What is hypnotherapy?
Hypnotherapy is a treatment tool most often used by psychotherapists or counselors. During a hypnotherapy session, the therapist guides the client into a state of hypnosis, or intense, focused concentration. Once the client is under hypnosis, the therapist works with the client to uncover and resolve psychological issues.
While in a hypnotic state, many people find themselves more relaxed and open than during their normal daily lives. This can be particularly useful during a psychotherapy session, as a client may find themselves more willing to explore psychological difficulties or conflicts than they would normally be. People struggling to alter habits like smoking or overeating may also find that they are more successful at changing after a course of hypnotherapy, in part because their minds can be more susceptible to new ideas while under hypnosis.
Hypnotherapy is performed by licensed health professionals who have an additional certification in hypnotherapy. It can be used as a method to help treat virtually any psychological or behavioral health issue, from addiction to depression and anxiety to insomnia.
The practice can also help improve or resolve some physical health issues, especially those that are often connected to stress or anxiety, such as gut or digestive problems. Hypnotherapy has also been found to be effective for treating chronic pain in some cases. Some doctors and dentists also incorporate hypnosis or hypnotherapy into their practices, as it can benefit patients before and after surgery.
Some people respond well to hypnotherapy, others are less affected by it, and some are unable to enter a hypnotic state at all.
However, for those who are able to be hypnotized, the effects can be profound. One well-known study found that people who were treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (the most common form of psychotherapy) while in a hypnotic state experienced significantly better treatment outcomes than those who received the same therapy in a normal state of mind. The study reviewed a wide range of conditions and found that this held true across the board.
What?s the difference between hypnosis and hypnotherapy?
Hypnosis is simply the practice of bringing someone into a hypnotic state. This can be done for any reason. Hypnotherapy, meanwhile, is the process of being hypnotized by a licensed health professional such as a therapist, as a part of a psychotherapy session or other wellness work. The goal is to help improve your mental, emotional and physical health and boost your overall quality of life.
"A lot of people think hypnosis is about mind-control!" says Lynda Richtsmeier Cyr, PhD, LP, an integrative clinical pediatric psychologist and hypnotherapist in Minnesota. "Actually, hypnotherapy is about focused attention. The goal is to teach skills the individual can learn for themselves and do at home, to control a habit, reduce pain or anxiety, or fall asleep more easily at night, for example. Hypnosis can work really well for children, teens, and adults."
For more information on differences, read: Difference Between Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy
How does hypnotherapy work?
Hypnotherapy is a method of calming, relaxing and focusing your mind. To many people, a hypnotic state feels different from their normal state of mind. You are conscious and remember everything, but feel more free, focused and secure as well?similar to what some people experience while meditating.
Essentially, hypnosis can help you lower some of the psychological defenses that almost everyone normally has up, while in a safe space and guided by a trained professional. This has the potential to help you feel more comfortable exploring psychological issues and more able to alter behaviors that you may wish to change.
Hypnosis is an ancient practice that had been used for thousands of years by societies all over the world and was traditionally practiced by healers, priests or shamans. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews, and Chinese, among other cultures, all incorporated hypnosis into their religious, spiritual or healing practices.
In the 19th century, Scottish physician James Braid coined the term hypnosis, describing the term as "the sleep of the nerves." He used hypnotic techniques to help prepare his patients for surgery. His goal was to help them feel less afraid and more relaxed. Today, some doctors and dentists continue to use hypnosis as a way to help their patients prepare to undergo medical procedures.
When psychotherapy was developed in the late 19th century, some therapists began incorporating hypnosis into their treatment approaches, a practice that became known as hypnotherapy. The work of psychiatrist Milton Erickson helped hypnotherapy gain widespread acceptance during the 20th century. Hypnotherapy has since continued to be used as a way of exploring psychological issues or facilitating psychoanalysis, or as a means of helping people change or alter behaviors.
Using hypnosis as a part of psychotherapy sessions has been found to be effective for some people. Studies support the use of hypnotherapy for treating conditions ranging from depression and anxiety to phobias. There is also significant research testifying to the efficacy of hypnosis and hypnotherapy in working with pain. Much of the research on hypnotherapy is based on case studies, as some researchers have noted that hypnotherapy does not lend itself well to traditional double-blind scientific studies, because the relationship between the hypnotherapist and client is so important to achieving success.
However, the actual science behind hypnosis is not fully understood. Hypnotism is a phenomenon that has been well-documented by science as well as history, and it is clear that once in a hypnotic state, a person is often more open to performing psychotherapeutic work or changing their attitudes about something that they ordinarily might be. But the exact brain mechanisms behind hypnotism?what actually happens in your brain to bring you into a hypnotic state?are largely a mystery.
Some studies have shown that hypnotism changes how the brain operates. Suggestions delivered under hypnosis can prevent parts of the brain from activating as they normally would when exposed to certain stimuli. But because hypnotic states are so closely related to the overall phenomenon of consciousness?which is itself not understood by science?there is not yet a clear scientific consensus on what a hypnotic state really is.
Hypnotherapy is practiced by certified hypnotherapists. In order to receive certification, an individual must be a licensed health professional such as a doctor, psychologist or clinical social worker, and complete training in hypnosis and hypnotherapy.
A hypnotherapy session typically begins with the client and therapist discussing what they want to work on that day. The therapist then guides the client into a hypnotic state, using techniques similar to those used in a guided meditation. This usually includes instructing the client to focus their attention on what is going on in their body, such as breathing or sensations, as well as slowly relaxing their muscles. The therapist then engages in some form of psychotherapy or counseling focused on what the client and therapist previously discussed. The client remains fully conscious and awake the entire time and remembers everything that happens during the session. The therapist concludes the session by bringing the client back out of the hypnotic state and discussing the experience.
Suggestion hypnotherapy is a form of therapy in which the therapist brings the client into a hypnotic state, then works with the client to alter harmful or unwanted behaviors. Because the client is in the hypnotic state of mind, they may feel much more open to following the therapist?s suggestions and exploring psychological issues that could be leading them to engage in harmful behaviors, like smoking, self-harm or drug use. These issues could include repressed memories, past traumas, or other concerns the client may not feel comfortable or even be able to work within a normal state of mind.
Analysis hypnotherapy uses the same hypnotic techniques but is different in focus from suggestion hypnotherapy. During an analysis hypnotherapy session, the goal isn't to work with any particular behavior or problem, but to more deeply explore the client's past. This can include going through the client?s whole life story, or a specific incident or trauma.
There are many other types of hypnotherapy. To get more information on the different types, read: Types of Hypnotherapy
Benefits of hypnotherapy
There are medical benefits of hypnotherapy. Hypnotherapy can benefit most conditions that are treated with psychotherapy, including:
- Trauma or PTSD
- Phobias like fear of flying
- Insomnia and other sleep disorders
- Stage 4 cancer
- Breast cancer
Hypnotherapy as also been found to be effective at treating chronic pain, as well as helping people prepare for and recover from surgery. Hypnotherapy has also been used as a tool for working with behaviors like smoking.
Hypnosis doesn't work for everyone - some people are able to enter a hypnotic state more successfully than others. However, for people who are able to be hypnotized, hypnotherapy can be a useful way of digging more deeply during a psychotherapy session or approaching issues that have been difficult to treat with standard therapy.
Read more about the benefits of hypnosis.
Sleep disorders and insomnia
Hypnotherapy can be a useful tool for people struggling with insomnia or other sleep disorders. Some people have found that hypnotherapy can help them to relieve the anxiety that may be keeping them awake, and otherwise help their minds to relax and prepare for sleep. Some studies have specifically recommended hypnosis combined with cognitive behavioral therapy for treating sleep disorders.
Learn more about hypnosis for sleep and insomnia.
Various forms of psychotherapy are a common method of treating anxiety. Adding hypnosis to a psychotherapy session can help the client go deeper, uncovering and exploring issues that may be causing their anxiety. Research has found that psychotherapy combined with hypnosis often has a better treatment outcome than psychotherapy alone.Learn more about hypnosis and anxiety.
Similar to anxiety, hypnotherapy can be a way of improving standard psychotherapeutic treatments for depression. Depression is often the result of feeling mentally and emotionally stuck in one way or another. Receiving therapy under hypnosis can help you see and understand what could be causing that while in a safe, relaxed state of mind.
Learn more about hypnosis and depression.
For Children and Teens
Hypnotherapy can work very well with children and teens as well as adults. Children can be taught skills to reduce pain and anxiety, cope more effectively with bullying, reduce stress, and improve sleep, for example?in other words, effective coping strategies to change habits, patterns, and outcomes.
It can empower children as it does adults, giving them greater self-confidence and sense of control over difficulties. Dr. Richtsmeier Cyr says, ?Children and teenagers go into their imaginations so easily. As adults, we have more barriers. Children love that it can help them be the boss of their problem.? She uses technology effectively with her patients, recording skills on their phones so they can more easily practice at home.
Trauma and PTSD
When people experience something truly traumatic, their natural instinct is to push away the feelings and memories of the event. But this means those feelings just get stuck in the body, where they can manifest as symptoms such as PTSD, physical pain, or depression. Because being under hypnosis can help people feel both secure within themselves and open-minded, hypnotherapy can help you to safely connect with and release past traumas.Learn more about hypnosis and PTSD.
Because hypnotherapy can be an effective way of breaking habits, it is often recommended as a tool to help people quit smoking. While under hypnosis, long-time smokers might be more open to quitting than normal, which can help that intention become more deeply ingrained in their minds. They also have the opportunity to work through fears and emotional blocks around quitting. Some smokers also find that hypnotherapy can help them experience fewer cravings, or learn to see cigarettes as repulsive.
Learn more about hypnosis and smoking cessation.
Losing weight typically means making significant changes to your lifestyle. This can include eating different foods, becoming more physically active, and changing when and how much you eat. Essentially, losing weight often means cultivating new habits. Hypnotherapy can help you release old habits around food, and develop new ones. A hypnotherapy session can also be an opportunity to explore long-held beliefs and attitudes around food.
Learn more about hypnosis and weight loss.
Chronic pain typically has both physical and emotional components. Hypnotherapy can both help resolve underlying emotional issues that could be manifesting as pain, which can result in less pain in the body. Hypnotherapy can also help people to learn to pay less attention to any pain they might be feeling.
Hypnotherapy can help treat addiction and support those in recovery. Some people find that hypnotherapy can reduce their cravings for drugs or alcohol. It can also be a way of working with underlying emotional pain that could be encouraging addictive behaviors.
Hypnotherapy for surgery or dentistry
Some doctors and dentists use hypnotherapy to help their patients prepare for or recover from surgery. Hypnotherapy can help you to feel more relaxed and safe going into a surgical or dental procedure. Post-surgery, studies have found that hypnotherapy can help people recover more quickly.
The causes of physical gut and digestive health issues often include emotional components. Some people suffering from digestive health complaints, such as IBS, have found that hypnotherapy can help improve or even eliminate their symptoms, by helping them to explore and release emotional pain and stress. Hypnotherapy can also help people to make dietary or lifestyle changes that can support better digestive health.
Learn more about hypnosis for IBS.
Safety and side effects
There are no safety concerns or side effects to being hypnotized in a therapeutic setting. However, hypnotherapy may not be appropriate for everyone, especially people suffering from psychosis or other severe mental health disorders. Some hypnotherapy experts also note that memories recovered under hypnosis may not be reliable and that leading questions by a therapist to a client in a hypnotic state can result in the client inventing memories that never actually occurred at all.
Information for Caregivers and Children
National Pediatric Hypnosis Training Institute (NPHT)
Kirsch, Irving, Guy Montgomery, and Guy Sapirstein.
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1995
Ng, Beng-Yeong, and Tih-Shih Lee.
Annals, Academy of Medicine, Singapore, 2008