doi: 10.1016/j.jsmc.2014.11.003. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1556407X14001209
- Chamine, I., Atchley, R., & Oken, B. S. (2018). Hypnosis intervention effects on sleep outcomes: a systematic review. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 14(2), 271-283. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.6952. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5786848/
- Cordi, M. J., Schlarb, A. A., & Rasch, B. (2014). Deepening sleep by hypnotic suggestion. Sleep, 37(6):1143-1152. doi: 10.5665/sleep.3778. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/37/6/1143/2416924
- Jensen, M., Adachi, T., Tomé-Pire, C., Lee, J., Osman, Z., & Miró, J. (2015). Mechanisms of hypnosis: toward the development of a biopsychosocial model. The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 63(2), 247; 63(1), 34-75. doi: 10.1080/00207144.2014.961875. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4220267/
- Jiang, H., White, M. P., Greicius M. D., Waelde, L. C., & Spiegel, D. (2017). Brain activity and functional connectivity associated with hypnosis. Cerebral Cortex, 27(8), 4083-4093. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhw220. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/27/8/4083/3056452
- Otte, J. L., Carpenter, J. S., Roberts, L., & Elkins, G. R. (2020). Self-hypnosis for sleep disturbances in menopausal women. Journal of Women’s Health (larchmt), 29(3), 461-463. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2020.8327. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32186967/
- Williamson, A. (2019). What is hypnosis and how might it work?. Palliative Care: Research and Treatment, 12. doi: 10.1177/1178224219826581. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6357291/
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.