Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness or trance in which a person moves from outward awareness to an inner-directed focus and thus has an enhanced ability to respond to the power of suggestion. It is often used by practitioners (hypnotherapists) to aid in the reduction of addictive behaviors, in pain management, and to help a patient cope with trauma.

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An Introduction to Hypnosis

Hypnosis has been used for everything from ending bad habits such as cigarette smoking and compulsive gambling to making healthy changes such as losing weight and improving the quality of one’s sleep.

But is hypnosis even real?

The short answer is, yes, hypnosis is real. And while its effects may not be as dramatic as they are sometimes portrayed in the movies, people all over the world have successfully used hypnosis to make positive life changes in their pursuit of self-development.

How does hypnosis work?

There is no one consensual explanation for how hypnosis works. “If you asked 10 hypnosis experts how hypnosis works, you would probably get 10 different explanations,” said clinical psychologist and University of Hartford professor Len Milling. 

Even though a definitive answer to the question of how hypnosis works remains elusive, the main goal in hypnotism usually involves guiding the hypnotized individual into a state of deep focus or concentration through verbal suggestions and sometimes visual cues, both of which involve repetition. 

There are two main steps to the process of hypnosis. The first is an induction phase, when the hypnotist, or hypnotherapist, uses techniques to quiet the recipient’s mind, thereby increasing the likelihood of the individual being more susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. The second step is the suggestion phase, when the subject is guided through hypothetical scenarios or situations and listens to the hypnotherapist’s words.

In terms of the effect it has, hypnosis works either by helping the recipient eliminate or modify unwelcome thoughts and behaviors, or by assisting in the development and continuity of desirable, healthier habits and practices. 

Does hypnosis change the brain?

A study by Stanford researchers published in 2016 was able to track distinct changes to the brain when people were hypnotized. One area that researchers hoped to shed more light on was a better understanding of why some people are more easily hypnotized than others. 

Since it may be possible to use hypnotism in treating people for anxiety reduction, pain management, and other conditions without resorting to potentially harmful or addictive medications, making hypnosis easier for all could be a development of great consequence. With a better understanding of brain function during hypnosis, it may be possible to help those who are not easily hypnotized move beyond their limitations so they can enjoy the benefits of hypnosis, too.

“We’re certainly interested in the idea that you can change people’s ability to be hypnotized by stimulating specific areas of the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. David Spiegel, a Stanford professor who also serves as Associate Chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the university. 

What does hypnosis feel like?

How one experiences the state of hypnosis is to some degree unique to the individual, but common descriptions of the hypnotic state include relaxed, focused, detached, and open-minded. These qualities can enhance suggestibility and help recipients embrace the idea that changes they want to experience in their lives are very much within reach. 

This condition of experiencing greater focus and receptivity to suggestions has been likened to a trance, but in the sense of greater self-control and ability to achieve, not in the sense of losing free will and falling under the hypnotist’s control as is sometimes used as a plot twist in movies or books. According to Psychology Today, “humans stay completely awake during hypnosis” and, as a general rule, recall their experiences.

What is hypnosis used for?

In addition to the issues already mentioned, hypnosis can be used in the treatment of many other health and behavioral issues. Research and patient experience have shown hypnosis capable of helping with the following

  • Chronic pain
  • Stress management
  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Compulsive thoughts and behaviors
  • Giving birth
  • Post-surgical recovery
  • Insomnia
  • Sleepwalking

Sleep hypnosis, in particular, is an area where hypnosis has had great success through a wide variety of applications. A children’s book author even used hypnotic suggestions to help toddlers and preschoolers fall asleep with less difficulty. 

Sports hypnosis has been used with success by both amateur and professional athletes who employ hypnotic techniques, including self-hypnosis, to improve their mental focus and game-day performances.

Doctors have experimented with hypnosis during surgery for breast cancer patients. Because the drugs used in general anesthesia have the potential to weaken the immune system, hypnosis used in combination with local anesthesia may be able to reduce the risk of certain patients becoming immunocompromised. 

Is hypnosis safe?

Hypnosis, when performed by trained professionals, is viewed as a safe alternative or complementary treatment. Contraindications do exist and precautions may need to be taken, especially in cases of individuals attempting to resolve trauma issues that may involve revisiting painful memories. 

The Mayo Clinic recommends that when choosing a hypnotherapist, you should get a referral from a trusted source and ask questions of the person you will be entrusting to hypnotize you.

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The information offered here is not a substitute for professional advice. Please proceed with care and caution.


Altered States of Consciousness