What is Hypnosis?

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What is Hypnosis?

People have been pondering and arguing over hypnosis for more than 200 years, but science has yet to fully explain how it actually happens. We see what a person does under hypnosis, but it isn’t clear why he or she does it. This puzzle is really a small piece in a much bigger puzzle: how the human mind works. It’s unlikely that scientists will arrive at a definitive explanation of the mind in the foreseeable future, so it’s a good bet hypnosis will remain something of a mystery as well.

But psychiatrists do understand the general characteristics of hypnosis, and they have some model of how it works. It is a trance state characterized by extreme suggestibilityrelaxation and heightened imagination. It’s not really like sleep, because the subject is alert the whole time. It is most often compared to daydreaming, or the feeling of “losing yourself” in a book or movie. You are fully conscious, but you tune out most of the stimuli around you. You focus intently on the subject at hand, to the near exclusion of any other thought.

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.

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.

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.

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 andself-esteem and improve study skills.

In the everyday trance of a daydream or movie, an imaginary world seems somewhat real to you, in the sense that it fully engages your emotions. Imaginary events can cause real fear, sadness or happiness, and you may even jolt in your seat if you are surprised by something (a monster leaping from the shadows, for example). Some researchers categorize all such trances as forms of self-hypnosis. Milton Erickson, the premier hypnotism expert of the 20th century, contended that people hypnotize themselves on a daily basis. But most psychiatrists focus on the trance state brought on by intentional relaxation and focusing exercises. This deep hypnosis is often compared to the relaxed mental state between wakefulness and sleep.

Early Hypnohistory

People have been entering hypnotic-type trances for thousands and thousands of years; various forms of meditation play an important role in many cultures’ religions. But the scientific conception of hypnotism wasn’t born until the late 1700s.

The father of modern hypnotism is Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician. Mesmer believed hypnosis to be a mystical force flowing from the hypnotist into the subject (he called it “animal magnetism“). Although critics quickly dismissed the magical element of his theory, Mesmer’s assumption, that the power behind hypnosis came from the hypnotist and was in some way inflicted upon the subject, took hold for some time. Hypnosis was originally known as mesmerism, after Mesmer, and we still use its derivative, “mesmerize,” today.

In this special mental state, people feel uninhibited and relaxed. Presumably, this is because they tune outthe worries and doubts that normally keep their actions in check. You might experience the same feeling while watching a movie: As you get engrossed in the plot, worries about your job, family, etc. fade away, until all you’re thinking about is what’s up on the screen.In conventional hypnosis, you approach the suggestions of the hypnotist, or your own ideas, as if they were reality. If the hypnotist suggests that your tongue has swollen up to twice its size, you’ll feel a sensation in your mouth and you may have trouble talking. If the hypnotist suggests that you are drinking a chocolate milkshake, you’ll taste the milkshake and feel it cooling your mouth and throat. If the hypnotist suggests that you are afraid, you may feel panicky or start to sweat. But the entire time, you are aware that it’s all imaginary. Essentially, you’re “playing pretend” on an intense level, as kids do.

In this state, you are also highly suggestible. That is, when the hypnotist tells you do something, you’ll probably embrace the idea completely. This is what makes stage hypnotist shows so entertaining. Normally reserved, sensible adults are suddenly walking around the stage clucking like chickens or singing at the top of their lungs. Fear of embarrassment seems to fly out the window. The subject’s sense of safety and morality remain entrenched throughout the experience, however. A hypnotist can’t get you to do anything you don’t want to do.

But what is it that makes this happen? In the next section, we’ll look at the most widely accepted theory of what’s going on when you become hypnotized.

What Lies Beneath

The predominant school of thought on hypnosis is that it is a way to access a person’s subconscious minddirectly. Normally, you are only aware of the thought processes in your conscious mind. You consciously think over the problems that are right in front of you, consciously choose words as you speak, consciously try to remember where you left your keys.

But in doing all these things, your conscious mind is working hand-in-hand with your subconscious mind, the unconscious part of your mind that does your “behind the scenes” thinking. Your subconscious mind accesses the vast reservoir of information that lets you solve problems, construct sentences or locate your keys. It puts together plans and ideas and runs them by your conscious mind. When a new idea comes to you out of the blue, it’s because you already thought through the process unconsciously.

What’s in a Name?

James Braid, a 19th-century Scottish surgeon, originated the terms “hypnotism” and “hypnosis” based on the word hypnos, which is Greek for “to sleep.” Braid and other scientists of the era, such as Ambroise-Auguste LiebeaultHippolyte Bernheim and J.M. Charcot, theorized that hypnosis is not a force inflicted by the hypnotist, but a combination of psychologically mediated responses to suggestions.

In the proper nomenclature, hypnosis refers to the trance state itself, and hypnotism refers to the act of inducing this state and to the study of this state. A hypnotist is someone who induces the state of hypnosis, and a hypnotherapist is a person who induces hypnosis to treat physical or mental illnesses.

Your subconscious also takes care of all the stuff you do automatically. You don’t actively work through the steps of breathing minute to minute — your subconscious mind does that. You don’t think through every little thing you do while driving a car — a lot of the small stuff is thought out in your subconscious mind. Your subconscious also processes the physical information your body receives.

In short, your subconscious mind is the real brains behind the operation — it does most of your thinking, and it decides a lot of what you do. When you’re awake, your conscious mind works to evaluate a lot of these thoughts, make decisions and put certain ideas into action. It also processes new information and relays it to the subconscious mind. But when you’re asleep, the conscious mind gets out of the way, and your subconscious has free reign.

Psychiatrists theorize that the deep relaxation and focusing exercises of hypnotism work to calm and subdue the conscious mind so that it takes a less active role in your thinking process. In this state, you’re still aware of what’s going on, but your conscious mind takes a backseat to your subconscious mind. Effectively, this allows you and the hypnotist to work directly with the subconscious. It’s as if the hypnotism process pops open a control panel inside your brain.

In the next section, we’ll see how this theory fits in with the characteristics of hypnosis.

Hypnosis Suggestion

In the last section, we examined the idea that hypnosis puts your conscious mind in the backseat, so you and the hypnotist can communicate directly with your subconscious. This theory has gained wide acceptance in the psychiatric community, mostly because it explains all the major characteristics of the hypnotic state so nicely.

It provides an especially convincing explanation for the playfulness and uninhibitedness of hypnotic subjects. The conscious mind is the main inhibitive component in your makeup — it’s in charge of putting on the brakes — while the subconscious mind is the seat of imagination and impulse. When your subconscious mind is in control, you feel much freer and may be more creative. Your conscious mind doesn’t have to filter through everything.

Hypnotized people do such bizarre things so willingly, this theory holds, because the conscious mind is not filtering and relaying the information they take in. It seems like the hypnotist’s suggestions are coming directly from the subconscious, rather than from another person. You react automatically to these impulses and suggestions, just as you would to your own thoughts. Of course, your subconscious mind does have a conscience, a survival instinct and its own ideas, so there are a lot of things it won’t agree to.

The subconscious regulates your bodily sensations, such as taste, touch and sight, as well as your emotional feelings. When the access door is open, and the hypnotist can speak to your subconscious directly, he or she can trigger all these feelings, so you experience the taste of a chocolate milkshake, the satisfaction of contentment and any number of other feelings.

Additionally, the subconscious is the storehouse for all your memories. While under hypnosis, subjects may be able to access past events that they have completely forgotten. Psychiatrists may use hypnotism to bring up these memories so that a related personal problem can finally be resolved. Since the subject’s mind is in such a suggestible state, it is also possible to create false memories. For this reason, psychiatrists must be extremely careful when exploring a hypnotic subject’s past.

This theory of hypnosis is based mostly on logical reasoning, but there is some physiological evidence that supports it. In the next section, we’ll look at some of the physical data researchers have gathered on hypnosis.

Waves and Hemispheres

In numerous studies, researchers have compared the physical “body signs” of hypnotic subjects with those of unhypnotized people. In most of these studies, the researchers found no significant physical change associated with the trance state of hypnosis. The subject’s heart rate and respiration may slow down, but this is due to the relaxation involved in the hypnotism process, not the hypnotic state itself.

There does seem to be changed activity in the brain, however. The most notable data comes from electroencephalographs (EEGs), measurements of the electrical activity of the brain. Extensive EEG research has demonstrated that brains produce different brain waves, rhythms of electrical voltage, depending on their mental state. Deep sleep has a different rhythm than dreaming, for example, and full alertness has a different rhythm than relaxation.

In some studies, EEGs from subjects under hypnosis showed a boost in the lower frequency wavesassociated with dreaming and sleep, and a drop in the higher frequency waves associated with full wakefulness. Brain-wave information is not a definitive indicator of how the mind is operating, but this pattern does fit the hypothesis that the conscious mind backs off during hypnosis and the subconscious mind takes a more active role.

Researchers have also studied patterns in the brain’s cerebral cortex that occur during hypnosis. In these studies, hypnotic subjects showed reduced activity in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex, while activity in the right hemisphere often increased. Neurologists believe that the left hemisphere of the cortex is the logical control center of the brain; it operates on deduction, reasoning and convention. The right hemisphere, in contrast, controls imagination and creativity. A decrease in left-hemisphere activity fits with the hypothesis that hypnosis subdues the conscious mind’s inhibitory influence. Conversely, an increase in right-brain activity supports the idea that the creative, impulsive subconscious mind takes the reigns. This is by no means conclusive evidence, but it does lend credence to the idea that hypnotism opens up the subconscious mind.

Whether or not hypnosis is actually a physiological phenomenon, millions of people do practice hypnotism regularly, and millions of subjects report that it has worked on them. In the next section, we’ll look at the most common methods of inducing a hypnotic trance.

You’re Getting Sleepy

Hypnotists’ methods vary, but they all depend on a few basic prerequisites:

  • The subject must want to be hypnotized.
  • The subject must believe he or she can be hypnotized.
  • The subject must eventually feel comfortable and relaxed.

If these criteria are met, the hypnotist can guide the subject into a hypnotic trance using a variety of methods. The most common hypnotic techniques are:

  • Fixed-gaze induction or eye fixation – This is the method you often see in movies, when the hypnotist waves a pocket watch in front of the subject.
    The basic idea is to get the subject to focus on an object so intently that he or she tunes out any other stimuli. As the subject focuses, the hypnotist talks to him or her in a low tone, lulling the subject into relaxation. This method was very popular in the early days of hypnotism, but it isn’t used much today because it doesn’t work on a large proportion of the population.
  • Rapid – The idea of this method is to overload the mind with sudden, firm commands.
    If the commands are forceful, and the hypnotist is convincing enough, the subject will surrender his or her conscious control over the situation. This method works well for a stage hypnotist because the novel circumstance of being up in front of an audience puts subjects on edge, making them more susceptible to the hypnotist’s commands.
  • Progressive relaxation and imagery – This is the hypnosis method most commonly employed by psychiatrists.
    By speaking to the subject in a slow, soothing voice, the hypnotist gradually brings on complete relaxation and focus, easing the subject into full hypnosis. Typically, self-hypnosis training, as well as relaxation and meditation audio tapes, use the progressive relaxation method.
  • Loss of balance – This method creates a loss of equilibrium using slow, rhythmic rocking.
    Parents have been putting babies to sleep with this method for thousands of years.

Before hypnotists bring a subject into a full trance, they generally test his or her willingness and capacity to be hypnotized. The typical testing method is to make several simple suggestions, such as “Relax your arms completely,” and work up to suggestions that ask the subject to suspend disbelief or distort normal thoughts, such as “Pretend you are weightless.”

Depending on the person’s mental state and personality, the entire hypnotism process can take anywhere from a few minutes to more than a half hour. Hypnotists and hypnotism proponents see the peculiar mental state as a powerful tool with a wide range of applications. In the next section, we’ll look at some of the more common uses of hypnotism.

For Fun and Profit

In the hypnotism shows of Las Vegas, as well as the traveling hypnotism demonstrations on the college circuit, hypnotism is used primarily for entertainment purposes. It’s an amazing experience watching somebody turn ordinary people, perhaps your friends or family, into outrageous performers. The power of suggestion and imagination, and the lowering of inhibition, does make for a fantastic show.

The most widespread example of this hypnotic behavioral modification is habit-control hypnotic treatment. In this application, a hypnotist focuses on one particular habit that is embedded in your unconscious (smoking or overeating, for example). With the “control panel” to your mind open, the hypnotist may be able to reprogramyour subconscious to reverse the behavior. Some hypnotists do this by connecting a negative response with the bad habit. For example, the hypnotist might suggest to your subconscious that smoking will cause nausea. If this association is programmed effectively, you will feel sick every time you think about smoking a cigarette. Alternatively, the hypnotist may build up your willpower, suggesting to your subconscious that you don’t need cigarettes, and you don’t want them.But these demonstrations only scratch the surface of what hypnotism can do — all the suggestions are intentionally frivolous, to ensure that nobody gets hurt. The hypnotist uses his or her access to the unconscious mind only to play with the subject. More involved hypnotism uses this access to affect long-term changes in the subject.

Habit-control hypnotism is commonly practiced on a mass scale, in day-long seminars held in hotel suites, or through audio tapes or CDs. Since the treatment is not specifically tailored to each subject, and the treatment is rapid, these programs are often ineffective. Even if the treatment does yield positive results in the short term, there’s a good chance that the subject will relapse eventually.

Directed, one-on-one hypnotism sessions tend to yield better results. In the next section, we’ll explore this therapeutic form of hypnotism.

I’m Healed!

In the last section, we looked at hypnosis as a means of reversing bad habits. A related application of hypnotism is psychiatric hypnotherapy. In a therapy session, a psychiatrist may hypnotize his or her subject in order to work with deep, entrenched personal problems. The therapy may take the form of breaking negative patterns of behavior, as with mass habit-control programs. This can be particularly effective in addressing phobias, unreasonable fears of particular objects or situations. Another form of psychiatric hypnotherapy involves bringing underlying psychiatric problems up to the conscious level. Accessing fears, memories and repressed emotions can help to clarify difficult issues and bring resolution to persistent problems.

Hypnotists may also tap dormant memories to aid in law enforcement. In this practice, called forensic hypnotism, investigators access a subject’s deep, repressed memories of a past crime to help identify a suspect or fill in details of the case. Since hypnotists may lead subjects to form false memories, this technique is still very controversial in the forensics world.

Another controversial form of hypnotism is medical hypnotherapy. Doctors and spiritual leaders all over the world claim that hypnotic suggestion can ease pain and even cure illness in some patients. The underlying idea behind this is that the mind and body are inextricably intertwined. When you suggest to the subconscious that the body does not feel pain, or that the body is free of disease, the subconscious may actually bring about the change.

There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to support this idea. Using only hypnotic suggestion as an anesthetic, thousands of women have made it through childbirth with minimal pain and discomfort. Countless cancer patients swear by hypnosis, claiming that it helps to manage the pain of chemotherapy, and some former patients credit their recovery to hypnotherapy.

The success of hypnotherapy is undeniable, but many doctors argue that the hypnotic trance is not actually responsible for the positive results. In the next section, we’ll see how many skeptics explain hypnotic phenomena.

The Magic Feather

In the relatively short history of modern hypnotism, there have been dozens of hypnotic techniques and a wide range of explanations of the phenomenon. The only constant through all of this has been the hypnotic subjects themselves. No matter how you view the art of the hypnotist, it is undeniable that people do enter a special state in which they are abnormally suggestible and uninhibited.

Modern skeptics have a sound and convincing explanation of this unusual state. Hypnotic subjects aren’t actually in a trance state, they argue, they only think they are. Social pressure and the influence of the hypnotist are often enough to convince people that they should act a certain way. When they find themselves heeding the suggestions, they think they must be in a hypnotic trance. Proponents of this theory contend that this belief alone may be powerful enough to bring about remarkable changes in a person. If you think someone is compelling you to act a certain way, you will act that way. If you think hypnotic suggestion will ease your pain, your mind will bring about this feeling.

In this view, an effective hypnotist isn’t one that can probe the hidden reaches of your mind, but one with strong enough authority and charisma to convince you to go along.

In the general sense, this phenomenon is known as the placebo effect. In numerous studies, people who were given ordinary sugar pills behaved and felt differently only because they thought they should. It’s clear that the mind can influence all aspects of the physical body, so it makes sense that a firmly held belief can reduce pain or even help treat a disease.

But in the end, this explanation of hypnosis amounts to pretty much the same thing as the trance theory. When you absolutely convince somebody that you’ve brought about a change in their subconscious, they register this information as a fact. Like any fact, this information will take root in the subconscious mind. So, even if the hypnotic state is nothing more than a figment of the subject’s imagination, hypnotic suggestions can still reform their deeply held beliefs. The end result is the same!

To find out more about hypnosis, and to explore the various uses of hypnotism, check out the links on the next page.

Diagnosis

Hypnosis, a medium or modality through which you may become more alert to your own thoughts and feelings, can be appropriate for a number of health conditions, especially ones with emotional or psychological components. While the success rate varies, many health care professionals recommend considering hypnosis for the following:

Asthma: Studies suggest that hypnosis may be one useful tool in managing asthma, especially when there are emotional and psychological factors involved.

Burns: Hypnosis can reduce the pain associated with burns and is particularly useful when narcotic pain relievers are either inappropriate or ineffective. The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) takes hypnosis a step further, maintaining that hypnosis can not only ease the pain but, when used early enough, may reduce inflammation and promote healing.

Childbirth: Hypnosis can ease the stress and pain of childbirth. The ASCH says that for some women, hypnosis can work as the sole analgesic for childbirth. It not only eliminates the risk posed by drugs, but it may reduce labor time by two to four hours. (It can be used in conjunction with natural childbirth approaches.)

Chronic pain: A National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel concluded that there was evidence that hypnosis is effective in alleviating some kinds of pain associated with various cancers. The panel also stated that hypnosis can be a part of the treatment program for other conditions, including inflammatory conditions of the mouth, temporomandibular (TMJ) disorders and headaches. It’s also used to relieve the chronic pain associated with multiple sclerosis, arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and back problems.

Dermatological problems: Hypnosis has been used for a variety of skin conditions, including warts, itching, acne, dermatitis, eczema, herpes simplex, psoriasis and rosacea. Its use can speed healing. A study in the Archives of Dermatology concluded that in certain patients, it can decrease or eliminate symptoms and, in some cases, cure the condition—or at least send it into remission.

Gastrointestinal disorders: The use of hypnosis has been successfully used to treat various gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers, colitis, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). A study presented to the American Gastroenterological Association indicated that hypnosis seems to relax the autonomic nervous system, which controls movement in the digestive tract.

Hemophilia: Individuals suffering from hemophilia, a rare blood disorder, often can be taught to use self-hypnosis to control vascular flow and to eliminate the need for a blood transfusion.

Insomnia: Hypnosis, like meditation, biofeedback and other techniques to promote relaxation and reduce stress, is often used to help treat sleep disorders.

Medical/dental visits: Some physicians and dentists use hypnotic changes to relax patients and reduce pain during medical and dental procedures. In the hospital setting, it can help reduce anxiety and enhance healing. According to the ASCH, hypnosis, in rare circumstances, has been used as the sole anesthetic for surgery. But this is not a typical application. Perhaps of more significance to most of us is a study in the British medical journal Lancet indicating that hypnosis reduces anxiety associated with surgery, postoperative surgical pain and complications.

Nausea/morning sickness: For some pregnant women, hypnosis can relieve the nausea and vomiting associated with morning sickness. It can also help reduce the nausea associated with various cancer treatments.

Smoking: Hypnosis is sometimes used to help people quit smoking. A study in theInternational Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis found that smokers who underwent hypnosis fared better than did smokers who attempted to quit on their own; however, hypnosis didn’t seem to be more effective than other smoking cessation treatments.

Other behavioral modifications: Hypnosis may be used for concentration difficulties, test anxiety and learning disorders. It also may be used in treating sexual dysfunction and athletic performance.

Other habit disorders: Hypnosis is used for other addictive behaviors and habit disorders too, including bruxism (teeth grinding) and nail biting. It has generally not been found useful in working with drug and alcohol addictions.

Stress and anxiety: As a relaxation technique, hypnosis reduces stress and anxiety and helps cure phobias. It also can sometimes help you and the therapist come to a better understanding of what’s causing the anxiety or phobia.

Trauma: Hypnosis may help with psychotherapy in treating trauma from incest, rape and abuse.

Weight loss: Hypnosis seems to help with low-to-moderate weight loss, but generally only when combined with some sort of behavioral weight-management program.

Not everyone can be hypnotized. Susceptibility varies, and about 10 percent of us can’t be hypnotized at all. For most uses, however, it’s not essential that you be highly hypnotizable to achieve results.

Hypnosis may not be for you if you have certain psychological conditions—particularly those caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. If you suffer from psychosis, severe depression (or another organic psychiatric condition) or antisocial personality disorder, you should probably not attempt hypnosis. These conditions require different forms of treatment; hypnosis is not considered an appropriate treatment option.

Treatment

It’s important to remember that hypnosis, a medium through which you may become more alert to your own thoughts and feelings, is a not a treatment or a therapy by itself. It can help relieve symptoms, reduce pain and even sometimes speed healing. It’s also been effective in changing unhealthy behavior. If, however, you are considering hypnosis for a medical condition, you need to consult with your health care professional, who will most likely recommend that you also continue your regular treatments.

If you are seeking relief for a medical condition, you probably want to find a health care professional—such as a physician, nurse, psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker— who is trained and experienced not only in hypnosis but also with your particular symptom or ailment. Always seek people who have had the maximum training possible in the area in which you are seeking help. Remember, it is your mind they will be working with.

Finding a qualified hypnotherapist isn’t that hard. Many health care professionals licensed in other fields practice hypnosis, so chances are good that your health care professional can give you a referral. Two major organizations that are recognized as having high professional standards are The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) and The Society of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (SCEH). Both can provide the names of qualified practitioners in your area:

Licensing and governmental regulation vary by jurisdiction. Training requirements vary as well. The ASCH holds members to the following standards:

  • ASCH certification requires at least a master’s degree in a health care discipline considered appropriate by the society; licensure/certification in the state of practice; membership in a professional society consistent with degree; 40 hours of post-professional-degree workshop training; 20 hours of individualized training and consultation with an ASCH-approved consultant; and two years using hypnosis in clinical practice.
  • Recognition as an approved consultant necessitates all of the requirements for ASCH plus at least 60 hours of post-degree education and training; five years of practice in clinical hypnosis; and five years of membership in the ASCH, SCEH or an equivalent organization.

The First Session

Most practitioners spend the first session or part of the first session getting to know you, making an assessment of how hypnosis can help you and generally explaining what hypnosis is all about.

It’s important that you use this time, before beginning therapy, to determine whether you have a good rapport with the therapist. The therapist will go through the process with you, answering questions and letting you know what to expect. Together, you will discuss what suggestions will be made while you are hypnotized. The therapist may also run a few preliminary tests to determine your ability to be hypnotized. You must be willing to be hypnotized, or it won’t work.

When therapy begins, you’ll sit, recline or lie comfortably. The room will be quiet, with gentle lighting.

The process begins with what is called induction—that is, being brought into a hypnotic state. To accomplish this, the therapist may use one of several induction techniques that serve to focus your attention. Many of us have seen depictions in movies or TV of hypnotherapists swinging a pocket watch, but today it is more common for a therapist to ask the subject to stare at a small, stationary object—such as a colored thumbtack on the wall. Most therapists use suggestions for relaxation, calm and well-being. Your therapist may ask you to count backward from a certain number. Or perhaps, the therapist will simply direct you to relax, breathe deeply and listen. However it is done, the point is to ease you into a trancelike state in which you are extremely focused and, often, deeply relaxed. Induction can take a few seconds or several minutes.

What does it feel like? It’s a very subjective experience that varies depending on the degree of hypnotizability. Some people say it feels like an altered state of consciousness. Others disagree, simply saying they feel focused, calm and relaxed. According to the American Psychotherapy and Medical Hypnosis Association (APMHA), hypnosis is a naturally occurring phenomenon that we go into and out of constantly—for example, while watching an interesting program on TV, reading a book, driving a car or daydreaming. In fact, most people describe the experience as very pleasant.

Being hypnotized is not the same as sleep, becoming unconscious or “passing out,” and it’s not like an anesthetic. You do not lose control over your mind or your feelings. You do not weaken or surrender your will to any other person. In fact, your willpower may be strengthened with hypnosis, according to the Australian Society of Hypnosis.

Once you are focused, the therapist may, during this or later sessions, make suggestions relating to your particular condition; most likely, the therapist will use mental imagery and visualization exercises. Some of these suggestions may be posthypnotic suggestions: This means that you receive a directive to follow at some later point. You may not remember receiving the suggestion, but if it’s something you want to do, you’ll carry it out—without necessarily knowing the source of the instruction.

At the end of the session, the therapist will teach or guide you to enter and exit the state of hypnosis. This should be done before the end of the session. You may feel drowsy when you finish the session. You might feel very relaxed or have a strong sense of well-being. If you are seeking pain relief, you may notice less pain. Or you may not feel any immediate change. And you may not remember what transpired during the session—this is called posthypnotic amnesia.

A session can last up to 90 minutes. The number of visits you make depends on what you hope to accomplish. You and the therapist will discuss the details in the first session. The cost of hypnosis varies depending on where you live. Most insurance companies will cover 50 to 80 percent of the therapy, especially if your therapist is a licensed health care professional (and you should only be seeing a licensed health care professional).

During your sessions, the therapist will probably teach you about self-hypnosis. (You can learn this technique from tapes, but most experts advise learning from a qualified therapist.) Self-hypnosis sessions take 30 to 40 seconds to a few minutes and can be done daily. Sometimes, five to 15 minutes or longer may be more therapeutic depending on the problem.

Your hypnotherapist will teach you the proper technique. But the basics are simple: You will sit or lie in a comfortable place and focus intensely. Using imagery, relaxation and breathing techniques, you will bring yourself to a hypnotic state. Once there, you will tell yourself what you need to hear—or listen to a tape with that message.

Facts to Know

  1. There’s no definitive scientific explanation for how hypnosis works; research continues into why it’s effective.
  2. The term “hypnosis” was coined in the 19th century and comes from hypnos, the Greek word for sleep. However, being hypnotized is not the same as sleep, becoming unconscious or “passing out,” and it’s not like an anesthetic.
  3. Not everyone can be hypnotized. Susceptibility varies, and about 10 percent of us can’t be hypnotized at all.
  4. Hypnosis may not be for you if you have certain psychological conditions— particularly those caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. If you suffer from psychosis, severe depression or another organic psychiatric problem, other treatment options will be recommended and are more appropriate.
  5. It’s a good idea to spend some time with the professional to determine whether you will work well together. This can be accomplished either by phone—before coming in for your first visit—or by the end of the first session. If you’re uncomfortable in the first session, trust your instincts and don’t return.
  6. Sessions with a hypnotherapist can last from 45 to 90 minutes—most are around an hour.
  7. For medical problems, hypnosis should be used in addition to medical diagnosis and appropriate treatments.

Key Q&A

  1. I want to quit smoking. Will hypnosis help?It may, if you are highly motivated. Studies indicate that it works better than trying to go it alone and as well as any other approach. The problem is that all smoking cessation treatments have low long-term success rates. (Of course, some experts say that for the smoker who really wants to quit, the success rate is 100 percent.)
  2. A hypnotherapist I saw comes highly recommended. But I just don’t feel comfortable around him. Is that reason enough to find another one?Indeed it is. With hypnotherapy, you have to trust your instinct. No matter how good your practitioner is, you need to have confidence in your therapist. Keep looking for one with whom you can feel comfortable.
  3. I’m intelligent and strong willed. Does that mean I can’t be hypnotized?Intelligence isn’t a barrier to being hypnotized. Being strong willed may mean that you won’t be easily hypnotized, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Motivation and the ability to concentrate are the most important components to successful hypnotization.
  4. Can hypnosis be used to block a memory?This happens only rarely. Spontaneous memory blocks usually occur when they are associated with some sort of trauma, not treatment. With highly hypnotizable patients, memories can be blocked, but it’s usually a short-term effect.

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