What Is It?
How Does It Work?
What You Can Expect
Health Benefits
How To Choose a Practitioner
Evidence Based Rating Scale

What Is It?

The word "hypnosis" is derived from the Greek hypnos meaning "sleep." Actually, you're not asleep when hypnotized, but rather are in a trancelike state of restful alertness. This stae is accompanied by an extreme openness and receptivity to suggestion. Hypnotherapy is the use of hypnosis for self-improvement and/or healing. All hypnotherapy employs hypnosis, but not all hypnosis is hypnotherapy.

The origins of hypnosis date back to the ancient Chinese and Egyptians, who used it in religious rituals and as a medical treatment. The first modern-day medical uses of the therapy weren't recorded until the late 18th century, however, when the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who was working in France, introduced what he called Mesmerism (the origin of the modern word "mesmerize").

Mesmer believed the body contained "animal magnetism" and that imbalances in "magnetic fluids" through the bodycould cause a variety of diseases. He claimed he had the ability to cure certain ailments by manipulating these subtle energies using iron filings and magnets, as well as soothing words and gestures. Not surprisingly, Mesmerism was rapidly discredited by a panel of physicians and academics, including Benjamin Franklin, who was living in France at the time.

Probably because Mesmer was such a showman, his theory was relegated to the realm of parlor tricks and stage shows. However, a number of physicians in both France and England did not totally dismiss his work. To avoid any negative associations with Mesmerism, however, they introduced instead the terms hypnosis and hypnotherapy. In the 1890's, the British Medical Association approved hypnotherapy as an appropriate adjunct therapy for several conditions. Research papers documenting the benefits of hypnotherapy and even a clinical textbook appeared in the 1930's. However, it was until the 1950's that both the American and British Medical Associations actually recommended hypnotherapy for a variety of both physical and emotional conditions.

Hypnosis reached a new level of acceptance by the scientific world in 1995, when a National Institutes of Health (NIH) assessment panel wrote that there was enough research evidence to support its usein treating peoplewho are experiencing chronic pain (1). The assessment panel also recommended that hypnosis patients be reimbursed by insurance companies.

How Does It Work?

How hypnosis actually works is debated, but the commonly accepted theory is that the mind has two parts, the conscious and the subconscious. During hypnosis, hypnotherapists help subjects to reach their subconscious mind by entering into a trancelike state.

The hypnotic state is not nearly as mysterious as it sounds. People go into trancelike states all the time. For example, musicians and artists can become so engrossed in their work that they lose track of time. Readers often become totally immersed in the pages of a good novel. Drivers pass their exits on the freeway while daydreaming. These day-to-day experiences are similar to the hypnotic state.

Psychologists and hypnotherapists separate the trancelike state into three distinct stages. The first stage is a superficial trance. Although your eyes may be closed, you are very much aware of your surroundings, and unless instructed to the contrary, you'll remember the entire event. During this superficial stage, you can accept suggestions, such as giving up cigarettes, or eating less. But because the trance is so light, you may not act on the suggestions. For example, people attending group hypnotherapy sessions for smoking cessation may be seen lighting up a cigarette as they leave the building.

The second stage--known as the alpha state--is significantly deeper. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration slow, and the therapist can control your response to pain or allergies, or even alter your immune system. In the alpha stage, instructions to stop smoking can really be effective.

The third stage used mainly by psychiatrists, is deeper still. In this stage, you can be mentally directed back in time, remembering events from your past with extreme clarity. This technique, termed "age regression," can be helpful for revealing painful memories that may be responsible for emotional or physical problems. Numerous studies document how the emotional pain of physical or sexual abuse during childhood can be suppressed by the mind yet manifest itself in a variety of chronic medical conditions.

A few physicians and hypnotherapists believe that the trance depth of the third stage can be so profound that the patient may actually remember events from previous incarnations. Practitioners of this controversial Past Life Therapy believe that physical and emotional problems may have their source in unresolved conflicts from previous lives. More conventional psychiatrists explain the recalled "past life" events as simply a resurfacing of long-forgotten movie plots, TV shows, and stories that people incorporate into their own lives. During hypnosis, they are unable to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Because hypnosis deals with the subconscious, a frequently raised concern is that the therapist can somehow take control. In fact, the hypnotist is really just a facilitator; there can be no hypnosis unless the subject is fully willing to participate. In fact, the goal of hypnosis is for the subject to gain control--over behavior, emotions, or physiological processes. In order for hypnotherapy to be truly successful, the subject must learn to master self-hypnosis in order to employ the technique whenever needed.

After a few training sessions with a hynotherapist you will learn to place yourself in a hypnotic state, implant positive suggestions, and then leave the hypnotic state. Although some people seem to have a greater ability to focus their attention using self-hypnosis than others, most people can markedly increase this ability with practice. Audio and video tapes can also enhance the process.

What You Can Expect

People who have been hypnotized usually say it's a much more subtle process than they expected. A hypnotist, for instance, cannot make you quack like a duck or do anything else you don't want to do. Far from putting you under a "spell," a good hypnotherapist will enable you to harness your own mental energy. Hypnotized, you will probably actually feel more alert than you ordinarily do. At the same time, however, you will be in a state of profound relaxation. Most people find the experience quite pleasurable.

Three conditions need to be met for hypnosis to be successful: a comfortable environment without distractions, a good rapport between you and the hypnotist, and a willingness on your part to be hypnotized. Your therapist will most likely begin the first session by asking you about your expectations and the problems for which you are seeking help.

A hypnotic trance can be induced in a number of ways. Probably, the therapist will ask you to sit in a comfortable reclining chair and will use a soothing tone of voice to induce relaxation. Once your body is thoroughly relaxed and your mind is diverted from the external environment, the therapist will make suggestions to your unconscious mind that will support your goals. Because hypnosis works best when the patient also learns a self-hypnosis technique and faithfully practices it, the therapist will teach you techniques for going into a trance on your own.

Your first hypnosis session will last from 60 to 90 minutes. At this session, you and the therapist may concentrate on refining your ability to use your hypnotic capability. Subsequent sessions will probably last 60 minutes or less. The time it takes to go into a trance and the number of sessions needed vary for each individual. For most people, five to 10 sessions with a hypnotherapist, along with practice on their own, are sufficient for reaching a particular goal.

Health Benefits

Clinically, the hypnotic trance is mainly used to change unwanted behaviors, such as smoking, overeating, or overreacting to stress. Studies are controversial, however, as to its ultimate benefits for smoking and weight loss. Specifically hypnosis may help: 

  • Speed recovery from surgery. A review of studies suggests that hypnotism may help the patient reduce symptoms of pain, and anxiety associated with surgery. Changes were also seen in the rate of blood loss, heart rate normalization and length of hospital stay needed for recovery (2). More studies will be needed to replicate these findings but, since hypnosis produces little to no side effects it may be an easy way to bounce back after surgical procedures.
  • Help children and adults deal with stress and discomfort during medical procedures. Children and adults who suffer from chronic diseases such as cancer, endure frequent medical tests and procedures which can be physically and emotionally painful. Hypnosis may offer those battling a chronic disease, a way to control the pain and distress associated with routine medical procedures (3-5). The evidence for these conditions is small and the populations are not varied enough to be able to recommend hypnotism as a beneficial adjunctive therapy for all patients. More research is needed including larger sample sizes and greate variety of people to determine who may receive the most benefit from hypnotherapy.
  • Aid in weight loss. Although the current evidence is weak, small trials of patients showed increased amounts of weight loss with hypnotherapy than with placebo (6). More studies are needed to determine if the small increases in weight loss can be attributed to the effects of hypnotherapy, and if so how much weight loss can be expected with adherence to a hypnotherapy regimen.
  • Relieve pain during childbirth. Systematic reviews have found that women who use hypnotherapy during childbirth may need less or no analgesic medication as they rate their experience of labor pains as less severe than women not-using hypnotherapy (7). As many women are electing to use “natural” childbirth, they may want to look to hypnotism as a safe and effective way to control pain without conventional labor drugs.
  • Overcome dental anxiety. Some people experience extreme anxiety when confronted with the prospect of going to the dentist, so much so that they discontinue regular dental check-ups. As these check-ups are essential to long-term dental health, hypnotherapy may offer a viable alternative for people who cannot control their anxiety when faced with the prospect of impending dental treatment. A 3 year study on people with extreme dental anxiety found that 54.5% of study participants undergoing hypnotherapy treatment were able to resume and maintain regular dental habits (8). If you suffer from serious dental anxiety, you may want to try to learn self hypnosis as a method to overcome the panic generated by dental visits.
  • Treat pain in phantom limbs. People undergoing amputation often report that they still feel the amputated limb as if it were still attached to their body. Doctor’s are not sure if this reaction originates in the brain or in the nerves, but for a small subset of the population who experience pain in the imaginary limb the lack of conventional treatment can be excruciating problem. A review of two cases suggests that hypnotherapy may be an adjunctive useful treatment in helping patients with phantom limb pain come to terms with pain and better incorporate their sensations into their mental representation of their body (9). The pain in phantom limb may not be all in your head, and hypnosis may help you integrate these perceptions better in order to control and reduce the disability of this perplexing condition.
  • Encourage people to quit smoking. The majority of research trials on hypnotherapy for smoking cessation have not shown a significant benefit over placebo (10). Currently, the lack of research evidence prohibits hypnotherapy from being recommended a beneficial treatment for tobacco dependence.
  • Reduce chronic pain. Several medical conditions cause people to suffer from constant chronic pain such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and even cancer. In a study funded by the NIH's Office of Alternative Medicine, researchers taught a self-hypnosis technique to people suffering from chronic back pain. By practicing the technique regularly, these patients were able to reduce their pain sensation by 80%. They also said they felt significantly less depressed and were able to sleep better at night. 

How To Choose a Practitioner

Because very few states regulate the practice of hypnosis, almost anyone can call himself a hypnotist. Choosing the right practitioner is extremely important because, although hypnosis doesn't put you under anyone's "control," your success or failure with the therapy will depend significantly on the competence of the practitioner and the relationship you are able to establish.

Your best bet may be to get a referral from a friend or to find a medical professional who specializes in your problem and also works with hypnosis. Clinical hypnotists--practitioners who are licensed in a field of specialty such as medicine, nursing, psychology, or social work and use hypnosis--must also meet the stricter standards of their professional fields. Organizations such as the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) or the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (SCEH) are the only nationally recognized organizations for licensed health care professionals using hypnosis. Ask potential practitioners if they are members of these organizations. An entry level practitioner who is certified by ASCH will be called a “certified” practitioner, while a person holding advanced certification (based on a combination of training and experience) will be called an “approved consultant.”

The qualifications for ASCH entry level certification are: an MD, DDS, DMD, DO, DPM, PhD, PsyD, or equivalent doctoral degree with psychology as the major study, or a masters degree in nursing, social work, psychology, counselling, marriage and family therapy from a college or university accredited by its appropriate regional accrediting body; membership in a professional society consistent with degree; licensure or Certification by the state; Minimum of 40 hours of ASCH approved workshop training (20 hours each of beginning and intermediate workshops); minimum of 20 hours of individualized training/consultation with an ASCH Approved Consultant and minimum of two years of independent practice utilizing clinical hypnosis.

ASCH approved consultants must meet all of the above requirements including: minimum of 60 additional hours of ASCH approved workshop training; minimum of five years of independent practice utilizing clinical hypnosis and minimum of five years of membership in ASCH, SCEH, or equivalent. For more information on these standards or to find a certified practitioner near you visit the ASCH website at: or the SCEH website at: 


 Hypnosis doesn't work for about 10% of the population, so there's a small chance it won't work for you.

 Although hypnosis is a safe practice for most people, the World Health Organization cautions against the use of this practice by anyone suffering from psychosis, a psychiatric condition, or an antisocial personality disorder.

 Hypnosis is an adjunct to therapy, not a therapy in itself. If you are in pain or suffering from an undiagnosed illness, it's important that you seek medical attention

Evidence Based Rating Scale

The Evidence Based Rating Scale is a tool that helps consumers translate the findings of medical research studies with what our clinical advisors have found to be efficacious in their personal practice. This tool is meant to simplify which supplements demonstrate promise in the treatment of certain conditions. This scale does not take into account any possible interactions with any medication/ condition/ or therapy which you may be currently undertaking. It is therefore advisable to ask your doctor before starting any new treatment regimen.

Date Published: 04/19/2005
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