Most people, at one point or another in their lives, find themselves in a position where they feel pressured to lose weight, whether it’s external pressures from the media, friends or family, or internal dissatisfaction with body weight and/or shape. However, most people also find that losing weight is more difficult than expected. While for some, changes in diet and exercise routines lead to quick results, for most these changes are slow, barely noticeable and the process is often very difficult and frustrating. For these reasons, people who want to lose weight find themselves relapsing especially if their hard work seems to fail to deliver the desired results.
The commercial programs available to the general public have also yielded suboptimal results. For example, the largest randomized, controlled trial of the Weight Watchers intervention only yielded a loss of 3.2% of initial weight after 2 years. On the other hand, medically supervised very-low-calorie diet programs resulted in approximately 15% to 25% weight loss, but also incurred high costs and resulted in high attrition rates, and a high probability of regaining 50% or more of lost weight in 1 to 2 years. Furthermore, other commercial interventions available over the internet and organized self-help programs have been shown to produce minimal weight loss (Tsai 2005).
One possibility for why these interventions continue to fail is the fact that weight gain, and an unhealthy relationship with food is not merely behavioral in nature: important psychological processes are at play whose role it is to guide behavior. Food is not used just as nourishment, but it is often a direct and immediate way to regulate emotional experiences that may feel overwhelming or distressing. It is therefore important to begin exploring this aspect of weight gain and weight loss, as eating habits are frequently related to emotional states.
For example, feeling anxious, or lonely, or upset, or sad can trigger cravings and eating behavior that is unhealthy and results in weight gain. These emotional states can further discourage someone from engaging in physical exercise, further increasing the risk for weight gain.
Food, especially high calorie and sugary foods activate the reward centers in the brain, resulting in a reinforcing effect that has an immediate effect of soothing unpleasant emotions, distracting attention from them, and a long-term effect of learning that eating unhealthy foods, when stressed or upset, is an effective immediate emotion regulation strategy. This way, eating as an emotion regulation strategy becomes a habit and a behavioral pattern that is difficult to break.
Therefore, in order to be successful, weight loss strategies must break these behavioral patterns and habits, and must also effectively address psychological distress and provide alternative emotion regulation strategies. A healthy eating and exercise plan may be important, but addressing the psychological factors that allow one to stick to the plan and overcome its challenges is even more important. In this sense, hypnotherapy for weight loss can be a fantastic adjunct to a healthy diet program.
Hypnotherapy helps an individual transition into an altered state of consciousness for a brief period of time, through techniques involving relaxation and visualization. Therapeutic suggestions are used to reinforce the benefits of an active and healthy lifestyle, providing a boost in motivation to maintain focus on the plan and the weight loss goal, rather than give up when challenges arise.
Through these suggestions, the therapist further encourages the patient to want healthier foods, to learn to enjoy them and find reward in them, while at the same time providing coping mechanisms for emotional stressors that can replace food and strengthen the patient’s commitment to a healthy lifestyle. When the craving for unhealthy foods seems unconscious and in conflict with a person’s conscious desire to lose weight, hypnotherapy can target those desires more directly.
It is often easier to learn new things and address stressful or overwhelming situations when you are in a relaxed state. When deeper work is needed to address past trauma or psychological difficulties, hypnotherapy can help relieve some of the emotional tension and allow the patient to safely explore these aspects of their experience. In addition, hypnotherapy can help shift a person’s general outlook and attitude to facilitate a more positive emotional experience.
It is important to note though that while hypnotherapy can effectively help or add to a person’s motivation and commitment to weight loss treatment, it cannot be viewed as a replacement for these internal experiences. In other words, a person needs to be motivated to change and ready to commit to life style changes before hypnotherapy can enhance these factors and strengthen them.
How successful is hypnosis for weight loss?
Hypnotherapeutic suggestions about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and healthy eating behaviors have a positive effect on weight loss. They can help people shift their perceptions about food and eating, become more mindful of their behaviors (e.g., eating too fast, eating unhealthy food for stress relief, etc.), and change these behaviors for more effective strategies.
Therefore, successful weight loss requires a program that takes into account not only behaviors, but also a person’s internal experiences and emotions, and stresses healthy eating, exercise, and emotion processing and regulation strategies. Hypnotherapy for weight loss not only assists in increasing and maintaining positive motivation and behavior change, but also assists the person in exploring deeper psychological issues.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that hypnosis is not a therapy. It is a technique to be used as an adjunct to therapy. It has had positive results in combination with therapies such as rational emotive therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and other forms of empirically supported treatments. Studies have shown repeatedly that when hypnosis was used as an adjunct to cognitive-behavioral therapy, including therapy for obesity, it has increased the positive impact of the treatment and helped patients continue to lose weight long after therapy had ended (Everly, and Lating 2013).
Hypnosis can help cognitive-behavioral interventions in multiple ways. For example, many such interventions for weight loss rely on imagery to effect change. Hypnosis is a particularly effective strategy for enhancing the effects of imagery methods, reducing disturbing imagery and helping patients cultivate self-compassion and unconditional self-acceptance. These aspects have received increasing attention in the scientific and psychotherapeutic community as important factors for behavioral change (Milburn 2011).
Individuals who struggle with psychological problems, as well as individuals who struggle with obesity and weight loss, experience stigma on a daily basis. This begins very early on in development and occurs in every context of life, from school and work to stores, restaurants and even doctors’ offices. There is a pervasive stigma of overweight, and this stigma is frequently internalized by the individual who struggles to control their weight and their eating behaviors. This means that very often, individuals who are overweight and want to lose weight have a deep, long-lasting feeling of non-acceptance of their own person, behaviors, thoughts and decisions.
They feel judged by others and by themselves, which may leave them feeling more emotionally distressed, anxious, and hopeless about their chances of overcoming the current situation. Hypnotherapy for weight loss can help in these instances, as it does not require rationally arguing against deeply held negative beliefs, but rather creates a safe setting in which the patient can experience acceptance and nonjudgmental focus on valued goals.
Hypnotherapy for weight loss can be used as an adjunctive means for promoting unconditional self acceptance, and thereby pave the way for increasing the patient’s receptiveness to more conscious cognitive restructuring and behavioral interventions.
In addition to countering self-condemnation, genuinely unconditional self-acceptance seems essential to acceptance of others. It is intimately associated with self-compassion and can counter self-deprecating beliefs that may hinder therapy. Unconditionally accepting oneself further reduces perfectionism and the need for achievement, as well as the need for approval. Because unconditional self-acceptance reduces self-labeling and self-condemnation, it diminishes a significant obstacle to therapeutic change without creating another. It renders emotional activation less threatening and allows for therapeutic interventions to change the way the patient interacts with his or her emotions (Milburn 2011).
Two forms of hypnotherapy in particular (stress reduction, energy intake reduction) have been tested in recent scientific trials, and found to have a lasting positive effect compared to dietary advice alone, even more than a year after treatment ended. However, it is important to bear in mind that when not conducted by a trained professional, hypnotherapy can have side effects, especially in vulnerable groups (e.g., obese adolescents), including anxiety, depersonalization, and dissociative states (Allison et al. 2001).
Allison, David B., Kevin R. Fontaine, Stanley Heshka, Janet L. Mentore, and Steven B. Heymsfield
2001 Alternative Treatments for Weight Loss: A Critical Review. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 41(1): 1–28.
Everly,, George S., and Jeffrey M. Lating
2013 A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response. New York, NY: Springer New York. http://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-1-4614-5538-7, accessed June 23, 2014.
Milburn, Milo C.
2011 Cognitive-Behavior Therapy and Change: Unconditional Self Acceptance and Hypnosis in CBT. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 29(3): 177–191.
Tsai, Adam Gilden
2005 Systematic Review: An Evaluation of Major Commercial Weight Loss Programs in the United States. Annals of Internal Medicine 142(1): 56.