Surprise, surprise: Our DIY version of hypnosis never really worked. And, as an adult, I’ve never considered that I could use hypnosis for something practical, like making my time at the gym a little more intentional. But that’s the idea behind self-hypnosis app Reveri, co-created and voiced by psychiatrist and Stanford University professor David Spiegel, MD, one of the foremost experts on hypnosis in the United States.
Experts In This Article
Reveri (priced at $15 per month) offers a wide range of hypnosis exercises designed to help users do things like log better sleep, quit bad habits, and eat intuitively. I was curious about how self-hypnosis for exercise might help my fitness, so in a month-long experiment, I took advantage of the apps’ pre- and post-workout sessions purported to “tune your mind and body for optimal athletic performance” and help you “relive successful aspects of your routine and examine areas to focus on next time.”
When I began using Reveri, I was smack dab in the middle of a rigorous, three-month bouldering training plan. For the unordained, bouldering is a form of rock climbing that is performed on “short” walls (about 15 feet high on average) without a rope. This movement style requires both power and raw strength, and it can be tough on the body. Committing to using a tool that would help me set my intentions both before and after my workouts felt like a smart idea—especially since Dr. Spiegel is an esteemed medical professional (not a clown).
And so I decided to… get… very… sleepy—I mean—VERY… MOTIVATED… and start my journey of self-hypnosis. Here are my honest thoughts about how it went.
What is self-hypnosis?
Over the years, popular culture has portrayed hypnosis as a form of mind control that strips people of their free will. According to clinical hypnotherapist Julie Costa, that portrayal couldn’t be further from the truth. “[Hypnosis] is a tool to tap into your inner knowing or your subconscious mind to help you achieve your goals more easily,” she says. “In simplest terms, hypnosis is the act of entering a state of deep relaxation. It is a natural state that many of us actually enter several times a day, like when we daydream.”
“In simplest terms, hypnosis is the act of entering a state of deep relaxation.” —Julie Costa
In self-hypnosis, you guide yourself into this state of fixed attention through breathwork, a focal point, a visualization, or another focusing technique. “The goal is to relax your body so that you can then relax your mind,” says Costa. “This allows you to bypass your critical faculties and open the doors to your subconscious mind.”
On Reveri, Dr. Spiegel helps you enter self-hypnosis mode by asking you to look up, shut your eyes, and take a deep breath. After that, he instructs you to raise a hand in the air that will stay up over the course of the hypnosis as you “enter your subconscious mind.”
While the whole process may sound a bit airy, hypnosis is grounded in a lot of solid scientific research. In a phone interview, Dr. Spiegel references one 2017 study in which he and a team of other researchers placed high and low-hypnotizable people in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. Some participants were placed in a hypnotic state before entering, while others weren’t—allowing the doctors a peek at what was happening in the brains of those in hypnotic mindsets.
First, Dr. Spiegel and his team noticed that the brains of those under hypnosis showed less activity in the cingulate cortex, which processes acute stimuli like loud noises. These same participants’ brains also displayed hyperconnectivity between the executive control region and the prefrontal cortex, a sensitivity that may allow people to better control the relationship between their bodies and their brains. For example, when perceiving pain, those under hypnosis may be able to pause before they react to that pain.
“The third thing that happens [in hypnosis] is a disconnect between the executive control region and the back part of that cingulate cortex, which we call the ‘default mode network,’” says Dr. Spiegel. Similar to the effect of mindfulness, this disconnect allows you to imagine new possibilities for your life and relationships without judgments, says Dr. Spiegel.
“I like to think of hypnosis as a kind of childlike peak state that some of us aren’t able to reconnect with as we get older,” says Dr. Spiegel.
The benefits of pre-workout hypnosis
These effects make hypnosis a good practice before any focus-driven activity, whether it be a run, a pickleball game, or a climbing session. “Entering a state of hypnosis before a workout has so many benefits,” says Costa. “While in hypnosis, you can visualize yourself working out, receiving the benefits of doing so, and achieving your health and fitness goals.”
Dr. Spiegel says that this process also allows you to focus less on the outcome of a workout and more on how your body is feeling at each moment. “You’re not sitting back and acting like the coach saying, ‘Oh, come on, you can do it!’ You’re just engaging in what it feels like to let your body do what it wants,” he says. This feels similar to slipping into a flow state or achieving a “runner’s high,” he adds.
My experience trying hypnosis for exercise before workouts
I started my Reveri journey on a hard training day. My climbing program requires one workout each week of trying problems (bouldering routes) on a 9 or 10 effort level—and this means that I fall. And fall. And fall again. Even with the giant bouldering mats below to catch me, tumbling on repeat is both physically and mentally taxing. So, I downloaded Reveri and started the “Prepare for Your Workouts” hypnosis.
One of the great things about Reveri is that each exercise comes with the option to interact or just listen to the practice, which can be helpful if you’re out in public and want to remain under the radar. Since I would be completing my workout at the gym, I opted to simply listen in to Dr. Spiegel in the yoga room. I sat in a crisscrossed position, as I would in meditation, and Dr. Spiegel counted me into a hypnotic state with one hand hovering in front of me.
The hypnosis itself felt similar to deep meditative states I’ve experienced before in longer mindfulness sessions, in yin yoga classes, and on long runs. My body felt buoyant as my thoughts drifted farther away, and Dr. Spiegel asked me to visualize the movement patterns I would need for a successful workout ahead. I pictured different climbing holds and how they would feel against my hand. I pictured engaging my core to help me stay on the wall. I pictured executing the final, exhausting movement I would need to finish a problem.
Once I opened my eyes, I found that my focus had sharpened. My to-do list for the rest of the day no longer had a front-row seat in my mind, and I walked up to the climbing walls with a presence I hadn’t felt in a while. As Dr. Spiegel said, I found myself focused on each individual movement instead of questioning whether or not I would make it to the top. To be clear, I still fell (many times!), but I no longer felt like I was fighting my way up the wall. I was just reaching for one hold, then the next one, and the next. Sometimes, I missed a hold completely. Sometimes, I couldn’t quite reach it. Sometimes, I couldn’t hold on. But I found myself comparing my progress to other “better” boulderers less and less as my workout continued.
Once I opened my eyes, I found that my focus had sharpened.
After that, I made a ritual of running through the hypnosis before starting my warm-up. On some days, I really believed that the hypnotic state itself was the reason I felt more in tune with my body. And on others, it seemed like just getting my intentions straight before the start of the workout was where the magic really happened. Either way, the experience of adding Reveri to my routine made me go deep on the “why” behind my bouldering workouts.
I discovered that I don’t climb because I want to be the strongest person in the gym or because I want to be able to scale tiny plastic handholds (imagine that). I just love the movement itself. The act of making calculated decisions about where to place a hand or foot next so I can stay on the wall—if only for a moment longer. I love it when I surprise myself and complete a hard move or discover that a problem that looks like a puzzle from the ground could be cracked with enough focus.
In other words, I don’t need someone to “hypnotize me” into enjoying my time at the gym. I just need a practice that helps clear away the brain smog so I can remember one simple truth: I already really freaking love this.
- Jiang, Heidi et al. “Brain Activity and Functional Connectivity Associated with Hypnosis.” Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991) vol. 27,8 (2017): 4083-4093. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhw220