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. 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.

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