While the specific causes of seasonal depression are unknown, the sleep hormone melatonin is likely involved along with serotonin which helps regulate our mood. Apart from medication or light therapy, some people seek out hypnotherapy for depression, which, according to a recent study, has comparable effects to cognitive behavioral therapy. Hypnotherapy can also help with chronic pain, insomnia, low self-esteem, anxiety, motivation to work out, and curbing unwanted behaviors like smoking and drinking.
As a former therapist, when clients inquired about hypnosis, my initial reaction was skepticism, imagining myself dangling a pocket watch as they drifted off to sleep. But recently after talking to experts about this technique and trying it out myself, I think the combination of deep breathing and positive suggestions can be helpful for seasonal depression. Self-hypnosis works by training your mind to replace unhelpful thoughts that dominate your mood in winter with more adaptive beliefs. So, I tried self-hypnosis for seasonal depression to see if it would lift my mood.
What is self-hypnosis, exactly?
Hypnosis or hypnotherapy refers to a state of deep relaxation where “you’re able to access your subconscious mind and give yourself positive suggestions for change,” says Jacqueline Carson, DipHyp, GHR, GHSC, a clinical hypnotherapist based in Darlington, Co Durham in the U.K. For example, if you’re dreading the start of the work week, a positive suggestion might be telling yourself, “I feel calm,” or “I’m strong enough to get through this.”
There are different ways to practice self-hypnosis. What you’ll need is a comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed. If you’re working with a therapist or practicing on your own, the critical piece is that “you’re always in control of what happens, so all hypnosis is technically self-hypnosis,” says Daniela Bragato, a trauma-informed hypnotherapist and founder of Women MAKE Stories in London, U.K. “You can reject the hypnotherapist’s suggestions if you don’t find them useful or appropriate,” she says. Their job is to help guide you into a state of focused awareness.
“Generally speaking, hypnosis is a safe practice but if people are experiencing psychosis, epilepsy, severe depression, or certain types of personality disorders, this therapy may not be right for them as it might trigger their condition,” says Bragato. If you’re new to self-hypnosis, Bragato and Carson recommend having a consultation with a qualified hypnotherapist who can walk you through different techniques. They also encourage clients to connect with their doctor or therapist for other treatment options. That said, here's how my two weeks of trying self-hypnosis for seasonal depression worked.
I kept hearing the sound of a truck backing up as I tried to think of something I wanted to change. I wanted to stop feeling sad and worthless and came up with, “I feel content,” as a positive suggestion.
I tried self-hypnosis for seasonal depression for two weeks
The first time I tried self-hypnosis for seasonal depression on my own wasn’t exactly relaxing or free of distractions. I kept hearing the sound of a truck backing up as I tried to think of something I wanted to change. I wanted to stop feeling sad and worthless and came up with, “I feel content,” as a positive suggestion.
Seated in my office chair, I uncrossed my arms and legs and made a mental note of the start time as Carson recommends. I didn’t set a time limit to avoid feeling rushed. Turning my chair toward the window, I looked out at the skyline until I needed to blink, at which point I closed my eyes.
I took a deep breath, holding it in for three seconds and exhaling for six seconds. As Bragato explains, deep breaths signal to your body that you can relax. She suggests lying down or placing one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach for deeper relaxation. Next, I said aloud, “I feel content” three times while continuing to breathe deeply. I felt calmer afterward but didn’t feel much of an improvement in my mood.
As I progressed to day four, my breathing felt shallow and labored compared to the previous day. I couldn’t stop thinking about a difficult conversation I’d had with someone who I had to force myself to get along with for the rest of the day.
As Bragato explains, “people who live with depression often experience unhelpful thoughts that spiral into worries about the future and rumination about the past, which can leave them mentally and physically exhausted.” One change I did notice was being able to tune out email and text notifications and enjoy cuddling with my dogs.
After a couple of attempts that ended with me feeling more reactive, I tried a technique Carson recommends called future pacing. Starting from the top of my head, the idea was to relax each muscle as I moved slowly down to my eyes, ears, nose, and cheeks.
I could feel the tension in my jaw as I visualized myself standing at the top of a staircase with 10 steps. I imagined myself looking down at the bottom, seeing a door painted purple, or as she explains, a color that’s “calming to your subconscious mind.”
Next, I imagined myself walking down the stairs and going deeper into hypnosis. At the bottom, I opened the door to a room with a chair where I could sit and feel relaxed. The rest of the day felt less chaotic as I returned to this image while telling myself, “I am safe here.”
This time, I followed Carson’s suggestion to imagine a TV set with controls nearby. I recalled her saying, “This is your movie. You are the writer, star, and director. You can see yourself walking out on a cold but sunny day.”
I could hear my dog's breathing and snoring as I allowed positive feelings to flow from my head down to my fingertips. I imagined myself using the remote to turn up the volume on these feelings and make the screen bigger and brighter.
Here’s how I felt after those two weeks of trying self-hypnosis for seasonal depression
After almost two weeks, it made sense why Carson advises against doing self-hypnosis at bedtime. Hypnosis can help you fall asleep, but it works best you’re alert and can give yourself positive suggestions. If it helps, you can record your own or your hypnotherapist’s voice and play it back during hypnosis.
The truth is there’s no magic fix when it comes to treating depression. But, I learned that the goal of self-hypnosis isn’t to stop yourself from having negative thoughts. Making it a regular habit did allow me to focus on changes I envision for myself, though. Intentionally making space for positive thoughts and feelings seems to help me muddle through these cold, dark, and gloomy months.
To get the most out of the experience, “self-hypnosis requires consistency and commitment,” says Bragato. Two weeks is a good start but she recommends giving it more time to really see an improvement in mood. And I just might continue the practice.
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