This surprising therapy combination can provide stress relief, study finds

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You’ve heard all the recommendations time and time again. Feeling stressed or anxious? Take a deep breath, count to 10, visualize yourself on a deserted island soaking up the sun, etc, etc. There are seemingly endless stress relief strategies, but as those who have dealt with extreme stress first hand can attest, most of these approaches can feel absolutely useless in the heat of the moment during a particularly intense stress attack.

Humans have been blessed with high intelligence and self-awareness, and while all of that separates us from the rest of our planet’s inhabitants, it also predisposes our species to feelings like anxiety, neverending and unjustified worry, and excessive stress. These are highly complex and oftentimes individualized conditions, which is why stress has proven so difficult to universally treat.

Now, however, researchers from Baylor University are offering up a potential new form of stress treatment that could provide much-needed relief to countless people. The new approach isn’t actually new; it’s a combination of two existing methods. Dubbed “mindful hypnotherapy,” the intervention is a mixture of hypnotherapy and mindfulness training. The study’s authors say this new treatment option looks to be just as, if not more, effective than existing stress relief strategies.

When most people think about hypnosis they probably imagine an evil snake with hypnotic eyes or a hypnotist waving a shiny watch back and forth, but hypnosis has been used to treat several ailments from insomnia and addiction to physical pain for decades. Meanwhile, mindfulness is essentially meditation; clearing one’s mind and only focusing on the now.

“Mindfulness is a type of meditation that involves focusing attention on present moment awareness. It can help people cope with stress, but can require months of practice and training,” says researcher Gary Elkins, Ph.D., director of the Mind-Body Medicine Research Laboratory at Baylor University, in a press release. “Hypnosis also involves focusing attention, but it includes mental imagery, relaxation, and suggestions for symptom reduction.”

When used in a clinical setting, hypnotherapy is usually kept relatively brief. Conversely, traditional mindfulness training for stress relief is usually a somewhat lengthy process. Patients are enrolled in eight weekly sessions, which encompasses two hours of therapy per week and an eight hour plus all-day retreat as well. All in all, that adds up to over 24 hours spent in therapy. For many people, that’s just not a realistic time commitment.

So, researchers hypothesized that patients may be able to reap the stress-relieving rewards of mindfulness training much faster, and enjoy better overall results, if hypnotherapy was combined with mindfulness.

“Combining mindfulness and hypnotherapy in a single session is a novel intervention that may be equal to or better than existing treatments, with the advantage of being more time-effective, less daunting and easier to use,” Elkins explains. “This could be a valuable option for treating anxiety and stress reduction.”

For the study, 42 people with self-reported “high levels of stress” were gathered together. Half of those participants took part in one-hour weekly mindful hypnotherapy sessions. Participants in this group were also provided with 20-minute self-hypnosis audio recordings intended to reinforce relaxation, hypnotic suggestion, and mindfulness. The other group of participants received no mindfulness training or hypnotherapy.

Afterward, participants in the mindful hypnotherapy group overwhelmingly reported significant stress relief. Pretty much everyone said they were very satisfied with the mindfulness training and hypnotherapy, and said they felt much less stressed and more at peace and mindful. Moreover, participants said they appreciated the brevity and the small number of training sessions, how easy it was for them to practice at home, and the straightforward nature of the training materials and therapy. On average, participants in the intervention group rated their overall happiness with the experience as an 8.9 out of 10.

On the other hand, participants who didn’t receive any such treatment reported no reduction in their usual stress levels.

The researchers admit that this study was relatively small, so they would like further research to be performed on this topic in the future that includes larger sample sizes. It’s also worth investigating if mindful hypnotherapy can help with other conditions like depression or chronic pain.

The full study can be found here, published in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.