Hypnotherapy (sometimes called hypnotic suggestion) is a therapeutic practice that uses guided hypnosis to help a client reach a trance-like state of focus, concentration, diminished peripheral awareness, and heightened suggestibility. This state is similar to being completely absorbed in a book, movie, music, or even one's own thoughts or meditations. In it, a person is unusually responsive to an idea or image, but they are not under anyone’s “control.” Instead, a trained clinical hypnotherapist can help clients in this state relax and turn their attention inward to discover and utilize resources within themselves that can help them achieve desired behavioral changes or better manage pain or other physical concerns. Eventually, a client learns how to address their states of awareness on their own and in doing so, gain greater control of their physical and psychological responses.
The American Psychological Association and American Medical Association have recognized hypnotherapy as a valid procedure since 1958, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has recommended it as a treatment for chronic pain since 1995.
To learn more, see Hypnosis.
When It's Used
Hypnotherapy is an adjunct form of therapy, meaning it is typically used alongside other forms of psychological or medical treatment, such as traditional modes of talk therapy. But hypnotherapy can have many applications as a part of treatment for anxiety, stress, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, substance abuse including tobacco, sexual dysfunction, undesirable compulsive behaviors, mood disorders, and bad habits. It can be used to help improve sleep or to address learning disorders, communication issues, and relationship challenges.
Hypnotherapy can aid in pain management and help to resolve medical concerns such as digestive disorders, skin conditions, symptoms of autoimmune disorders, and the gastrointestinal side effects of pregnancy or chemotherapy. Research has found that surgical patients and burn victims can achieve reduced recovery time, anxiety, and pain through hypnotherapy. It can also be used by dentists to help patients control their fears before procedures or to treat teeth grinding and other oral conditions.
What to Expect
Although there are different techniques, clinical hypnotherapy is typically performed in a calm, therapeutic environment. The therapist will guide you into a relaxed, focused state, typically through the use of mental imagery and soothing verbal repetition. In this state, highly responsive to constructive, transformative messages, the therapist may guide you through recognizing a problem, releasing problematic thoughts or responses, and considering and ideally accepting suggested alternate responses before returning to normal awareness and reflecting on the suggestions together.
Is someone undergoing hypnotherapy unconscious?
No. Unlike dramatic portrayals of hypnosis in movies, on TV, or on stage, you will not be unconscious, asleep, or in any way lose control of yourself or your thoughts. You will hear the therapist’s suggestions, but it is up to you to decide whether or not to act on them.
Can hypnotherapy be dangerous?
In the real world, the practice of hypnotherapy is not as scary, simple, or powerful as its pop culture depictions. Hypnosis by a trained therapist is a safe alternative or supplement to medication. It is not a form of mind control—which is impossible to achieve. Clients remain completely awake throughout hypnotherapy sessions and should be able to fully recall their experiences. They also fully retain free will. If a therapist’s “post-hypnotic suggestion” is effective, it’s because they are suggesting something the client wants to achieve and, in their relaxed state, that individual is better able to envision and commit to a suggested positive path to change.
Negative side effects are rare but can include headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, and feelings of anxiety or distress. In rare cases, hypnotherapy could lead to the unconscious construction of “false memories,” also known as confabulations.
Can children benefit from hypnotherapy?
Yes. Some practitioners argue that children are better candidates for hypnotherapy than are adults because they are more receptive and can accrue lifelong benefits from the tecnique. Hypnotherapy in children has been shown to have positive outcomes include coping with physical illness such as cancer, overcoming cognitive challenges such as stuttering and dyslexia, performance training and coping with depression and anxiety-based disorders. Children are able to master techniques for self-calming and gain a sense of self-efficacy in so doing.
How It Works
Hypnosis itself is not a form of psychotherapy, but a tool that helps clinicians facilitate various types of therapies and medical or psychological treatments. Trained health care providers certified in clinical hypnosis can decide, with their patient, if hypnosis should be used along with other treatments. As with psychotherapy, the length of hypnosis treatment varies, depending on the complexity of the problem.
Is being hypnotizable a sign of mental weakness?
No; in fact, in the context of hypnotherapy, greater “hypnotizability” is a distinct advantage. While this trait varies widely among individuals, it is not the only factor that contributes to the success of the practice. As with any other therapeutic tool or approach, hypnotism always works best when the client is a willing participant. Such openness is important, because even people with high levels of hypnotizability may require multiple sessions to begin to see progress. Children, however, are generally more readily hypnotizable than adults and may respond to hypnotherapy within just a few visits.
Are changes achieved through hypnotism real and sustainable?
Yes, they are as real as any other change achieved through talk therapy techniques in that they are fundamentally cases of mind over matter. Comparable to someone experiencing the benefits of the placebo effect, the successful hypnotherapy client is self-healing: The physiological and neurological changes achieved may not have come from a medication but they are just as real.
Are there people who can’t be hypnotized?
Yes. As many as one in four people are unhypnotizable; for such individuals, hypnotherapy is unlikely to be effective. Brain imaging studies have revealed differences in patterns of brain connectivity between those who respond to hypnotism and those who do not. Specifically, scans of individuals who can be hypnotized show heightened co-activation between the executive control center in their prefrontal cortex and another part of the prefrontal cortex that flags the importance, or salience, of events.
Others who could conceivably be hypnotized also may not respond to the technique because of deep skepticism of it or resistance to enter a hypnotic state.
Can you hypnotize yourself?
Yes, and it can be a safe way to relax and re-establish a sense of control in stressful moments, or address unwanted or harmful behaviors. Once someone has learned the techniques of healthy hypnotic suggestion, typically from their own hypnotherapist, all that is required is a quiet space, openness, and practice. A hypnotherapist may provide clients with audio recordings to use at home reinforce messages learned during sessions.
What to Look for in a Hypnotherapist
Look for a hypnotherapist who is a member of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) or the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. To be a member of either of these organizations, a hypnotherapist must have a doctorate-level degree in medicine, dentistry, or psychology, or a master’s degree in nursing, social work, psychology, or marital/family therapy plus a specific number of hours of approved training in hypnotherapy. In some cases, accredited, doctoral-level practitioners of alternative health care, such as traditional Chinese practices, may also be approved for membership. In addition to seeking proper at qualifications, you should also aim to find a hypnotherapist with whom you feel confident and comfortable in a therapeutic relationship.