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How Hypnosis Might Enhance Military Training

Personal Perspective: Reflections from a career as a military linguist.

Key points

  • Low retention rates among military linguist students may improve by teaching them hypnosis.
  • Guided imagery in a military training environment can improve academic and fitness metrics.
  • The low cost and effectiveness of hypnosis makes it an attractive adjunct to military training.
Andrey Popov/Shutterstock
Source: Andrey Popov/Shutterstock

By Ryan N. Marrs, BS, with Ran D. Anbar, MD

This post explores the possibilities hypnosis holds to combat stress and boost performance for servicemembers at the United States Department of Defense’s Defensive Language Institute (DLI), and how this uniquely important population can reap its many benefits by harnessing the inherent power within themselves.

The life of a United States military linguist starts with enrollment in the DLI, which is arguably the most rigorous academic curriculum offered by the Department of Defense.

This unique training boasts that in just over a year’s time graduates reach a four-year degree proficiency level in reading, writing, and speaking of a foreign language all the while gaining cultural competence. However, the curriculum is extremely taxing on students and many do not last until graduation.

To combat the dearth in course completion, the DLI curriculum constantly evolves by reviewing instructional methodology and incorporating successful developments that cater to professional linguists (Savko, 2023). Though great effort is spent each class iteration on enhancing the student experience, the intense nature of the program has remained a constant.

If the language learning tempo cannot waiver, maybe the key to improving linguists’ retention at the DLI lies in developing proficiency in an equally powerful skill: the use of the subconscious through hypnosis.

A History and Tradition of Intensity

Linguists are an integral part of our military’s defense. They translate highly classified, invaluable intelligence in support of foreign missions worldwide and connect with troops and allied forces (Lange, 2018).

This unique skill set makes the military linguist an asset that is always in demand. However, the price to fund training for just one of these language specialists exceeds $200,000. Thus, an enhancement in the training regimen centered on improving retention could help reduce the expenses required to support the DLI.

Once assigned a specific language, servicemembers are subjected to curricula akin to the speed and ferocity of a firehose. Students can expect up to 7 hours a day of formal language learning and one to two hours of homework each night, all while tasked to maintain strict fitness standards and develop their service’s definition of military bearing.

If this isn’t enough, most students are between the ages of 18 and 25; they have left their homes and familial support for the first time and are working to embrace a chosen military family.

To survive all of this stress, DLI students must employ a level of grit, from the first to the last, which is difficult to sustain. Many students become subjected to burnout, which manifests as poor language testing scores, deteriorating physical fitness due to long hours of study, and strain on personal and interprofessional relationships.

This translates to a relatively low course completion rate of 75% (Lange, 2018), and even lower rates for more difficult language curricula.

Making Room for Hypnosis

While I was enrolled at the DLI in 2016, I was subjected to this schedule. For every 50 minutes of formal instruction in class, we were allowed 10 minutes of break to recoup and prepare for the next round of instruction.

I noticed that each student spent their 10 minutes of break differently: Those who needed movement scaled the schoolhouse steps, others sought a bout of shut-eye in an empty room, while others phoned a spouse or a relative for connection.

However varied these responses were, the common thread shared among all students was the hope that their 10-minute-coping strategy would suffice to weather the next 50-minute bout of language acquisition.

I wonder now if those 10-minute breaks spent running laps around the block or closing the lights on oneself in an empty room were the best ways to lower our individual and collective stress. Though I was grateful at the time that the DLI was considerate in respecting my right to these precious breaks, some of these gaps between class periods may be ripe opportunities for resiliency training.

I believe that teaching hypnosis can provide DLI students with a beneficial tool that can be applied during many of those 10-minute breaks.

Hypnosis is the conscious and deliberate tapping into a trance-like state and uses suggestions both verbal and visual to reach a desired outcome, oftentimes a therapeutic one (Williamson, 2019). It allows us to consult the multi-layered mental state better referred to as our subconscious to help us experience what we are capable of achieving, and even has the power to treat anxiety and pain.

Applications of Hypnosis

Techniques like guided imagery have proven effective at managing stress and anxiety by replacing disturbing memories with positive mental imagery (Sanagdol, 2020).

A common induction technique in hypnosis, this form of hypnotic suggestion allows one to visualize a peaceful and calm setting in the mind in which attention is so focused the imagined feels real (Williamson, 2019). In this relaxing state, suggestions can be introduced to work through a stressful scenario and redirect the negative energy into a positive one.

Its application at the DLI could work like this: Perhaps during an hour block of instruction, a student received harsh and blunt criticism by a teacher because of their poor fluency. Following this encounter, if the next 10-minute break was spent in hypnosis, the student may redirect those negative words into a motivating statement aimed at improving fluency; guided imagery can provide a direct visual of them achieving that level they aimed for.

When practiced regularly, these 10-minute breaks add up, and a servicemember could graduate feeling more empowered due to months of positive self-talk instead of bitter and burned out.

Practicing hypnosis also has a positive and significant effect on improving psychological skills (Zaraineh, 2024). If a student is worried about an upcoming test, hypnosis can help them by visualizing performing well during a test and achieving an excellent grade on the day before testing. This may help to combat test day anxiety and boost language scores.

Hypnosis has been used to help athletes enhance training results and competition performance while controlling anxiety and managing stress (Li, 2021). Similarly, hypnosis might be applied to servicemembers seeking to excel in their fitness scores.

Empowering linguists to develop connections with their inner self need not be costly. Techniques to elicit dialogue with the subconscious, engage in positive self-talk, and guiding powerful imagery can be taught in as little as 10 minutes, and do not require expensive devices or repeat professional consults.


In an environment as rigorous and demanding as the DLI, the sense of control over one’s feelings is imperative. Being empowered through the use of hypnosis and the subconscious has great potential to boost and preserve a positive mood. Teaching servicemembers the power of accessing their inner resources in times of adversity can help thwart burnout at the DLI, increase service longevity, and decrease required funding for the unit.

Ryan Marrs is a third-year medical student at Rocky Vista University and a Lieutenant in the US Air Force. He has 5 years of experience serving as a military linguist as a Staff Sergeant.


Lange, K. (2018). 64 Weeks to Fluency: How Military Linguists Learn Their Craft. U.S. Department of Defense.

Li, Z. and Li, S. (2021). The Application of Hypnosis in Sports. Frontier Psychology, 20,

Sanagdol, S., Firouzkouhi, M., Badakhsh, M., Abdollahimohammad, A., Shahraki-vahed, A., (2020). Effect of guided imagery training on death anxiety of nurses at COVID-19 intensive care units: a quasi-experimental study. Neuropsychiatry and Neuropsychology, 15(3), 83-88.

Savko, P. (2023). Instruction. DLIFLC General Catalog 2023-2024. 15.

Williamson, A., (2019). What is hypnosis and how might it work? Palliative Care. 2019. https://doi:10.1177/1178224219826581

Zaraineh, A., Gharamaleki, N. S., Esmaili, A., (2024). The effectiveness of hypnosis training on psychological sills and sports performance. Journal of Motor and Behavioral Sciences, 6(2), 127-137.

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