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When you think of hypnosis, you probably picture a mustachioed magician with a swinging pocket watch who compels his subjects to cluck like a chicken upon awakening. But in antithesis to this Hollywood typecast, hypnosis actually is a valuable, research-supported tool used to harness the power of the brain. For athletes, it can be used to instill confidence, erase doubt and enhance performance. Best of all, you can do it yourself — no necromancer required.
In simple terms, self-hypnosis is a state of heightened consciousness characterized by deep relaxation and an increased receptivity to suggestion. It’s about gaining, not losing, control over your subconscious mind, which cannot differentiate between real or imagined experiences. The more control you have over your imagination, the more you’re able to influence your real-life actions.
Connecting your brain so intimately with your body can result in an actual physical outcome: Several studies reveal that the mere act of imagining yourself performing a sport or skill causes electromyographic activity in your muscles, telling them to fire in a particular pattern. Your brain then remembers those neural sequences and forms a sort of cognitive blueprint, which your body can then tap into when it comes time to act. The more clearly you can “see” yourself doing your sport and achieving the outcome you desire, the more likely you’ll be able to physically realize your vision.
Most elite athletes practice visualization when preparing for an event, using all their senses to formulate what the experience will be like and what they want to happen. Self-hypnosis takes this concept one step further, tapping into your deeper mental faculties to develop new habits and behaviors while also helping release unproductive or even destructive emotions and habits, with the goal of succeeding.
If you want to try it for yourself, follow these simple steps as outlined by Jack Harley, student of therapeutic neuroscience at Oxford University:
1. Get comfy. Make sure you’re in a quiet space with as few distractions as possible where you can focus and promote a feeling of calm. “Sit in a soft chair with your legs and feet crossed,” Harley suggests. You also can lie down, but avoid falling asleep.
2. Relax from head to toe. Think of a warm ball of energy moving through your body from top to bottom and everywhere in between. “Focus awareness on any tension you find and release it sequentially,” Harley says.
3. Digging deeper. As you relax, picture yourself slowly descending a staircase or walking down a pathway to your favorite place. Allow yourself to become more and more relaxed and calm as you move along and don’t rush. Give yourself up to 10 minutes to achieve a state of deep mental and physical relaxation. You should feel as if you’re in a daydream.
4. Be suggestive. Once you’re in this trance-like state, it’s time to speak to your subconscious. “Suggestions are simple but clear statements about what you may do differently in a challenging situation,” Harley says. “These suggestions take effect after your self-hypnosis session is finished and can help you achieve your goals.” Experts recommend starting your suggestions with the phrase “I am” — I am stronger. I am confident. I am faster.
5. The silver linings playbook. Keep your suggestive phrases in mind as you imagine your ideal scenario in as much detail as possible. See yourself lifting that weight, winning that race and doing the perfect pirouette. Throughout, repeat the “I am” suggestions you want to inscribe in your subconscious to associate with this scenario.
6. Return to your usual level of alertness. When you’re ready to return to reality, count backward from 10 to 1, repeating your “I am” statements or offering others to seal the deal — I am fitter, I am capable, I am successful.
There’s no set prescription for self-hypnosis in terms of frequency or duration, but the more you practice, the easier it becomes to reach that hypnotic state and the more effective it will be.