Category Archives: Habit change

Can anyone be hypnotized?

I hear people say they can’t be hypnotized, but in my ten years of practice, I have yet to meet anyone who really can’t. Sure, some people take to it more easily than others, but isn’t that true of any skill we learn how to do? We get better at things through practice.

Some practitioners use a “hypnotizability scale” to determine how easily hypnotized their clients are. I don’t, because it doesn’t really make any difference to me how easily my clients go into trance, or how deeply into trance they are able to go. The value of the hypnotic state can’t be measured by how deep the trance is.

Here’s a definition of hypnosis, just to make sure we’re starting on the same page: it’s a natural state of deep relaxation and intense focus, or concentration. (It’s really very simple, even though attempts to explain what’s happening in the brain can get pretty complicated.)

The first benefit of this hypnotic state is being able to experience such a deep relaxation. If we do nothing else during a hypnosis session, I guarantee that we will feel the benefit. How often do we normally allow ourselves to relax deeply? Or how often do we take the time for it? The time we spend distracting ourselves from the cares of our day doesn’t have the same effect, though it can be pleasant.

The benefits of the relaxation itself—the side effects of hypnosis—are powerful. They include measurable things like changes in blood pressure or blood sugar readings, as well as less quantifiable things like a positive mood boost or a sense of increased energy, or being able to get better sleep.

Those side effects are reason enough to give yourself some time in hypnosis every day. If you know anyone who could use a boost in this way, let them know I have a class in Self Hypnosis on April 13 at Whatcom Community College. Here’s a link to the registration page.

The secret to robbing cravings of their power?

The way I understand the phenomenon of cravings is like this: there’s a trigger, probably established through behavior that’s learned through diligent though not necessarily fully conscious behavior. In other words, over time, we create a habit of using something—a cigarette, a sweet, alcohol, etc.—to change our experience.

And after a while, when the part of us that’s learned this lesson decides that we need a distraction from some source of anxiety or other emotional challenge, it creates a craving to send us off in search of a reward. It doesn’t really care about the reward, it just wants us to feel energized and focused instead of whatever else we were feeling. It doesn’t care if the carrot it’s dangling is something we really do or don’t want; it just knows from experience that the shift in focus to whatever the false promise is—a piece of cake, ice cream, a glass of wine—is enough to temporarily take our minds off whatever we are feeling.

I’ve noticed both through my own experience and from talking to hundreds of people about their cravings that if we can consistently ignore them, they really do weaken over time. We may find that they come back intermittently when we are vulnerable, but the more we can “just say no,” the more power they lose.

A useful suggestion for dealing with cravings for foods that we don’t really want—that phenomenon of being driven to a behavior that we already know won’t make us feel good—is to distract ourselves, since a craving, though intense, is brief in duration.

A recent study used people’s real-world experience of fighting cravings by playing Tetris versus just waiting out the cravings. All the study participants reported their cravings, rating each one’s strength, vividness and intrusiveness. Then they either played Tetris or waited until the craving passed, and then they reported on how much the cravings had been affected. When the cravings began, both groups rated their cravings similarly, but after, the participants who had played Tetris had significantly lower craving and less vivid craving imagery—24% less, in fact—than the ones who had just waited.

The authors of the study suggest that one of the factors that makes this kind of distraction work so well is that playing Tetris engages what’s called the visuospatial working memory. “Working memory” refers to the function of memory when performing tasks, and in this case, the task also includes processing visual and spatial cues. In other words, they are suggesting that the task that draws on these two factors interrupts a craving, perhaps by diverting the brainpower that enables those cravings in the first place.

I’ve never played Tetris, but what I take away from this study’s finding is that we can further weaken cravings by making sure that our plan for distracting ourselves during cravings includes those elements of working memory and visual-spatial processing.

Lots of video games would include that, I think, although I’m not sure that would be a good recommendation for some folks—we wouldn’t want to replace one unhealthy behavior with another equally bad, or worse. So what else would work? Doing a few minutes on a jigsaw? Drawing something from memory? Knitting? Playing music? What about just watching a sunset? Any other suggestions?

Last night, just after I’d written these paragraphs, I experienced a real live craving as I was getting dinner ready before I had to rush off to an evening appointment. I thought about the options I’d just listed and realized that none of them would be helpful in my situation. But as I was making a salad, giving it my undivided attention—slicing red pepper, green onions, cucumber, a Bosc pear, some tomato—I unexpectedly found the activity very calming. It turns out that simply giving my undivided, mindful attention to the task at hand was enough to lessen the craving.

Maybe it’s really the mindful attention that sets up the processing and interrupts the cravings.

A week off, thanks to the snow . . .

Here in Bellingham, it feels as if we are newly released from a snowy dream of real winter, back into our normal February transition from the cold and wet winter mode to the slightly less cold but even wetter spring mode. Some years it’s hard to notice the transition unless we make a point of getting outside everyday—but this year Winter has been unmistakable.

It’s been interesting, this past week—with kids out of school and the usual (for here) snow-related halt to normal activity. No class, for example, for the newest group doing the Weight Control with Hypnosis class this last Wednesday at Whatcom Community College, and I confess I missed it. I really like getting to know the people who’ve chosen to try something new in the interests of their own health and wellbeing, and I love being part of the process as we all get to know, understand, and help each other with our separate and shared concerns.

These classes ask people to try new things—new ways of thinking and acting—and it’s not always comfortable or easy. Lately I’ve come to think of it as a learning process, more than anything else. We’re using our good minds, and hearts, our powers of attention and creativity, and all the other tools we’ve developed over the years, to study and learn how we can get from where we are now, to where we want to be, to where we belong, as healthy as it’s possible for us to be.

It can take a lot of energy and time and thought, this project—this process—of identifying what we need to change to bring ourselves back into a healthy relationship with food and activity. The process is full of surprises, and fortunately it has enormous rewards. Some of those rewards comes from being able to share the process with each other, to support each other, and it may also be the most powerful thing we do, not just for each other, but for ourselves. The compassion we give each other—and ourselves—counteracts so many of the negative effects of our stressful lives and gives us energy we need to stay positive and focused on our goals.

A little activity can take us a long way

People love to talk about how much exercise we “should” get. I wonder how helpful it is to approach the notion of exercise from that perspective: how much should I get? I suppose for the folks who are into doing everything right, it might be helpful. Or the folks who are seriously into exploring and quantifying every aspect of their lives—and they at least will be evaluating the recommendations against their experience.

But lots of people suffer from a learned aversion to exercise, and I know this kind of direction is not helpful. So if this is you, take heart. It turns out that when it comes to the health benefits of moving around—a little goes a long way.

This news is from a British study of 63,591 middle-aged people, over 8 years. It didn’t matter whether they followed the recommended guidelines for a certain number of hours of exercise per day, or simply went for a long walk on a weekend day—a lesser amount of exercise was still effective in preventing disease.

In terms of physical health, although there are studies supporting specific benefits of many different kinds of strenuous exercise—weight training, running, yoga, etc.—all those recommendations about how much of each kind of exercise we need don’t matter as much as making sure we get any exercise at all. A little bit of activity still conveys real health benefits.

I suspect it also has similar benefits in the other areas that regular, more frequent exercise is known to provide. I’m thinking about one of my favorite passages from Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct, in which she lists the surprise effects of a study on enhancing self control (also known as willpower). The participants, who had all been sedentary before the study, were given a gym membership for two months. Typically they used it once a week at first, but most were up to 3 times per week by the end of the study. The results? Improvements in attention (less distractible), a reduction in smoking, drinking, caffeine use, eating junk food, and watching TV. They also made more healthy food choices, and spent more time studying. They spent less money on impulse purchases, and saved more money. They felt more in control of their emotions.

Truly, moving around makes everything work better. And it doesn’t matter how small the initial effort is—you’ll feel the benefits. By the way, here’s a list of things to try, in case you don’t have a favorite activity already.

Weight loss goals that matter

Last night was our monthly drop-in-for-a-refresher meeting, open to anyone who’s taken the hypnosis for weight control classes that I lead at Whatcom Community College. Some of the regulars have their own names for it. I’ve heard “brainwashing,” and “tune up,” for example.

It’s always fun for me to see who comes—it could be someone who took the classes years ago and wants a refresher before an event like a holiday or a trip. Or it could be a few of the regulars, and that’s always cozy. Every once in a while it’s a bigger group, and it gets a little cramped, and that’s fine too. I look forward to this every month.

We talk about how things are going—it’s usually a mixed bag, of course, just like everything else in life. And then I lead a hypnosis session focused on whatever concerns are highlighted.

Last night was nice—just two good friends sharing updates and challenges. The highlight for me, though, came after, as we were all walking to the door. One friend said, “I have a goal.” Her goal is an adventure, not a set of numbers. It’s a fun adventure, to be shared at a date in the future, as a celebration. (I’d give the details, but it’s not my story to share, and if I’d thought of this last night, I would have asked her permission to give those details, but since I didn’t, I won’t.)

But I loved it! So many of us focus on the numbers, and that can be a real source of stress, especially when it’s a set of numbers that’s tormented us in the past. How much better to focus on something that has its own meaning. Meaning that is much more personal—an activity that’s been out of reach in the past, that can be shared with the people we love, who love us. It’s exciting to think about this kind of goal—it’s really about growing into the person we have the potential to be—and bringing our friends and family along for the ride.

Forget about the sweeteners—for your own good

Happy Holidays! I’m later than usual putting up the tree and blasting carols as we pull out the ornaments and turn on the lights, but now that we’re here, I’m ready to love it!  Have a great holiday season–

I just wrote an article about developing a positive mindset to help us maintain a healthy weight (look for it in the January 2017 issue of Bellingham Alive!). In it, I said that although I have strong opinions about nutrition and the value of physical activity, it’s far more important that we each find our own best healthy foods and activities, because that’s how we discover the most satisfying and sustainable way to stay active and healthy.

I said it, and I believe it. But, as I said, I have strong opinions, especially about processed foods. I know it’s hard for busy people, and particularly hard for busy people who don’t like to cook. But here’s one more plea for avoiding processed foods, especially processed foods with artificial sweeteners. And this goes double for diet sodas, especially for children.

It’s harsh that we turned to artificial sweeteners because we thought they help us consume fewer calories, but the truth is out: that’s not how they work, and calories don’t mean what we thought they mean anyway. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital started with the question of why artificial sweeteners—specifically aspartame in this study—don’t work to support weight loss. The possibility this study looked at is the action of a gut enzyme called intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP), previously shown to prevent obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

This enzyme is the one that speaks to us about 20 minutes after we eat, producing the sensation that makes us wonder why we thought we needed another helping. It turns out that aspartame knocks out IAP activity.

The study used four groups of mice, 2 fed a normal diet, 2 fed a high fat diet. Half the normal diet mice had aspartame in their water, to equal the amount of 3 and a half cans of diet soda for a human adult. Half the high-fat diet mice had aspartame to equal 2 cans of diet soda. The others in both normal and high fat groups had just water.

After 18 weeks, there was no difference in weight between the two normal diet groups. Mice on the high fat diet with aspartame gained more weight than the ones who had plain water. Here’s the kicker: the aspartame mice in both groups had higher blood sugar levels and higher levels of the systemic inflammation associated with metabolic syndrome.

So much for aspartame. But another set of studies (described in the website STAT) looked at sucralose, aka Splenda, with equally horrifying results. The first study was done with flies, one group eating their fill of a normal diet, and the other eating their fill of a diet containing sucralose. In a few days, the sucralose group were eating 30% more calories. When both groups consumed normal sugar, the sucralose flies showed more neuron activity, suggesting a stronger taste for sweet as a result of their exposure to sucralose.

One of the study’s authors explained that the same neurons also make food taste better when we are starving. In other words, the neuron activity makes us think we need to eat when we don’t. The study was repeated with mice, whose response is more likely to be similar to humans’, with the same results.

I wonder if this is what’s behind the phenomenon that people are eating so much more sugar than we used to. I know so many people who’ve been drinking diet drinks to cut down on calories, only to find they’re craving much sweeter foods—much too sweet for my taste.

It’s kind of like our history with tobacco, which was marketed as good for us—“so relaxing!”—before it was seen as the health hazard it is. I think that’s where we are with artificial sweeteners and the ridiculous amount of sugar in processed foods. Just say no, folks.

Just in time for Thanksgiving

Well here’s some good news for those of us who love feasting at Thanksgiving—my favorite holiday! Family, friends, and feasting—this truly is a special occasion. And I really like the idea of a holiday that asks us to think about gratitude—I need that reminder.

Before the feast day, I usually start making lists weeks ahead; I try a few new recipes, auditioning them for the T-day menu, and I consider new flavors for ice cream to accompany the pies. But I always end up making cinnamon ice cream; it goes so well with the favorites: apple, blackberry and pumpkin.

It’s always pies for dessert at my house on Thanksgiving—otherwise, how would we be able to celebrate the next day’s holiday, Pie for Breakfast Day? A fitting way to celebrate the day after Thanksgiving. My daughter agrees.

But holidays—well, any reason to celebrate with food—can be difficult for people who are in the transition phase from the Standard American Diet to a more healthy alternative, especially since we know the damage that overeating can do to our metabolism.

So here’s the good news, which I read about in a Science Daily post: “a new study finds that exercise can protect fat tissue from changes in inflammation levels and fat metabolism caused by a brief period of eating too many calories.”

Motivation!

This is a preliminary study, with only 4 adults—people who are active on a daily basis, for the most part. They ate approximately 30% more calories than normal for them during the week, and continued their normal level of physical activity. They were tested for glucose tolerance and inflammation before and after the week, with this conclusion: the findings “support a protective role of exercise in the metabolic response . . . to brief periods of overeating.”

So a healthy level of activity protects us from the effects of occasional overeating.

I think this year my gratitude list will include my good fortune in being able to maintain a level of activity that gives me energy—a benevolent addictions.

When is visualization helpful, and when does it get in the way of reaching a goal?

Fantasizing, a kind of visualization, is a chance to embrace a magical reality. It can be a wonderful experience—it can feel good—to lose ourselves in an alternate reality, where we pretend that life is as we want it to be, maybe with a better job, fabulous success in our chosen field, better health, etc.

There’s only one problem with any fantasy: it doesn’t exist.

In 2002, a study evaluated four groups of people with goals, who either visualized what success looks and feels, or who anticipated a negative outcome. The four different goals of these groups had to do with job hunting, looking for a romantic partner, acing an exam, or recovering well from surgery.

The study authors concluded that fantasy visualization leads people to feel as though they have already succeeded, while anticipating a negative outcome helps people to identify and deal with the obstacles or challenges they foresee. In other words, the pleasant feelings the fantasy evokes end up negatively affecting our motivation to take the steps to pursue success—getting out there and applying for jobs, studying harder for exams, etc.

Another group of people expected good results based on their own past experience, and they also had a better outcome than the people who fantasized about success—presumably at least partly because they already knew the steps they would need to take to ensure success.

Fast forward to this year, and another study builds on the earlier research, this one focusing on the effect of positive thinking on depression. In this case, the study looked at the effect of positive visualizations both in the moment and over time. What they found is that people did in fact feel better in the moment, as they experienced the positive feelings evoked by the fantasy, but the long-term effect (up to 7 months later) was an increase in depressive symptoms. The long-term reality did not live up to the fantasy, which remained just a fantasy. In this study, visualization of positive results not only didn’t provide a benefit, but over time it led to more depression.

So, positive thinking alone, visualizing success, may not be a powerful force for change in our lives after all.

In hypnosis, we typically use visualization. But a good hypnosis session involves more than visualizing the goal achieved—it’s not just fantasy. A good hypnosis session also explores any barriers to success—not just practical, tangible, obstacles, but also internal barriers like negative assumptions about our abilities and limits. With that basis, we use hypnosis to prepare for the work needed to achieve success. For example, a student who is struggling because of a negative assumption that he or she isn’t smart enough needs to reverse that assumption in order to do the work to meet the goal.

A couple of studies that I’ve written about before show that visualizing an activity under hypnosis lights up the same areas of the brain that are active when people actually perform the activity. This doesn’t happen when people are simply thinking about it (fantasizing). Perhaps that’s part of the reason for a different outcome with hypnosis. When we’ve gone through the process under hypnosis, we are more like the people who expect a good outcome because they’ve done it before, rather than people who are day-dreaming about how good it will feel.

 

Beware the halo effect, or, don’t trust the promises on packages

November’s group session will be 6:30 pm, Thursday the 17th. Contact me for details.

The halo effect refers to our tendency to ascribe value to something because we consciously or unconsciously associate it with something else that we value.  It’s also another way we can unintentionally make it hard to build the habit of eating healthier.

I just saw this headline “‘Fitness foods actually lead people to eat more and exercise less, a new study finds.” The study it refers to used identical trail mix snacks with two different labels: one label said “fitness,” with a picture of running shoes, and the other label just said simply “trail mix.”

Some of the people in the study were concerned about their weight. People in this group were more likely to eat lots of the “fitness” trail mix, and exercise less afterwards.

It’s not surprising; we’ve seen this research before. The word fitness on the package leads us to assume that by eating this, we are doing something that supports our health, and we can then check that off the list for the rest of the day.

People who are not concerned about their weight, or people who get lots of physical activity already, are not likely to be taken in by that kind of advertising, since they have their own reasons—their own internal motivation—for keeping active.

The way to fight this kind of unintentional self-sabotage is to make a habit of reading the ingredients and looking at labels for the portion size, not the advertising. If you’re not in the habit already, give it a try. If you want to make it interesting, see how many packaged foods have 5 or fewer ingredients. Let me know how it goes.

You say placebo like it’s a bad thing . . . .

I recently heard hypnosis described as a placebo-effect delivery system, which I loved, since it does reflect how I think about what I’m doing when I do hypnosis.

There are as many ways to talk about hypnosis as there are ways to talk about the weather—no doubt partly because it’s just as natural, and just as likely to be misunderstood. But rather than talking about what hypnosis is, or perhaps more importantly, what it can do, I want to take a moment to talk about how I see hypnosis—through the lens of how I use it.

My intention, my focus, in facilitating a hypnosis session—yes, I said “facilitating”—is to induce a hypnotic state that allows the people I’m working with to activate their own healing, expansive, growth-oriented abilities.

That’s it. I work with all kinds of people, who are dealing with all kinds of issues. As it happens, I’m privileged to work with many people who are dealing with weight issues, and so that has become a specialty for me—I love working with people who are tackling this complex problem.

I also have a specialty in working with people with medical issues. Working with these differing concerns, I use the same hypnosis techniques, and they work, because the power of hypnosis comes from the power of your mind, your body, your spirit. I’m there so that my voice and my words can become the trigger for the change that comes from your innate ability and your desire for well-being and good health.

Simple. And yes, it can seem magical. Placebo, anyone?