I Tried Hypnotherapy to Stop Eating Sugar—Here’s What Happened

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Grace Smith was hypnotized for the first time when she was 24 years old. She was six months sober—a high-pressure fundraising job during the depths of the 2008 recession had led to extreme anxiety, which led to a reliance on drugs and alcohol as a release—but couldn’t kick her chain-smoking habit. “I didn’t get it,” she says. “If I could stop drinking and partying, which was so much a part of my identity at night, how could I not stop this thing that I hate, that’s so disgusting to me?”

After one hypnosis session, Smith says, she was through with cigarettes. And she was mad—mad that this powerful tool had been overlooked (or, worse yet, made a joke of) for so long. “I was so appalled from a justice standpoint,” she says. “I just thought, why does anybody have lung cancer? Why does anybody have emphysema? Why is anybody continuing to smoke if they don't want to smoke?”

Because—and let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning—research does show that hypnotism works for many people. According to Guy Montgomery, PhD, director of the Center for Behavioral Oncology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and former president of the American Psychological Association Division for Hypnosis, it’s had success treating cases of pain management, common symptoms and side effects cancer patients face (such as nausea and fatigue), and anxiety. Irving Kirsch, PhD, associate director of the Program in Placebo Studies and lecturer in medicine at the Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, adds irritable bowel syndrome to this list. (But, notably, both experts say it's divisive whether hypnosis is effective for smoking cessation.)

After her smoking success, Smith decided to see if lightning would strike twice. “And in 10 sessions, I completely overcame a life-long debilitating fear of public speaking,” she says. Just days after Smith tells me this story, she leads thousands of people in a group hypnosis session at OZY Fest.

Her personal story makes a compelling case for the power of hypnotherapy, and it’s easy to see why she decided to learn the method herself. (Now, Smith reaches over 70,000 people daily through her eponymous platform.) So, when Smith offers me a complimentary session to tackle an issue of my choosing, I take her up on it.

“Take a nice, deep, letting-go breath…”

I flip through a mental Rolodex of issues I’d like to vanquish—stress, trouble sleeping, lack of self-confidence—and stop on one that feels measurable and manageable: cutting back on sugar.

“That’s perfect,” Smith says. “Quitting sugar is our largest segment. We have 40,000 people on our email list just for this.”

Our first session, done in one of my office’s conference rooms after hours, starts not with a swinging pocket watch or spoon tinkling against a teacup’s rim, but with a chat. Smith asks me about my current relationship with sugar and sweets (I can’t say no to an office cupcake or 4 p.m. pick-me-up cookie), my family’s relationship with food when I was growing up (fraught, in a word), and goals (eliminating my cravings and being able to turn down a sugary snack when offered one).

Then Smith gets out her swinging pocket watch and begins counting down from 100…kidding, there’s still no pocket watch. But the counting, I learn, is real.

She also sets my expectations. Her success with quitting smoking after a single session isn’t the norm, Smith cautions me. She cites a 1970 study that found hypnotherapy to be 93 percent effective after six sessions, and says that when she takes on new clients currently, she only does so if they commit to a minimum of 12 sessions (to the tune $15,000—Smith tells me that, as CEO of her company, her personal clients are mostly celebrities and executives, but she has hypnotherapists on her team who charge $100-$150 per session) in order to maximize their chances of success.

Then Smith gets out her swinging pocket watch and begins counting down from 100…kidding, there’s still no pocket watch. But the counting, I learn, is real. “Close your eyes, and take a nice, deep, letting-go breath,” she says.

Does hypnosis work
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Meditation with a goal

Hypnotherapy, Smith likes to say in her speeches and TV appearances, is not clucking chickens and blacking out. “It’s simply meditation with a goal,” she says. Or, as written on her website: “Hypnotherapy works because when we are relaxed and feeling safe we become open to suggestion, that’s it."

When I ask David Spiegel, MD, the associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine and former president of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, if this is, in fact, “it,” I’m surprised to learn that, yeah, it kinda is. (At least according to him—as I’ll learn, there are multiple schools of thought when it comes to how and why hypnosis works.)

“[Hypnosis] is a state of highly focused attention, coupled with a dissociational reduction in peripheral awareness” (AKA the things happening around you), Dr. Spiegel says, referencing studies he’s done that track brain activity during hypnosis. “You’re also, to some extent, suspending critical judgment. So you’re not thinking about the thing, you’re absorbing it.”

“It's like you sit in a movie,” Dr. Spiegel continues, perhaps realizing a metaphor could help me fully grasp the concept. “You're really into the movie and you had this experience watching it. Later on, you may think, ‘Well, actually this was a little implausible and that actor wasn't all that good.’ But at the time, you're just into it. So you're taking it in rather than judging and evaluating it.” Basically, hypnosis is like watching Star Wars. “That can be harmful at times, but it can be helpful when you're trying to learn a new way of dealing with an old problem.”

“I don’t need yucky sugar—I don’t even want it.”

“Eight, you take a step down. Seven, doubling your relaxation. Six, the deeper you go, the better you feel. Five, really letting go now, you’re doing great… ”

With each number, I take a step down a wooden, intricately carved staircase I’m picturing in my mind. It’s my first session with Smith, and it’s just one of many visualizations she’ll take me through. I descend the stairs and unlock a door at the bottom (it was straight out of a Tolkien novel). Then, I’m standing in a place where I feel safe and confident (a grassy field with the scent of lavender carried on an ocean breeze). And then she asks to me visualize the part of myself that likes sugar. And she asks that, on the count of three, I visual this part of myself jumping out of my body. One, two, three…

It’s like a record scratch in my brain. What? I have no idea what this means or how to visualize it.

It’s like a record scratch in my brain. What? I have no idea what this means or how to visualize it. But while my synapses are firing in an attempt to picture something, anything, Smith has already moved on to the next instruction. “What do you call this part of you that wants sugar?” My heart is racing now and my mind is blank: I have no effing idea.

“Honey,” I say. And even though Smith is saying, “That’s exactly right,” I know it’s dumb and clearly the wrong answer and now I’ve ruined everything.

But I stick with Smith’s interactive meditation for the next 40 minutes or so. At her suggestion, I picture a table piled high with cakes. I see that, upon closer inspection, the cakes are covered in flies. I repeat after Smith, “I choose nourishing food, not yucky sugar.” When I’m offered a pain au chocolat, I tell myself—I’m sorry, I tell Honey—“I don’t even want it.”

After the session, I tell Smith that I felt self-conscious, and that I was worried I wasn’t able to fully remain in a hypnotized state. (Subtext: I think I’ve botched it.) She tells me not to worry, that we were working on the subconscious level and that my judgmental thoughts won’t get in the way of the no-sugar seed taking root.

Does hypnosis work
Photo: Getty Images/PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson

Hypnosis vs. the placebo effect

That first session didn’t cure me of my cravings, but for the next few days, I do have a much easier time saying no. Or rather, saying, “I choose nourishing food, not yucky sugar.” It’s my new mantra. And when I repeat it to the coworker offering me a coconut matcha cookie, I get a raised eyebrow and a shrug, but she doesn’t press me. (And, somehow, I don’t chase her back into the kitchen and drop to my knees and plead, “I’m kidding! Please, please give me the cookie!”)

But, as much as I want to accept this 15-percent success (which is about how much improvement Smith told me I could realistically expect after one session), I have a gnawing thought at the back of my brain.

I email Smith: “I feel like part of why I've been having an easier time saying no is because I've been more aware of my tendency, and now that I've put some time and effort (namely, the session) into kicking this habit, I'm more inclined and inspired to really give it the old college try, as they say. And I can only imagine how I'd feel if I had also spent money on the session. (Just a guess, but even more committed!) Basically, I'm wondering if the sheer desire for it to work is helping with my willpower. Is this the placebo effect?”

“It’s not placebo,” Smith says. And when I pose this same question to Dr. Kirsch and Dr. Montgomery, they also say that the placebo effect (“the idea that your brain can convince your body a fake treatment is the real thing,” as Harvard Medical School puts it) and hypnosis are different. But, they both go on to say, placebos and hypnosis work for the same reason.

“Central to both is the phenomenon of suggestion,” Dr. Kirsch tells me. “So in hypnosis, you’re getting verbal suggestions from the person who's doing the hypnosis. Placebo involves suggestion as well: It's a suggestion that this is something that's going to make you feel better.”

And according to Dr. Montgomery, hypnotherapy and placebo both work because of something he calls an “expectancy mechanism.” Which is really just what it sounds like: You expect that the treatment is gong to work, so it does.

“One of the things hypnosis does is it kind of energizes your expectations [for results],” Dr. Montgomery says. “[In studies], we'll measure expectancies for an outcome before a hypnosis intervention, we'll do hypnosis, then we'll measure expectancies after and look how it changes. And then, we'll correlate that with an outcome—like pain reduction, distress, nausea, or fatigue. And we can show statistically how the intervention leads to a change in the expectation, which then leads to a change in the outcome.” So, at least by Dr. Montgomery’s way of thinking, I was onto something: My desire for the hypnotherapy to work was contributing to a positive outcome.

Am I incapable of being hypnotized?

I complete three more sessions with Smith (all done over the phone). And while I find each one helpful—particularly an exercise from the third session, in which we set guidelines for when eating sugar is okay (it has to be just once a day, smaller than five bites, and “at least a little bit special”)—I wasn’t experiencing what I hoped to. Which was: a complete and effortless dissipation of all desire for treats.

I know hypnosis isn't mind control—not only did Smith tell me so, but Dr. Montgomery also named it as the top misconception people have about the practice. But I still thought—hoped—that somehow, I’d be able to drift off while Smith recited Zen-inducing mantras and, by osmosis, I’d absorb the secret to removing my sweet tooth. Instead, I found the participatory aspect of Smith’s method (tell me what you see, repeat after me) anxiety-producing. Before each session, I’d feel a pit grow in my stomach. I’d worry about what she was going to ask me and whether she’d know I was faking my answers—that I was a fraud. I wondered whether it was possible that hypnotherapy simply wouldn't work for me.

Before each session, I’d feel a pit grow in my stomach. I’d worry about what she was going to ask me and whether she’d know I was faking my answers—that I was a fraud.

While Smith writes on her website that “everyone can be hypnotized,” further research tells me this isn’t exactly the case. “It works on a bell curve,” Dr. Kirsch says. Some people are very highly susceptible to hypnotism, some people are completely immune, and the majority fall somewhere in the middle. (This is how those hypnotism stage shows work, Dr. Montgomery says. The performer calls up a sample size of people, and then eliminates the volunteers when they stop responding to suggestions until only the people who are highly susceptible remain on the stage.)

I can’t say for sure that I’m one of the few who can’t be hypnotized—and Smith was quick to point out that I didn’t complete her recommended six sessions; I just did four—but I can say with certitude that I wasn’t ready to be hypnotized. As Dr. Montgomery tells me, hypnotherapy is therapy, after all. “With hypnosis, I’m going to do all the things I’d do in a regular therapy session,” he says. “I’m going to establish rapport. We’re going to make sure that we get along and we’re a match. We’re going to talk about the goal of hypnosis together…and we’re going to agree on it.”

Smith and I thought we’d agreed on a common goal—quitting sugar—but the farther along in the process we got, the more I discovered I didn’t really want to do it. I like sweets! I like sharing dessert with my husband. And that afternoon treat makes it infinitely easier to get through the workday slog between lunch and logging off.

So before our final session, I let Smith know about my reservations. She wasn't surprised—I have a terrible poker face—but she wasn't about to let me off the hook so easily. She asked me: What did I think was the root issue here, if it wasn't the sugar itself?

I puzzled it out one step at a time: Cutting out sweets could lead me to a healthier diet, which could lead to weight loss; then, maybe I'd be more confident, and finally, I'd be able to care less about what people think of me. Ding ding ding! I had arrived at my final destination. In the most meta of twists, I realized that the very thing that made me decide hypnosis wasn't for me—that gut-churning feeling that I was doing it wrong, that my answers were stupid—could, in fact, be the reason I needed it the most.

For another take on hypnotherapy, here's what happened when one editor tried it to get over a breakup. And if sugar is your problem, too, here's a step-by-step guide to cutting out the sweet stuff.

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