You Are Not Getting Hungry …: Using Hypnosis to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain

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You are getting sleepy … you are getting in touch with your subconscious … you are going to skip the dessert table at your company’s holiday party … in fact, you do not even like desserts.

Are you concerned about holiday weight gain? Looking to relieve seasonal stress? Forget the conventional diets and new gym memberships. Many people, it seems, are turning to hypnosis to tackle wellness and beauty issues like weight loss, fitness ruts, smoking addictions, insomnia and more.

Some would say that hypnosis, or hypnotherapy (the use of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool by a licensed therapist), has been practiced for centuries. But its new mainstream popularity can most likely be attributed to celebrities who have called out hypnosis as a cure-all. (Reese Witherspoon used hypnosis to conquer her insecurities when tackling her role in “Wild.” Olivia Munn went to a hypnotist for obsessive-compulsive disorder and to amp up her workout routine. Fergie uses it for healthful eating.) For most people, though, hypnosis is a last resort after more traditional methods have failed.

Danielle Chiel, for one, was having difficulty sleeping. A fashion industry executive with a hectic globe-circling schedule, she had tried the usual jet-lag solutions. Her inner clock was on the fritz.

Ms. Chiel said she would lie awake all night: “My kids were like, ‘Why not take a sleeping pill?’ But I’m not really into drugs.”

On the recommendation of a friend, she sought out Elena Mosaner (formerly Ms. Beloff; she married in November), a hypnotist in Manhattan. Last month, Ms. Chiel had a session with Ms. Mosaner and was thrilled to report that she slept soundly the next 10 nights.

Or consider Flora DeCandia’s experience with Ms. Mosaner. A business manager in McAllen, Tex., she recently flew to New York to treat her sugar fixation.

“I was a binge-eating sweets person,” she said. “I would eat a pack of cookies. I would devour a bag of trick-or-treat candy. I thought, ‘I need to get a hold of this.’”

After seeing Ms. Mosaner for two sessions (approximately 45 minutes each), Ms. DeCandia said she was shocked to find she had zero compulsion for sweets. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said.

A Russian-American, Ms. Mosaner, 36, is a certified hypnotist who has steadily built a following since 2006, mostly through word of mouth. (Hypnotists are not licensed, but organizations like the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists offer certification programs.) When Ms. Mosaner started her Upper East Side practice, hypnosis was largely on the fringe. But as interest in alternative therapies has grown, so has the traffic through her office door. Most of her clients are seeking help for weight and stress management.

“In New York, people are concerned with their weight year-round,” she said. “It’s not just the holidays.”

Unlike the image many people have of hypnosis — a hypnotized person performing silly acts he or she does not remember later — a session with Ms. Mosaner runs more like guided meditation. Once a client is relaxed, Ms. Mosaner repeats previously agreed-upon affirmations. For Ms. DeCandia, that included phrases like: “I say no to sugar. I’m now in control.”

After the session, Ms. Mosaner sends tapes to the client or assigns daily affirmation exercises. Most issues can be solved in about two sessions, she said. For smoking cessation, she often needs only one.

Despite the rave reviews, some in traditional medicine are skeptical about what hypnosis achieves. Often there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what hypnosis is, said Sera Lavelle, a psychologist who incorporates hypnotherapy into her practice in New York. (Only about 5 percent of the population can be hypnotized as in stage acts, Dr. Lavelle said.) And some medical professionals see it simply as meditation, which can probably be accomplished less expensively elsewhere. (Ms. Mosaner charges $200 an hour, and Dr. Lavelle bills $200 to $275 for a 50-minute session.)

But Dr. Lavelle says that combining traditional psychotherapy and hypnosis can break particularly stubborn habits. In her practice, she has had some success using the combination for patients with eating disorders.

Success data, scarce to begin with, can also be skewed. “These people who are seeing a hypnotist are making a concentrated effort to lose weight or to change a sleep habit,” said Julia Samton, a neuropsychiatrist in New York. “You are selecting for a certain group. In general, hypnosis is not meant to be a diet per se, and it’s not supposed to replace other treatments for insomnia.”

It is also unclear how long the effects of hypnosis may last. Some adherents report “snapping out of it” after experiencing success initially.

Still, doctors like Holly Phillips, a general internist in Manhattan, refer patients to hypnotists. “In broad strokes, I found that the majority of my patients seemed to find the hypnosis experience to be a positive and even enjoyable one,” Dr. Phillips said. “They described it as stress-reducing and emotionally refreshing. I recall one patient called it a ‘mental reset.’”

But she too cautioned that hypnosis was not a panacea. Dr. Phillips said that for her patients who wanted to quit smoking, the ones “who got the most out of the therapy were those who were deeply committed to quitting or who had already recently quit.”

Hypnotherapy worked for Zach Monson, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, who quit smoking marijuana after seeing the hypnotist Kerry Gaynor ($250 a session). “It was starting to seriously interfere with my life,” Mr. Monson said.

Unlike Ms. Mosaner, Mr. Gaynor was direct, cutting to the heart of Mr. Monson’s smoking problem as soon as he was in a hypnotic state. “It was very blunt and clinical in that he started telling me all these harmful facts about smoking,” Mr. Monson said. “It was almost like a lecture.” Nine months later, he is still not lighting up.

“The rational side of me wants to say, ‘You were ready to do it anyway,’” Mr. Monson said. “But this is the longest I’ve ever gone without smoking.”