by Bonnie Killip, Master Clinical & Medical Hypnotherapist
Have you ever wondered if hypnotherapy can help with eating disorder recovery? If traditional eating disorder recovery is not progressing, it may be worthwhile considering hypnotherapy as a treatment option.
As a Dietitian and clinical and medical hypnotherapist, often my consults start with addressing people’s questions, concerns, and often skepticism around what hypnosis is. Let’s start by clearing up the common misconceptions.
Hypnotherapy is not a trick nor is it mind control and it is also much more than meditation or relaxation.
Full disclosure: I’ve been one of the skeptics
Until a few years ago hypnosis was not a part of my life. It wasn’t even on my radar. A no-nonsense biomedical scientist, I was only interested in evidence and randomized controlled trials (RCTs).
I did not believe in using personal stories or anecdotal evidence. I believed in nothing that lacked piles of peer-reviewed literature and meta-analyses.
In fact, if I’d even heard the word hypnosis, I’d have most likely tuned it out. Now, I cannot imagine my life without what hypnosis has brought and continues to bring to my world both personally and professionally. Actually, I can, but I’d rather not!
After 15 years of living with anorexia nervosa, clinical hypnotherapy not only saved my life – it gave me a life.
And that’s no longer the most interesting part of my story. Because I now work daily with others who have fallen out of touch with their inner guidance. These people are in positions where all else has failed and they’ve all but resigned themselves to their eating disorders. To live a life of attempting to maintain pseudo-physical health while never being entirely well.
Hypnotherapy for eating disorder recovery
I now have the daily privilege of facilitating people of all ages and life circumstances. I work with all types, from anxious and confused 10-year-olds to perfectionist and overachieving 16-year-olds, to successful 65 year CEOs and 87-year-olds. All of them want to begin the part of their lives where they are finally free to be themselves.
I have both personally experienced and seen first-hand how hypnotherapy can help with eating disorder recovery.
Clinical and medical hypnotherapy offers a direct means by which we can bring about change in an area a person could not change through education, willpower, threats, or motivation alone. The profoundness of what this means in terms of someone’s day-to-day experience of life is high. Because information and knowledge is only part of the picture. It is not until we can put this into practice that we can experience the true benefits.
Clinical and medical hypnotherapy is an effective eating disorder treatment because it:
- Treats the non-logical brain. Eating disorders are non-logical, so it can help to treat them on that level.
- Rewires neural pathways. Eating disorders can create rigid neural pathways that need to be loosened in order to recover.
- Feel good now. Recovery typically feels like chaos, so any method of feeling good during the process helps.
How does hypnotherapy work for an eating disorder?
Hypnotherapy is individually tailored to each person. It can be a powerful way to change beliefs and disruptive behaviors. The focus is on building the skills people need to function at their best versus rehashing past trauma or searching for a cause.
In hypnotherapy, a person is empowered to work on an unconscious and conscious level to change beliefs and behaviors that are interfering with their life. For example, if a person is afraid of food, we would work on decreasing the fear response both subconsciously and consciously. By experiencing the fear and moving through it in the safety of hypnotherapy, the person acquires confidence and fear patterns are reduced or eliminated over time.
This works because the brain cannot tell the difference between an imagined scenario and a scenario that is taking place in the physical world. While it could take months of careful psychotherapy to get a person to face a fear food at the dinner table, we can face the imagined fear food in hypnotherapy rather quickly.
If a person is struggling with binge eating and/or purging behaviors, we could explore the unconscious fears underlying those behaviors. We would practice facing them in a safe, secure environment.
The actual practice of hypnotherapy may include:
- Trance induction (direct or indirect)
- Conversational hypnosis
- Neurolinguistic programming
Hypnotherapy is specifically outcome-focused. We precisely target exactly what it is a person wants to change and then go about bringing about that change.
Here is some more detailed information about the benefits of hypnotherapy:
1. Treating the non-logical brain
An eating disorder is not a logical problem.
Ask anyone with an eating disorder if they are choosing to feel those feelings or do those behaviours. I can guarantee they’re not. There are powerful emotions driving them to not eat, to binge, to over-exercise or whatever it is for them.
If the eating disorder was something you could fix through logic, information and understanding you’d have done so.
Clinical hypnotherapy offers a means by which we can re-establish rapport with the unconscious mind. In more science-y terms, we work with our autonomic nervous system. The goal is to restore back to what your body has known how to do all along before the outside world made you question the innate wisdom of your body.
We’ve all had the experience of being children, and as children, we had no problem connecting to our bodies’ messages. And we have no problem communicating this. As a baby, we don’t think “I’m hungry but I can see mum is tired and busy at the moment, so I’ll just wait”. Nope, we scream and yell until we get that need met!
Reconnecting with our bodies
If we want to be a successful adult, we have to at some point move on and meet those fundamental human needs for ourselves. If we do not, we become disconnected from the signals our body is sending. The body may even stop sending signals. Because, after all, “what is the point of telling her to eat if she will not do it, anyway?”
When we get out of the way, our body is free to do what it has evolved to do. It will steer us towards health naturally and without our micromanagement. You don’t have to think about when and how quickly you want your heart to beat or your lungs to breathe, do you? There are things your unconscious knows how to do much better and with much more ease than your conscious mind.
2. Rewiring neural pathways
Hypnosis offers a direct means of altering neural networks and neural rewiring.
When it comes down to it, this is the crux of eating disorder recovery, and it’s why hypnotherapy can help.
At some point, recovery becomes recovered. And recovered is an entirely fresh way of not just behaving but also, crucially, of thinking and feeling.
The behaviors of an eating disorder often begin as a coping strategy. They are compensation or an attempt to meet a need (to be healthy, good, more confident, or better liked. But with time it turns from conscious choices into unconscious patterns. Hence why it is a disorder. Because the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are no longer under the conscious volition of the person.
The eating disorder then persists at an unconscious or habit level because neurons that fire together wire together.
In recovery we change the structure, not just the function, of the mind. And there are many ways in which we can do this. Exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are the most well-known treatments. But hypnosis often offers a means of changing the structure more quickly and safely than either of these.
Bypassing the habits of an eating disorder
Hypnotherapy bypasses the need for the involvement of the conscious mind. It goes right to where the issue is being maintained: the unconscious mind. The eating disorder thrives not in our prefrontal cortex but in our lower brain areas such as the amygdala.
When I was sick I’d been told by so many therapists and doctors that my brain had changed because of the illness. That I’d been sick so long it most likely wasn’t possible that I could ever fix the damage or recover. What I know now is that the very fact that my mind changed to accommodate the illness meant it was more than possible for it to change back. It could even improve and rewire in all the ways it needed to to be not just free of the illness, but healthier than ever before.
I just needed the means by which to do this. It turned out clinical hypnotherapy helped me recover from my eating disorder.
3. Feel good now
Take a moment to answer this question:
If your child could feel great or good about eating, would they have a problem eating?
The answer is always a resounding yes. And this is why recovery can be so hard for loved ones to understand. It may be hard to imagine, but choosing recovery from an eating disorder is choosing chaos and pain.
To everyone outside of the disorder, recovery is short-term chaos with long-term rewards. But the person in the disorder doesn’t feel like the chaos will ever end. It feels like you are choosing indeterminate chaos and pain with no guarantee that it will have been worth it.
The resistance to the chaos and pain is why recovery can go on and on and on for many people. I know this was my experience until I did eventually find the help that could help. And a lot of this has to do with the fact that it never feels good. If there are no wins, we lose heart, back down, and find ourselves back in old behaviors.
How motivated, inspired, and excited are you to jump into shark-infested water just because someone tells you the island on the other side is incredible? Not much, I imagine. And that’s what it feels like for someone with an eating disorder. Eating feels unsafe, and we are asking them to do it 6 times a day as though it is nothing. Therefore, the way to truly help someone is not by focusing on all that is wrong. Instead, we must increasingly allow them to experience wins that show how recovery is worth it.
Achieve a relaxed, calm state
In hypnosis, we experience eating in a relaxed and calm state. We support the circumstances and situations which in their everyday eating disorder state of consciousness produce extreme anxiety and panic. This teaches the nervous system that they can get through these things safely and feel less panic when eating.
The power of hypnosis is that our minds produce exactly the same response whether we are in a dangerous situation in real life or we imagine being in a dangerous situation on the inside of our minds. Take a moment to imagine biting into a juicy lemon to get a sense of what I mean here. If you really imagine it, you will salivate and maybe make a scrunched-up face.
We don’t know all there is to know about the intricacies of eating disorders. But we know enough to know that education, shame, and blame do not heal.
We know that eating disorders are on the rise. And even our gold-standard treatments often fail those who seek to recover.
If you’ve tried one treatment path and it hasn’t worked, it may be time to expand and experiment with other options. Keep in mind that clinical hypnotherapy is an option. It’s a viable tool that I believe will only become more widely used as we improve our understanding of the human mind and what truly drives our behaviors.
I could never capture in words just how thankful I am that my mum looked outside the box of what was offered to us for years and years and booked me into that first hypnotherapy session.
Kids are great hypnotic subjects because they enter a hypnotic trance easily. They go farther and get a lot done when they get to be the creators of their destiny. I truly believe that building rapport with our unconscious mind is one of the greatest determining factors in how far we go in life. To re-establish this at a young age if it is lost or teetering on the verge of being swamped from ever-increasing messages from the outside world over what to eat, how to look, think, feel, and do, is inconceivably valuable.
Clinical hypnotherapy with a licensed professional offers a safe and controlled environment in which your child or yourself can try out fresh ways of being, something we often don’t otherwise get in the day-to-day rush of life.
Eating disorders are complex, but please do not let complexity lead to undertreatment.
Bonnie Killip is an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD), Master Clinical and Medical Hypnotherapist, and Master Neurolinguistic Programming Practitioner. She offers practical and usable nutrition education for those in recovery from eating issues. As a clinical and medical hypnotherapist, she can help kids reconnect with their inner guidance and develop the internal skills and resources to set them up for a life of emotional regulation, self-love, resilience, and happiness. Website: Fuelling Success.