Margaret, a 90-year old (not a typo!) musician from Manhattan, has been tobacco-free for a whopping 26 years, after a pack-a-day smoking career that spanned six decades. She'd quit before, cold turkey, but lasted only two days before she relapsed. Years later, she decided to try hypnosis at the recommendation of a trusted friend. "It wasn't scary," she remembers. "I was quite unaware that I was being hypnotized. The hypnosis was just deep enough for everything she said to take root. She told me that I shouldn't ever touch another cigarette, not to think I can smoke and get away with it, and that one cigarette can restart the addiction over again. It was very easy. I was really quite surprised." Margaret hasn't taken a puff since.
While the findings about the efficacy of hypnosis on smoking are often murky, studies on the matter have shown increasingly positive results. Even Matt Damon and Charlize Theron have gotten in on the act. And the folks offering the service aren't bearded men dangling pocket watches and telling you how heavy your eyelids are getting, or seeing patients in dingy basements outfitted with lava lamps and burning incense. Rather they're people with advanced degrees who practice in the same kinds of clinics where you'd see your shrink or your ophthalmologist; rates usually start at around $80 per hour and can go as high as $200 (most practitioners recommend between one and four sessions).
But what, exactly, are these hypnotherapists doing?
While there as many different hypnosis techniques as there are brands of cigarettes, a typical program will usually begin with a phone consultation, followed by an in-person session where the client is walked through breathing and visualization exercises and then "induced" into a "trance" -- which is essentially a state of extreme relaxation. Once the patient is in the trance, and his "suggestibility" is maximized, the practitioner makes statements ("I am uninterested in cigarettes" or "I hate the smell of smoke on my clothing") that will hopefully take root and change the client's behavior. Then the client is "awakened," or brought out of the hypnotic state. In short, a hypnotherapist verbally guides a client to a hyper-responsive, hyper-attentive state in which the patient's subconscious mind (the part that tells them that smoking is cool and totally worth it) is in its most persuadable state, and then replaces the harmful or unwanted thoughts with positive, healthy ones.
Santa Monica, California-based clinical hypnotherapist Dr. John McGrail says, "The subconscious mind is similar in function to a computer hard drive. It takes information in, records it, and plays it back. Hypnosis creates a receptive mind where we can take out what's not working and put in new software."
McGrail believes that the approach Margaret took should work for most people: "It uses the power of the mind to change the behavior, and it is the mind that creates the addiction to smoking 10, 20, or 30 cigarettes a day. In hypnosis, we're using that same power, much like a computer, to make those changes." McGrail finds out what he needs to know about the person's relationship with tobacco: history, triggers, and motivations for stopping. "The suggestions I give while I verbally guide them through their program make them start thinking about smoking as something they don't want -- or have -- to do," he explains. Instead, they can choose appropriate outlets for the energy they once devoted to smoking. For example, Jonathan, a 34-year-old database manager from Atlanta who'd smoked for 16 years when he decided to quit with the help of a $1.99 app on his iPhone, washed his clothes -- even when they were clean -- instead of lighting up. He also performed breathing exercises when he was tempted. A little silly, sure, but infinitely better for him than a pack of Parliaments.
The program he followed consists of an introductory video, several audio sessions, and an e-book. "There was all this imagery and counting down and clouds," he says. "I would fall asleep listening." It might all sound a little new agey, but Jonathan hasn't had a cigarette in a year -- besides a few weeks of cheating at the six-month mark. There wasn't even a major time commitment -- he would fall asleep a few minutes into the sessions every night, and he found himself smoke-free within days of starting the program.
Hypnosis is not a silver bullet, of course. Several years ago, Nelson, a 39-year-old banker from New York City, attended a group hypnosis session in Boston with several friends who were also trying to quit smoking, and they were all hypnotized en masse. He says, " didn't crave cigarettes for a good four months afterwards. Something in my mind turned it off: didn't want it, didn't need it." Then, after a minor car accident, he ran to the corner bodega to grab a pack. "I smoked to calm myself down," he recalls. While the hypnosis was effective, Nelson felt like his choice to smoke or not smoke was being dictated not by him but by an outside force in a way that made him uncomfortable. He has no plans to try hypnosis again.
Margaret, Jonathan, and Nelson: three different smokers with three very different hypnosis experiences. But all quit -- at least for a while. Is there a common thread? And why did it work for Margaret and Jonathan, but not for Nelson?
According to Dr. Ken Grossman, a clinical hypnotherapist in Sacramento, "The only quality that makes someone a good candidate for hypnosis is that they want to stop. What makes someone a poor candidate is that they have no desire to stop." McGrail agrees, adding, "There are very few people that will not allow themselves to be led into a hypnotic state." While this may sound far-fetched to skeptics, think of it as the sort of state you're in when you're driving and miss your exit -- that's a mild form of hypnosis in and of itself. What these therapists do is just deepen the experience, using our natural capacity for dropping into trance-like states.
While the science might not fall in favor of hypnosis' effects, the experiences of Margaret and Jonathan speak loudly to its potential. What's important is that those considering hypnosis perform some due diligence. Becoming a hypnotherapist isn't like becoming a doctor where there's a set curriculum and a series of nationally recognized qualification tests; rather there are variety of ways to become "certified," ranging from traditional schools to online courses. One of the most respected certification-givers is the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners. McGrail cautions that hypnotherapy isn't regulated in California or most other states. "There are a lot of people that call themselves certified that are not well-trained or competent," he says. "While they can't do any harm, they won't do any good. Do your homework."
There is also a range of options available, from one-on-one meetings to phone sessions to CDs and tapes. McGrail and Grossman agree that while potentially useful, recordings are not usually as effective as personal sessions. And there's no shortage of opinions on the best ways to quit smoking; the gamut runs from hypnotherapy to Zyban and Nicotine Anonymous.
But if there's everything all health professionals agree on, it's this: put down the smokes, any way you can, no matter how silly you feel about being hypnotized or obsessively chewing Juicy Fruit or starting talk therapy with a counselor. Don't feel foolish if you start describing yourself as "smober," as some NicA members do. It may be corny, but getting sober while continuing to smoke is tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: a nice way to relieve stress in the moment but an activity that's still going to take you down.
Nina Emkin holds degrees from UCLA and Sarah Lawrence College and has written for DipDive and Citysearch. She currently lives in Los Angeles and also wrote for The Fix about relapse and coming out as an alcoholic.