Medically Reviewed by Benjamin S. Fialkoff, PhD
Clinical Psychologist and Hypnotherapist
Director of the Center for Peak Performance
What Is It?
Hypnosis is a medium or modality through which you may become more alert to and focused on your own thoughts and feelings.
Hypnosis is a medium or modality through which you may become more alert to and focused on your own thoughts and feelings. But it's not all that different from being absorbed in thought or reading a book.
With hypnosis, you are far more open to suggestion, at least to suggestions compatible with what you are motivated to achieve. It is a form of intense receptive concentration. Accordingly, hypnosis often is used to modify behavior and overcome phobias and bad habits—it can help you make changes that you've been unable to make otherwise.
There's no definitive explanation for exactly how and why it works, and experts debate what's involved when you are in a hypnotic state. What seems to happen is that hypnosis allows us to maximize our motivation. More research is being conducted to understand how hypnosis works.
Questions notwithstanding, hypnosis seems to be effective for many people. In fact, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel has endorsed its use for the relief of various types of chronic pain. As a relaxation technique, hypnosis can help reduce your stress. It also can be a useful tool to help relieve phobias, lessen anxiety, break addictions and ease symptoms of conditions such as asthma or allergy. Using hypnosis can help patients control nausea and vomiting from cancer medications and morning sickness, reduce bleeding during surgery, steady the heartbeat and bring down blood pressure.
The history of hypnosis is a long and interesting one. Many ancient cultures—including the Sumerians, Greeks, Druids and Native Americans—induced trancelike states. Modern hypnosis dates to the 18th century, and it started with a man many now consider a charlatan. Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer tried to cure patients by transferring "magnetism," as he called it, from his body to his patients (after putting them in a trance). His theories were quickly discarded, and he was labeled a quack. (His name gave rise to the term "mesmerize.") Unfortunately, he helped create the inaccurate notion that hypnosis was somehow fraudulent.
But not everyone lost sight of the potential. Around the 1840s, James Braid, MD, an English ophthalmologist, coined the term "hypnosis." (It's really something of a misnomer; it comes from hypnos, the Greek word for sleep.) Thanks in part to Braid, interest in hypnotherapy was rekindled. Freud used it early on but eventually rejected it, and the practice again fell out of favor.
In earlier times, hypnosis was practiced with an authoritative style, but eventually, a more permissive, interactive method evolved.
Today, hypnosis is used by many health care professionals, including nurses, anesthesiologists, dentists, surgeons and psychotherapists, who are trained to use hypnosis in their specialties. It's also used to boost creativity, enhance confidence and self-esteem and improve study skills.
Hypnosis, a medium or modality through which you may become more alert to your own thoughts and feelings, can be appropriate for a number of health conditions, especially ones with emotional or psychological components. While the success rate varies, many health care professionals recommend considering hypnosis for the following:
Asthma: Studies suggest that hypnosis may be one useful tool in managing asthma, especially when there are emotional and psychological factors involved.
Burns: Hypnosis can reduce the pain associated with burns and is particularly useful when narcotic pain relievers are either inappropriate or ineffective. The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) takes hypnosis a step further, maintaining that hypnosis can not only ease the pain but, when used early enough, may reduce inflammation and promote healing.
Childbirth: Hypnosis can ease the stress and pain of childbirth. The ASCH says that for some women, hypnosis can work as the sole analgesic for childbirth. It not only eliminates the risk posed by drugs, but it may reduce labor time by two to four hours. (It can be used in conjunction with natural childbirth approaches.)
Chronic pain: A National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel concluded that there was evidence that hypnosis is effective in alleviating some kinds of pain associated with various cancers. The panel also stated that hypnosis can be a part of the treatment program for other conditions, including inflammatory conditions of the mouth, temporomandibular (TMJ) disorders and headaches. It's also used to relieve the chronic pain associated with multiple sclerosis, arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and back problems.
Dermatological problems: Hypnosis has been used for a variety of skin conditions, including warts, itching, acne, dermatitis, eczema, herpes simplex, psoriasis and rosacea. Its use can speed healing. A study in the Archives of Dermatology concluded that in certain patients, it can decrease or eliminate symptoms and, in some cases, cure the condition—or at least send it into remission.
Gastrointestinal disorders: The use of hypnosis has been successfully used to treat various gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers, colitis, Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). A study presented to the American Gastroenterological Association indicated that hypnosis seems to relax the autonomic nervous system, which controls movement in the digestive tract.
Hemophilia: Individuals suffering from hemophilia, a rare blood disorder, often can be taught to use self-hypnosis to control vascular flow and to eliminate the need for a blood transfusion.
Insomnia: Hypnosis, like meditation, biofeedback and other techniques to promote relaxation and reduce stress, is often used to help treat sleep disorders.
Medical/dental visits: Some physicians and dentists use hypnotic changes to relax patients and reduce pain during medical and dental procedures. In the hospital setting, it can help reduce anxiety and enhance healing. According to the ASCH, hypnosis, in rare circumstances, has been used as the sole anesthetic for surgery. But this is not a typical application. Perhaps of more significance to most of us is a study in the British medical journal Lancet indicating that hypnosis reduces anxiety associated with surgery, postoperative surgical pain and complications.
Nausea/morning sickness: For some pregnant women, hypnosis can relieve the nausea and vomiting associated with morning sickness. It can also help reduce the nausea associated with various cancer treatments.
Smoking: Hypnosis is sometimes used to help people quit smoking. A study in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis found that smokers who underwent hypnosis fared better than did smokers who attempted to quit on their own; however, hypnosis didn't seem to be more effective than other smoking cessation treatments.
Other behavioral modifications: Hypnosis may be used for concentration difficulties, test anxiety and learning disorders. It also may be used in treating sexual dysfunction and athletic performance.
Other habit disorders: Hypnosis is used for other addictive behaviors and habit disorders too, including bruxism (teeth grinding) and nail biting. It has generally not been found useful in working with drug and alcohol addictions.
Stress and anxiety: As a relaxation technique, hypnosis reduces stress and anxiety and helps cure phobias. It also can sometimes help you and the therapist come to a better understanding of what's causing the anxiety or phobia.
Trauma: Hypnosis may help with psychotherapy in treating trauma from incest, rape and abuse.
Weight loss: Hypnosis seems to help with low-to-moderate weight loss, but generally only when combined with some sort of behavioral weight-management program.
Not everyone can be hypnotized. Susceptibility varies, and about 10 percent of us can't be hypnotized at all. For most uses, however, it's not essential that you be highly hypnotizable to achieve results.
Hypnosis may not be for you if you have certain psychological conditions—particularly those caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. If you suffer from psychosis, severe depression (or another organic psychiatric condition) or antisocial personality disorder, you should probably not attempt hypnosis. These conditions require different forms of treatment; hypnosis is not considered an appropriate treatment option.
It's important to remember that hypnosis, a medium through which you may become more alert to your own thoughts and feelings, is a not a treatment or a therapy by itself. It can help relieve symptoms, reduce pain and even sometimes speed healing. It's also been effective in changing unhealthy behavior. If, however, you are considering hypnosis for a medical condition, you need to consult with your health care professional, who will most likely recommend that you also continue your regular treatments.
If you are seeking relief for a medical condition, you probably want to find a health care professional—such as a physician, nurse, psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker— who is trained and experienced not only in hypnosis but also with your particular symptom or ailment. Always seek people who have had the maximum training possible in the area in which you are seeking help. Remember, it is your mind they will be working with.
Finding a qualified hypnotherapist isn't that hard. Many health care professionals licensed in other fields practice hypnosis, so chances are good that your health care professional can give you a referral. Two major organizations that are recognized as having high professional standards are The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) and The Society of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (SCEH). Both can provide the names of qualified practitioners in your area:
The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis
The Society of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis
Licensing and governmental regulation vary by jurisdiction. Training requirements vary as well. The ASCH holds members to the following standards:
ASCH certification requires at least a master’s degree in a health care discipline considered appropriate by the society; licensure/certification in the state of practice; membership in a professional society consistent with degree; 40 hours of post-professional-degree workshop training; 20 hours of individualized training and consultation with an ASCH-approved consultant; and two years using hypnosis in clinical practice.
Recognition as an approved consultant necessitates all of the requirements for ASCH plus at least 60 hours of post-degree education and training; five years of practice in clinical hypnosis; and five years of membership in the ASCH, SCEH or an equivalent organization.
The First Session
Most practitioners spend the first session or part of the first session getting to know you, making an assessment of how hypnosis can help you and generally explaining what hypnosis is all about.
It's important that you use this time, before beginning therapy, to determine whether you have a good rapport with the therapist. The therapist will go through the process with you, answering questions and letting you know what to expect. Together, you will discuss what suggestions will be made while you are hypnotized. The therapist may also run a few preliminary tests to determine your ability to be hypnotized. You must be willing to be hypnotized, or it won't work.
When therapy begins, you'll sit, recline or lie comfortably. The room will be quiet, with gentle lighting.
The process begins with what is called induction—that is, being brought into a hypnotic state. To accomplish this, the therapist may use one of several induction techniques that serve to focus your attention. Many of us have seen depictions in movies or TV of hypnotherapists swinging a pocket watch, but today it is more common for a therapist to ask the subject to stare at a small, stationary object—such as a colored thumbtack on the wall. Most therapists use suggestions for relaxation, calm and well-being. Your therapist may ask you to count backward from a certain number. Or perhaps, the therapist will simply direct you to relax, breathe deeply and listen. However it is done, the point is to ease you into a trancelike state in which you are extremely focused and, often, deeply relaxed. Induction can take a few seconds or several minutes.
What does it feel like? It's a very subjective experience that varies depending on the degree of hypnotizability. Some people say it feels like an altered state of consciousness. Others disagree, simply saying they feel focused, calm and relaxed. According to the American Psychotherapy and Medical Hypnosis Association (APMHA), hypnosis is a naturally occurring phenomenon that we go into and out of constantly—for example, while watching an interesting program on TV, reading a book, driving a car or daydreaming. In fact, most people describe the experience as very pleasant.
Being hypnotized is not the same as sleep, becoming unconscious or "passing out," and it's not like an anesthetic. You do not lose control over your mind or your feelings. You do not weaken or surrender your will to any other person. In fact, your willpower may be strengthened with hypnosis, according to the Australian Society of Hypnosis.
Once you are focused, the therapist may, during this or later sessions, make suggestions relating to your particular condition; most likely, the therapist will use mental imagery and visualization exercises. Some of these suggestions may be posthypnotic suggestions: This means that you receive a directive to follow at some later point. You may not remember receiving the suggestion, but if it's something you want to do, you'll carry it out—without necessarily knowing the source of the instruction.
At the end of the session, the therapist will teach or guide you to enter and exit the state of hypnosis. This should be done before the end of the session. You may feel drowsy when you finish the session. You might feel very relaxed or have a strong sense of well-being. If you are seeking pain relief, you may notice less pain. Or you may not feel any immediate change. And you may not remember what transpired during the session—this is called posthypnotic amnesia.
A session can last up to 90 minutes. The number of visits you make depends on what you hope to accomplish. You and the therapist will discuss the details in the first session. The cost of hypnosis varies depending on where you live. Most insurance companies will cover 50 to 80 percent of the therapy, especially if your therapist is a licensed health care professional (and you should only be seeing a licensed health care professional).
During your sessions, the therapist will probably teach you about self-hypnosis. (You can learn this technique from tapes, but most experts advise learning from a qualified therapist.) Self-hypnosis sessions take 30 to 40 seconds to a few minutes and can be done daily. Sometimes, five to 15 minutes or longer may be more therapeutic depending on the problem.
Your hypnotherapist will teach you the proper technique. But the basics are simple: You will sit or lie in a comfortable place and focus intensely. Using imagery, relaxation and breathing techniques, you will bring yourself to a hypnotic state. Once there, you will tell yourself what you need to hear—or listen to a tape with that message.
Facts to Know
There's no definitive scientific explanation for how hypnosis works; research continues into why it's effective.
The term "hypnosis" was coined in the 19th century and comes from hypnos, the Greek word for sleep. However, being hypnotized is not the same as sleep, becoming unconscious or "passing out," and it's not like an anesthetic.
Not everyone can be hypnotized. Susceptibility varies, and about 10 percent of us can't be hypnotized at all.
Hypnosis may not be for you if you have certain psychological conditions— particularly those caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. If you suffer from psychosis, severe depression or another organic psychiatric problem, other treatment options will be recommended and are more appropriate.
It's a good idea to spend some time with the professional to determine whether you will work well together. This can be accomplished either by phone—before coming in for your first visit—or by the end of the first session. If you're uncomfortable in the first session, trust your instincts and don't return.
Sessions with a hypnotherapist can last from 45 to 90 minutes—most are around an hour.
For medical problems, hypnosis should be used in addition to medical diagnosis and appropriate treatments.
Questions to Ask
Review the following Questions to Ask about hypnosis so you're prepared to discuss this important health issue with your health care professional.
What are your professional credentials?
Can you teach me self-hypnosis?
How frequently do I need to meet with you?
How long have you been practicing?
May I bring someone with me?
May I record the session?
What are your credentials as a hypnotherapist? Where were you trained?
What are your fees? Are they covered by insurance?
What is your experience with the problem or condition that is the focus of my concern?
I want to quit smoking. Will hypnosis help?
It may, if you are highly motivated. Studies indicate that it works better than trying to go it alone and as well as any other approach. The problem is that all smoking cessation treatments have low long-term success rates. (Of course, some experts say that for the smoker who really wants to quit, the success rate is 100 percent.)
A hypnotherapist I saw comes highly recommended. But I just don't feel comfortable around him. Is that reason enough to find another one?
Indeed it is. With hypnotherapy, you have to trust your instinct. No matter how good your practitioner is, you need to have confidence in your therapist. Keep looking for one with whom you can feel comfortable.
I'm intelligent and strong willed. Does that mean I can't be hypnotized?
Intelligence isn't a barrier to being hypnotized. Being strong willed may mean that you won't be easily hypnotized, but it doesn't mean it's impossible. Motivation and the ability to concentrate are the most important components to successful hypnotization.
Can hypnosis be used to block a memory?
This happens only rarely. Spontaneous memory blocks usually occur when they are associated with some sort of trauma, not treatment. With highly hypnotizable patients, memories can be blocked, but it's usually a short-term effect.
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