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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 February 2006, 11:26 GMT
Hypnotic steps towards sleep
By Steven Shukor
BBC News

Anna Musgrave
Anna wanted an alternative to pills

Anna Musgrave, a chronic insomniac, thought hypnosis could be the answer to her sleep problems.

After trying acupuncture, yoga, herbal teas and a regimented bedtime ritual, Anna Musgrave was still looking for a way to make her sleep.

Anna, a 28-year-old charity worker from Bere Ferrers, Devon, had developed a reliance on sleeping aids, such as cold and flu remedies and anti-histamines.

And facing a stressful career change - with a new human rights job in a conflict zone - she wanted an alternative to "popping pills" to help her sleep.

Determined to beat her condition, before going to Colombia to work as a foreign observer for the Peace Brigades International, Anna thought hypnotism could tackle the deep-seated issues disrupting her sleep.


So Anna underwent a self-hypnosis training programme, consisting of five one-to-one sessions with a psychologist, at University College London's (UCL) Hypnosis Unit.

Dr Val Walters
Dr Walters teaches self-hypnosis

Psychologist Dr Val Walters, who treated Anna, said initial tests revealed that Anna had a low level of hypnotic-suggestibility, meaning she could not be easily hypnotised.

Dr Walters says individuals respond in various ways to the use of hypnosis - some make dramatic improvements very quickly while others seem to take a little longer.

Over the course of the sessions, Anna worked on self-hypnosis techniques to bring down adrenalin levels, to improve her ability to relax, to reduce her anxious thoughts, and prepare her body for sleep.

"It was clear that anxiety was a problem," said Dr Walters. "High levels of adrenalin make it difficult to sleep."

Bubble blowing

Dr Walters says the self-hypnosis techniques, which all involve imagery, are adapted to the individual's own strengths.

To reach my favourite place, I walk down steps and feel the warm stones under my bare feet and climb into my hammock
Anna's self-hypnosis technique

In Anna's case, visual imagery and sense of touch were important when creating a comfort zone and triggered "good feelings".

"The theory is that she can relax in that place, she can learn to bring that same feeling to mind in other situations," says Dr Walters.

For Anna, the self-hypnosis techniques were particularly helpful, such as a scenario where she imagines she's blowing bubbles in a relaxing setting of her choosing.

"The exercises have improved my concentration," she says. "At work, I'll do the bubble-blowing exercises between tasks.

"They make me more focused on what I'm doing. I'd even do them on the Tube. I can feel an immediate relaxation."

'Favourite place'

Another relaxation aid, was the "favourite place" exercise, again devised using suggestive elements based on Anna's own personal experience.

"I'm lying in a hammock in my parent's garden," says Anna. "I'm reading a book or sleeping. It's hot and really peaceful.

"To reach my favourite place, I walk down steps and feel the warm stones under my bare feet and climb into my hammock.

"I feel the book.... a cat wanders over with its tail in the air..... a dog comes to rest near me."

Dr Walters emphasised the importance of suggesting details such as touch and "actually feeling" the comfort of the hammock.


She also worked on changing Anna's mindset about sleep. "Anna saw her state of anxiety as being permanent," she says. "And that contributed to maintaining her problem."

Anna believed she could only fall asleep if it was completely quiet but, living in a household shared by people coming home at various times of the night, it was this belief which raised her anxiety.

One relaxation technique involves imagining breathing through the feet and feeling the breath make its way slowly up the body, down the arms and out of the hands.

"Hypnosis did provide me with answers," she says. "But it's not provided me with an overnight solution. It's given me techniques and it is up to me to keep working on them."

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