Updated 9:30 PM ET, Tue August 18, 2015
(CNN)When “Comedy Hypnotist” Chris Jones invited celebrity judge Howie Mandel on stage and hypnotized him on the competition show “America’s Got Talent,” the performance brought the audience to its feet and even inspired a social media hashtag, #HowieShakesHands.
Mandel, who struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, followed Jones’ cues and for the first time in more than eight years, the germaphobe shook hands with his fellow judges. The seemingly instant transformation was so surprising, some viewers thought it was an act (Mandel said it was not).
But according to David Spiegel, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, not only is hypnotherapy legitimate, it’s “literally the oldest Western conception of a psychotherapy.”
“If you’ve ever been lost in a daydream or zoned out and missed your turn while driving your usual route, you’ve experienced a form of hypnosis,” he said.
Does it really work?
Spiegel has been conducting studies about the benefits of hypnosis for more than 40 years and he said there is no doubt that hypnosis works as an effective therapeutic technique to manage pain and kick bad habits.
In 2000, Spiegel and his colleagues determined that patients using hypnosis as a part of a comprehensive treatment plan could significantly reduce drug use and procedure time.
“Lowering those two meant an average cost savings of approximately $338,” Spiegel said. A 2007 article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute doubled that figure, finding that a hospital saved $772 per patient in the hypnosis group, mainly due to reduced surgical time. “Patients who received hypnosis reported less post-surgical pain, nausea, fatigue and discomfort,” according to a release from the American Psychological Association.
Hypnosis has its skeptics, partly because while studies seem to show it has tangible benefits, it’s most often used in tandem with other treatments; scientifically quantifying its success alone is difficult.
From comedy performers such as Jones to Harvard educated psychiatrists such as Spiegel, anyone can learn to hypnotize and call themselves a “hypnotist,” which also gives doubters pause. Three states — Colorado, Connecticut and Washington — require mandatory licensing requirements from individuals wanting to practice hypnotherapy.
According to the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, or ASCH, most insurance companies will cover 50% to 80% of the cost of individual therapy, but only if treated by licensed professionals. ASCH requires its members to be licensed health care workers and, at minimum, have a master’s degree. The National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists, on the other hand, requires applicants have a graduate-level degree as well as 50 hours of classroom instruction and 30 hours of clinical training.
How does it work?
The first thing Anderson does when meeting a new client is what anyone would do upon meeting a stranger: He gets to know them. “I try to establish a rapport and establish the client’s intentions for hypnosis,” Anderson said.
Using verbal and nonverbal cues, a hypnotherapist will help the client quiet their peripheral, conscious mind, the part that’s constantly stimulated by outside sources.
Clients will relax, their posture will adjust and they will usually become very still, Anderson said. “They’re halfway between being completely asleep and completely awake,” he explained.
In this trance-like state, the part of the brain responsible for the subconscious, nonlogical thoughts can become wide open to suggestions. “The normal adult filters and belief systems of what is and what isn’t will start to fade,” he said. “Clients become almost childlike. “Hypnotherapists can then begin to use imagery and suggestion to help them start thinking about their bad habits or their pain differently.
For radio host Jenn Hobby, who underwent hypnosis to help her kick her smoking habit, that meant tapping into her relationship with her goddaughter, who at the time of her session, was just a toddler. Her hypnotherapist told her to imagine her goddaughter playing outside and running around the playground.
“Then he said, ‘now imagine giving her a lit cigarette,'” Hobby remembers. “That really hit home, more than anything else.” When she left the office that day, she felt differently about cigarettes and smoking.
Helping clients manage pain, Anderson said, he often counsels them to turn down receptors that might cause them discomfort the same way a plumber might turn off water before working to repair a leak.
“The pain signals might be there, but they wouldn’t make it into awareness,” Anderson said.
Feeling ‘somewhat betrayed’
What’s vital to the process, Anderson and Spiegel said, is that both parties — hypnotherapist and client — agree to the intentions of the session beforehand. Mandel said he agreed to participate in the segment and said he knew what he was doing the entire time, but he never established a rapport with his hypnotist.
So while his “handshaking breakthrough” seemed like a positive thing, for Mandel, the former “Deal or No Deal” host said he felt “somewhat betrayed” after he watched the episode.
“I was upset about it and it’s hard for me to watch,” Mandel told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.
Spiegel said Mandel’s reaction to his experience is understandable. “When entertainers with no knowledge or concern for clinical care take advantage of a real phenomenon, real people can feel exposed, tricked or humiliated,” he said.
Only one part of the puzzle
Despite the success of Hobby’s hypnosis experience — she’s only had a few cigarettes since — she said being hypnotized wasn’t the only thing that led to her quitting. “There’s no magic pill. You have to be really committed to change your behavior,” she said.
Spiegel agreed. Hypnosis, while valuable, is only one part of the comprehensive treatment puzzle. “Anything that can help a patient that much is worth looking into,” he said.