Baylor University researchers have discovered a new way to boost compassion and reduce stress by fusing mindfulness practice with hypnotherapy.
An author of the five-year “mindful hypnotherapy” study conceded those terms may evoke images of exotic Eastern religions and magic shows where audience members are hypnotized. But a more accurate understanding of the new therapy is available in periods of deep prayer, said Gary Elkins, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of Baylor’s Mind-Body Medicine Laboratory.
“When people pray, they are focusing their attention and they are more aware of their internal experience,” he said. “What is going on around them becomes less important.”
And that, at least in part, is the goal behind the “mindful hypnotherapy” approach Elkins and other Baylor researchers announced publicly this summer and previously in book and journal forms.
A more accurate understanding of the new therapy is available in periods of deep prayer.
The pandemic adds an element of urgency to continue the work of the lab, which is financed by the National Institutes of Health, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the National Institute on Aging and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Right now, the need is great, and we are conducting further research,” Elkins said. He spoke with Baptist News Global about the research and its potential value for people stressed out in a time of pandemic.
What other studies has the lab undertaken?
We have studied hypnosis intervention for the reduction of hot flashes for menopausal women and cancer survivors. That study showed that mind-body intervention could reduce hot flashes 70% to 80%, on average. We also compared in-person sessions with therapists to using audio recordings and guidance with some phone calls. Our findings found that the self-guided practice of self-hypnosis was not only feasible but appeared to be a little better than the in-person sessions.
We also found sleep quality was greatly improved, and more recently we conducted a trial for hypnosis intervention for deeper sleep. That is a particularly important topic for people as we age because as we get older, our deep, satisfying sleep decreases. An intervention without the use of drugs is of great benefit because it can impact a person’s sense of energy, vitality and cognition during the day.
How do you define “mindfulness” as it relates to this current study?
It simply means paying attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental manner. If a person is focusing on their breathing, they focus on their breathing. When thoughts come into their mind, or they have physical sensations in the body, they try to notice them without attaching some judgment or meaning to them.
That sounds beneficial all by itself.
It is if you think about stress. There are stressors in everyone’s life, but it’s really our thoughts — our interpretation of things that are happening — that causes most of our stress. We catastrophize about things.
And how is hypnotherapy defined here?
Hypnosis is a method or a phenomenon that’s been in existence more than 100 years, and there are certain myths and misconceptions that are portrayed in shows and movies and Las Vegas acts. Hypnosis is defined as a state of consciousness involving focused attention and peripheral awareness and enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion. In hypnosis, a person focuses their attention more inward rather than outward and they are better able to respond to positive suggestions.
Why combine the two practices?
Mindfulness-based stress reduction has been shown to reduce stress to a moderate degree, but it can be very time consuming. It requires a large commitment of time and energy and its costly for many people unless it is provided at no charge.
Hypnotherapy is typically a brief intervention. The response to hypnotherapy intervention is thought to be effortless. The person is open to positive suggestions, and they accept those suggestions, not through conscious effort, but through experience.
We felt by combining them we could develop a brief intervention that would require less effort and be much less burdensome. So, mindful hypnotherapy maintains the goals of mindfulness, but the delivery is through hypnosis.
Is it a therapy that can be used regardless of a person’s faith tradition?
I believe it can work for people whatever their faith and their values. One of the goals of mindfulness is to experience a greater compassion for self and others and to be less distressed by everyday problems. It’s also about cultivating a greater awareness of self-care, becoming less judgmental in everyday life and developing and maintaining positive thoughts. It’s not a form of mind control.
Your timing seems perfect in a time of pandemic.
Our timing with this has come when people need practices that can reduce stress. COVID-19 itself constantly seems to be evolving.
Mindfulness typically is focused on acceptance, where hypnosis is typically focused on change. In our pandemic, we need both. Wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing, these are forms of self-care and of compassion for others. But self-care also is changing what you can to be less stressed, to be in the present moment and non-judgmentally let go for periods of time and accepting what is.