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Hypnotherapy: What it is, benefits, success rate, and risks

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

A woman sits on a couch with her eyes closed as her therapist speaks to her calmly

What is hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy uses guided relaxation and suggestion to help people work through problems and achieve their goals. It uses hypnosis, a psychological process that induces a relaxed, trance-like state, as its foundation. From this state of awareness, you can concentrate on troubling thoughts, feelings, or behaviors and discover potential solutions.

What’s the difference between hypnosis and hypnotherapy?

Hypnosis is a state of focused attention, deep relaxation, and heightened suggestibility. Hypnotherapy, on the other hand, is the practice of using hypnosis to help with psychological or physical problems. Essentially, hypnosis is the tool or state of mind, and hypnotherapy is the therapeutic process or application.

How hypnotherapy works

Hypnosis works by altering brain activity.1 When you’re in a state of hypnosis, certain parts of the brain become less “busy,” which leads to enhanced focus. Hypnosis can help you feel more at ease with your health care provider or hypnotherapist. It may also heighten your awareness of your emotions and bodily sensations.

What is hypnotherapy used for?

This alternative therapy may be used to help treat various conditions, including:

Is hypnotherapy treatment enough?

Hypnosis may help, but it isn’t recognized as psychotherapy or a standalone treatment for mental health conditions.2 It remains somewhat controversial as a form of therapy and is often used as a complementary treatment alongside other therapeutic approaches—like talk therapy—to support specific treatment goals.3

What is a hypnotherapy session like?

In clinical settings, hypnotherapy should be practiced by a licensed health care professional. When you attend a session, you’ll typically be guided into a relaxed state through various techniques.4 Techniques often involve imagery, such as asking you to imagine a peaceful scene. You can expect to feel deeply relaxed, similar to how you’d feel before falling asleep.

While hypnotized, you’re fully present, able to focus on a specific problem or task, and your subconscious mind is more open to suggestion. Your hypnotherapist will likely proceed with one of the following therapeutic methods:

  • Suggestion therapy, which involves making suggestions to encourage behaviors that are consistent with your goals.
  • Regression therapy, which involves guiding you to remember the root cause of a symptom or issue from your past.
  • Cognitive behavioral hypnotherapy, which uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to identify and reframe negative thoughts and beliefs while under hypnosis.

Other forms of hypnotherapy target specific conditions or are used for more specialized purposes. These include:

  • Gut-directed, which is used to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by targeting the connection between the brain and the digestive system.
  • Gastric band, which uses hypnosis to simulate the feeling of having a gastric band for weight loss. This form of hypnotherapy may help people who are looking to lose weight.
  • Heart-centered, which focuses on emotional healing and self-discovery.
  • Ericksonian, which combines hypnosis with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to treat trauma and anxiety.
  • Hypnobirthing, which uses self-hypnosis and relaxation techniques to help manage pain and anxiety during childbirth.
  • Hypnoanesthesia, which is sometimes used to help control pain during medical procedures.

After a hypnosis session, your hypnotherapist will guide you out of the hypnotic state or you may come out of it on your own. You might feel calm, relaxed, and more insightful about the issue you explored. Some people experience physical and emotional side effects, such as headaches or anxiety, but these are typically mild and short-lived.5

The benefits of hypnotherapy

In addition to being used as a complementary treatment for various mental and physical health conditions, hypnotherapy may offer other benefits. Some of the most common benefits include:

  • Relaxation: Hypnotherapy may be just as relaxing as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation exercises,6 which could lead to lower stress and anxiety levels while improving sleep problems.
  • Open-mindedness: Hypnotherapy may increase your willingness to take in new ideas and perspectives, particularly when combined with other types of therapy, such as CBT.7
  • Increased self-confidence: People who undergo hypnotherapy may experience increased levels of self-esteem and self-confidence.8

What is the success rate of hypnotherapy?

As mentioned earlier, hypnotherapy isn’t a form of treatment in and of itself, and research on its effectiveness is limited. However, some studies suggest that it may be helpful for certain conditions.

Stress: A single hypnotherapy session led to lower stress-related symptoms in people suffering from chronic stress.9

Anxiety: Hypnosis has been shown to reduce anxiety better than no treatment at all, especially when it’s used with other types of therapy.10

Depression: Hypnotherapy may be equally as effective as CBT for treating mild-to-moderate depression.11

Addiction: Intensive therapy using 20 daily sessions combined with hypnosis has been successful in treating substance abuse disorders.12 However, a smoking cessation study showed that there isn’t much evidence to suggest it could help people stop smoking.13

PTSD: Hypnotherapy has helped some people alleviate PTSD symptoms, with long-term benefits observed.14

Insomnia: Hypnotherapy has been shown to improve sleep and daytime functioning.15

Pain management: Hypnotherapy may help alleviate chronic pain as well as some types of acute pain (such as pain from childbirth and certain cancer treatments).16,17,18

Phobias: Hypnotherapy combined with virtual reality exposure therapy or exposure therapy has effectively helped treat specific phobias and panic disorder.19

Is hypnotherapy safe?

Hypnotherapy is generally considered a safe treatment option with few side effects when performed by a trained and certified hypnotherapist. Data from a list of clinical trials showed that there were very few problems caused by hypnosis.20 However, the study only looked at hypnosis for treating physical problems from medical treatments, not for mental health issues.

Can anyone be hypnotized?

Not everyone can be hypnotized, and some people are more susceptible to hypnosis than others. It’s estimated that about 10% of people are highly hypnotizable.21 Some people, on the other hand, have very low hypnotizability.

Most people fall somewhere in the middle and may achieve a moderate level of hypnotic trance with proper guidance and practice. Factors that may influence hypnotizability include:

  • Openness to the experience
  • Ability to focus and concentrate
  • Vivid imagination
  • Trust in the hypnotherapist

Common myths and misconceptions about hypnotherapy

Those who are skeptical about hypnotherapy may have misconceptions based on how it’s often portrayed in movies and TV shows. Here are some common myths and misconceptions about hypnotherapy:

Hypnosis is mind control. You remain in control of your thoughts and actions during hypnosis. A hypnotherapist can’t make you do anything against your will.

Hypnosis is a form of sleep. Although you may feel deeply relaxed during hypnosis, you’ll be completely aware and conscious throughout the session.

Hypnosis can make you forget or “lose time.” You’ll remember everything that happens during a hypnotherapy session unless specifically instructed otherwise by the therapist for therapeutic reasons.22

Hypnosis is a party trick or form of entertainment. While stage hypnosis is often used for entertainment purposes, clinical hypnotherapy is a serious therapeutic tool used to address various mental health concerns.

Only weak-minded people can be hypnotized. The ability to be hypnotized isn’t linked to gullibility or weakness. It’s more about the ability to concentrate and the willingness to be hypnotized.

Hypnosis can help people retrieve lost memories. While hypnosis can help people recall memories more vividly, it doesn’t guarantee the accuracy of these memories and can sometimes lead to the creation of false memories.23

What to look for in a hypnotherapist

Look for a licensed health care professional or therapist who has completed a reputable hypnotherapy training program and holds a certification from a recognized professional organization, such as the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) or the National Association of Hypnotherapists (AHA). It’s also a good idea to choose a clinical hypnotherapist who has experience treating the specific issue you’re seeking help with, such as anxiety, depression, or chronic pain. Don’t hesitate to ask questions about their training, experience, and approach to hypnotherapy during your first consultation.

If you’re interested in hypnotherapy as a complementary treatment option for a physical or mental health condition, discuss it with your primary care physician or connect with a mental health professional who provides hypnotherapy services. Search for hypnotherapy near me.


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