What Is Hypnotherapy?

Woman lying on couch in hypnotherapist's office
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What Is Hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy is an adjunctive technique that utilizes hypnosis to aid in the treatment of specific symptoms or health conditions. Hypnotherapy works by inducing a hypnotic state marked by waking awareness that allows people to experience detached external attention and to focus on inner experiences.

It is sometimes used as part of a treatment plan for phobias and other anxiety disorders. It is also sometimes used for pain management, weight loss, smoking cessation, and a variety of other applications.

Formal explorations in the therapeutic uses for hypnosis began in the late 1700s but did not gain scientific credibility until much more recently. Modern researchers have further explored how hypnosis can be used, which conditions it can treat, and how effective it may be compared to other treatments.

Techniques

During a hypnotherapy session, people are guided through a process to induce a trance-like state that helps them focus their minds, respond more readily to suggestions, and become deeply relaxed. Hypnotherapy utilizes the heightened awareness of the hypnotic state to help you focus on a problem more deeply. Hypnotherapy utilizes techniques including:

  • Relaxation: You will be guided by the hypnotherapist to visualize yourself in a state of peacefulness and relaxation, even when confronting a problematic behavior or the object of your fears.
  • Suggestion: Your hypnotherapist may make gentle suggestions for behavior changes that can help you conquer your issue. For example, you may be taught to see yourself as a supportive advisor during a phobic reaction, thus learning to trust yourself and your ability to get through the situation.
  • Coping skills: You may be taught certain cognitive-behavioral coping skills, such as guided imagery and the STOP! technique, that you can use when confronting fears or anxieties.
  • Exploration of past experiences: You may even be encouraged to talk about the first time you experienced the behavior or problem that you are trying to overcome and how you felt at that moment.

What Hypnotherapy Can Help With

There are many different reasons why a person might want to try hypnotherapy. Research suggests that some possible applications include:

  • Chronic pain conditions
  • Dementia symptoms
  • Nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy
  • Pain during childbirth, dental procedures, or surgery
  • Skin conditions, such as psoriasis and warts
  • Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Hypnotherapy may also be used by licensed physicians and psychologists in the treatment of conditions like anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Hypnotherapy may also be helpful for changing or reducing problematic behaviors. Because of this, it is sometimes used to help people quit smoking, lose weight, and sleep better.

Benefits of Hypnotherapy

Some people may experience dramatic results with hypnotherapy. In other cases, people may simply feel very relaxed. Some of the benefits of hypnotherapy may include:

  • Awareness: Some people remain fully aware during the entire experience. They recall everything that happens and are even able to have conversations while under hypnosis. Other people may experience states of relaxation that are so deep that they may even feel detached from what is happening. 
  • Focus: Most of the time, we are distracted by our surroundings. Whether the TV is blaring, your kids are demanding attention or your spouse wants to talk, it can be difficult to fully focus on yourself. Our conscious minds are also cluttered. You may be worried about paying a bill, concerned about an upcoming project, or planning tonight’s dinner. The therapy session is intended to break through these day-to-day concerns and allow you to focus completely on the problem at hand.
  • Relaxation: In the hypnotic state, you are deeply relaxed. Your conscious mind is quieted, allowing your unconscious mind to deeply focus on your issue. You are also calmer, and therefore more receptive to facing your problems or fears.

Most hypnotherapists utilize a series of calming messages, such as "you are safe" and "no one can harm you" to reassure their clients that during hypnosis they can objectively face their problems without having a panicked reaction.

Effectiveness

The effectiveness and impact of hypnotherapy can vary based on the individual and how the treatment is used. Hypnotherapy has been shown to have some degree of efficacy for certain applications, particularly:

  • Pain reduction and control during dental procedures and childbirth
  • Reduction in nausea and vomiting in individuals being treated for cancer with chemotherapy
  • Reduction in the severity of symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

While it may help people cope with problems related to stress and anxiety, it may be best applied when used in conjunction with first-line treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medications.

The results of a study published in the May 2021 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders found that hypnotherapy was not less effective than CBT for treating mild to moderate depression. The results indicated that where CBT led to a 38.5% reduction in symptom severity, hypnotherapy resulted in a 44.6% reduction.

As researchers continue to explore the potential uses for hypnotherapy, this technique may gain greater acceptance in the treatment of various conditions.

Things to Consider

While hypnotherapy is generally safe and well-tolerated, that does not mean that it doesn't pose some potential risks, such as: 

  • Hypnotherapy can produce false or distorted memories in some cases.
  • People who are very suggestible may experience a decreased sense of personal control while under hypnosis.
  • Some people can experience side effects such as anxiety, headaches, or dizziness.
  • Hypnotherapy may not be appropriate for people who are experiencing symptoms of psychosis such as hallucinations and delusions.

For these reasons, it is important to always first consult your doctor before you decide to try hypnotherapy. Also, be sure to only try hypnotherapy under the supervision and guidance of a qualified professional.

Common Misconceptions

Hypnotherapy is still considered controversial, as many mental health professionals dispute its effectiveness. There are a number of myths and misconceptions about hypnotherapy that can affect how people view this therapeutic tool.

  • Hypnotherapy is often confused with stage hypnosis. Stage hypnotists are performers who are excellent at reading people. They seek extroverts who will put on a great show for the crowd. Whether or not their subjects are truly hypnotized is debatable, but they are willing to go along with the sometimes outrageous suggestions of the stage hypnotist.
  • Hypnotherapy doesn't cause you to forget what happened. You will remember the things that occur during your hypnotic state, you will not be asleep or unconscious, and you will be able to break the hypnotic trance at any time.
  • Hypnotherapy doesn't cause you to lose control. During hypnotherapy, you remain in control. It is not possible for anyone to force you to do anything against your will, even under hypnosis. You will be tuned in to the work at hand, and so may not pay attention to your surroundings, but you will always be in charge of your own actions, behaviors, and statements.
  • Being hypnotizable doesn't mean you are less intelligent. While some people believe that they cannot be hypnotized, research suggests that most people are hypnotizable to a certain degree. Only about 10% of people are difficult or impossible to hypnotize. 

How to Get Started

There are several ways to find a reputable hypnotherapist. Word of mouth is always a great way to find any practitioner. Your mental health practitioner may be licensed to perform hypnotherapy or they may know someone who is. If you know someone who has undergone this type of therapy, ask about their experiences. Keep in mind, however, that some hypnotherapists only focus on particular issues, so a friend’s therapist may not be right for you.

Although the practice continues to be controversial in some circles, many experts believe that hypnotherapy can work. Discuss this treatment option with your healthcare provider. Also be sure to check with your insurance company before proceeding, as not all insurers cover it.

Search online for a hypnotherapist in the United States, Great Britain, or parts of Europe in the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists database. This organization is responsible for the certification of hypnotherapists and is careful to keep the database up to date.

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8 Sources
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