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Break your bad habit — overnight

Studies show hypnotherapy can help you conquer your troubling obsessions

Image: Nail Biting
Can't quit gnawing on your nails? Hypnotherapy may help.
Chaloner Woods / Getty Images file
By Lynn Harris
updated 1:18 p.m. ET Aug. 3, 2008

As a kid, I bit the hell out of my fingernails. In young adulthood, I shifted my attacks to the skin around them: pulling and picking, nibbling and tearing, sometimes until it bled. On a bad day, it looked like I'd just bottle-fed a barracuda. "Ooh, what happened to your fingers?" people would frown and say if I failed to keep them hidden. Um, I ate them?

Manicurists would literally yell at me and yank my hands over to show colleagues. I wanted to stop but couldn't. Until a few months ago. I walked into a hypnotherapist's office at 10 A.M., walked out at noon and haven't nibbled my fingers since.

The word hypnosis may conjure visions of the time you saw The Amazing Boris get the shyest wallflower to dance like a chicken, or of a creepy B-movie guy swinging a watch, chanting, "You arrrre getting sleeeeepy." But unlike stage and screen hypnosis, hypnotherapy — in which patients are verbally guided into a "trance" by a trained psychotherapist — is a legitimate treatment tool endorsed by the American Psychological Association. And it's becoming more and more mainstream.

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"Hypnosis has a long and checkered history," says Jean Fain, a psychotherapist who uses hypnosis in her Massachusetts practice. "But there's a growing body of quality research showing that it can help with everything from behavioral problems and bad habits to anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome."

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How hypnotizable are you?
If you think you could never relax enough for hypnosis to work for you, that may be a sign you're the perfect candidate.

The brain
An interactive road map to the mind
"Being anxious means you have a very vivid mind that can easily make up a worst-case scenario," says Elmira Lang, M.D., an associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School who has done research on hypnosis. If you can do that, she says, then your mind is also well-suited to make up a better story line — and imagine yourself changing.

You may also be a strong candidate if you're a dreamer, "the sort of person who gets lost in a movie or fantasy easily," says David Spiegel, M.D., associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. Ten percent to 15 percent of people are considered highly hypnotizable, and another 50 percent moderately so, he says. That leaves about one third who are hard to entrance. They tend to be logical, thinky people who would rather read while relaxing than daydream.

Still, experts say the strongest predictor of success in hypnotherapy is motivation to change, whether it's quitting smoking, losing weight or dealing with anxiety — the most common issues for which women seek hypnosis. "You don't need to 'believe' in hypnosis for it to work," says New York City psychotherapist Ana Tucker (the hypnogoddess I went to). "You just have to be willing to go through the process."

Many who do like the results. Recent research from North Shore Medical Center in Salem, Massachusetts, found that half of people who used hypnotherapy to stop smoking were still cigarette-free in six months, versus just 16 percent of nicotine-replacement users and 25 percent of people who went cold turkey. As for weight loss, a review of previous research found that people who did hypno- and talk therapy were able to lose more than twice the weight of their counterparts who did talk therapy alone — an average of almost 15 pounds instead of six.

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