What Is Hypnosis Therapy?

Hypnosis therapy (hypnotherapy) has useful clinical applications; however, hypnosis itself is often quite misunderstood by laypeople and clinicians alike. In essence, the hypnotic state represents the extreme focusing and narrowing of attention along with relaxation that allows an individual to become more open to suggestion. However, historically, the technique has received publicity as being useful only for entertainment purposes, mystical in its application, and, in many cases, a sham treatment.

The History of Hypnosis Therapy

According to the book Essentials of Hypnosis, although the use of suggestion has been present for many centuries, the defining moment in the history of clinical hypnosis occurred in the 18th century in the case of Franz Mesmer. Mesmer used a method of suggestion to treat women who presented with neurological deficits (e.g., paralysis, blindness, mutism, etc.), but upon physical examination had no physical ailments. This condition was referred to as hysteria in Mesmer’s time, and today, it is referred to as a conversion disorder. Mesmer believed that he was able to transfer a sort of electrical current (animal magnetism) through a mysterious etheric fluid to his patients in order to cure them. He used a ritual where he placed the woman in a pot with magnets, dressed up in a cloak, played music, and pranced around the patient. The result was rather surprising, as many of his patients recovered. A review of his technique (the first actual documented medical review) concluded that his process and successes were a result of suggestion (hence the word Mesmerism). For some time after Mesmer’s case, the use of suggestion and hypnosis was avoided by the medical community.

In the 19th century, surgeons pioneered the use of hypnosis and researchers began to investigate the technique. Surgeons like James Esdaile and John Elliotson were able to find that the use of hypnosis could relieve the pain associated with surgery, and this led to hypnosis being used as a clinical technique in some hospitals.

Hypnosis was also originally used by Sigmund Freud in the treatment of patients with hysteria, but he later replaced the use of hypnosis with the psychotherapeutic technique of free association, where patients simply say whatever is on their mind at the moment and the therapist is able to interpret the deeper meaning of their conversation.

In the 20th century, hypnosis was mired in academic debates about its legitimacy and its use in entertainment, and its use as a type of a self-help process became popular via self-hypnosis tapes, etc.

The modern use of hypnosis in therapy was pioneered by the psychotherapist Milton H. Erickson. Erickson was a trained psychiatrist who used medical hypnosis in treating his patients. Erickson’s use of hypnosis brought back significant legitimacy to the technique as a psychotherapeutic option.

Uses of Therapeutic Hypnosis

Therapeutic hypnosis can be useful in the treatment of a variety of issues and disorders, including phobias, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, pain, and irritable bowel syndrome. Hypnosis can help to facilitate weight loss and lifestyle changes, help people to quit smoking, and may be useful in assisting in the treatment of other substance use issues. According to the book Essentials of Clinical Hypnosis: An Evidence-based Approach, some of the uses of hypnotherapy include:

  • Treatment of anxiety: With respect to issues with anxiety, the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that utilizes exposure techniques can be enhanced by using hypnosis to produce a more relaxed and tranquil state that is associated with the technique of systematic desensitization. Exposure techniques require having a person imagine being exposed to an anxiety-provoking situation; the use of hypnosis can induce relaxation, instill confidence through suggestion, and help an individual with the cognitive restructuring techniques that occur in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In addition, hypnosis has been empirically demonstrated to decrease issues with avoidance that often occur in individuals with anxiety disorders. Simply avoiding issues that trigger anxiety can lead to serious issues with functioning if an individual avoids activities that are essential, such as work, or develops rituals, such as taking long out-of-the-way routes to avoid bridges, etc.
  • Pain control: There is evidence from meta-analytic studies that hypnosis can reduce pain in individuals who suffer from conditions that generate chronic pain. The use of hypnosis to relieve pain must be used judiciously because pain is a warning signal that something is wrong, and individuals with pain should pay attention to it and act accordingly. However, meta-analytic research has demonstrated that hypnosis can be used to eliminate many of the dysfunctional aspects of chronic pain. Individuals who have high response to suggestion are more likely to benefit from the pain-reducing effects of hypnosis.
  • Post-surgical pain and anesthesia: Hypnotherapy has research evidence showing it can be used in the management of pain associated with surgical procedures. Researchers found that using hypnotherapy before surgery can reduce postsurgical pain, fatigue, nausea, and other discomfort.
  • IBS: There is a great deal of research that indicates that hypnosis may be useful in helping with the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. The use of hypnosis can reduce the pain and discomfort associated with the syndrome and can complement the standard treatments of dietary changes and the use of medication.
  • Weight control: There is empirical evidence that suggests that hypnosis may help in the treatment of obesity. Individuals undergoing hypnosis often show significantly greater weight reductions than individuals using psychotherapy without hypnosis.
  • Substance abuse: With respect to substance use disorder treatment, the best research for the use of clinical hypnosis is associated with smoking cessation. Meta-analytic studies have suggested that hypnosis can be useful as an adjunct therapy for smoking sensation, but is not as effective when it is used the primary approach. However, the research on the use of hypnosis as an adjunct treatment for substance abuse is mixed. There is also a body of research that suggests that hypnosis for smoking cessation does not add any benefits to standard treatments. The empirical evidence for the use of hypnosis in the treatment of other substance use disorders is mixed at best, but indicates that hypnotherapy should not be the primary intervention in any case. It can help individuals develop confidence in their ability to begin recovery and stop using the substance of choice, help them to deal with cravings, and strengthen their resolve to avoid relapse.

Myths about Hypnosis

There are numerous myths associated with hypnosis, according to the books Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy and The Everything Guide to the Human Brain.

  • Myth: Hypnosis is total mind control. One of the most persisting myths about hypnosis that is fueled by movies and other media outlets is that hypnosis is a form of mind control. Hypnosis cannot make anyone do something that they would not normally do, such as commit murder.
  • Myth: Hypnosis can result in a person getting stuck in a trance. Individuals in hypnotic trances cannot become “stuck” in a trance; they can always be awakened.
  • Myth: Hypnosis is a panacea. Many of the commercialized programs that promote the use of self-hypnosis and other hypnotic-related techniques claim that hypnosis is a panacea or cure-all. This is not true. Hypnosis can assist in the treatment of some issues, but it cannot cure anything.
  • Myth: People only use 10 percent of their brain, and hypnosis can change this. One of the most persisting myths surrounding the human brain is the notion that people only use 10 percent (or 20 percent) of their brain. There is no truth to this myth at all. Many commercial self-help programs that use hypnosis-like techniques report that they can get individuals to use a higher percentage of their brain, and this can result in them accomplishing nearly anything. As it turns out, the “10 percent myth” has been debunked numerous times in various contexts, but still remains popular. Individuals may often lack motivation or commitment to making change or may fall short in reaching goals for numerous reasons, but there is no evidence to suggest that people only use 10 percent of their brain and that any type of human failing is a result of a person not using all of their brain potential.

Issues with Hypnosis

Empirical evidence suggests that hypnotherapy can induce a highly relaxed state, increase concentration and focus, be tailored to work with different treatment approaches, and can also be used to empower individuals by helping them use various techniques to improve their sleep, alleviate pain, and address some issues with anxiety and depression. The utility of hypnotherapy depends on how susceptible an individual is to respond to hypnotic suggestions, and there are scales that can actually measure this effect.

It is worth noting that there are some uses of hypnosis that are not recommended.

  • Memory recovery: One of the most recent detrimental uses of hypnotherapy is to recover “hidden” or “repressed” memories. In the 1990s, some poorly trained hypnotherapists used hypnosis to “uncover” repressed memories of past abuse. As a result of this use by incompetent therapists, many people were falsely accused of child abuse and other abuse in hundreds of court cases. As it turns out, memories brought up under hypnosis are subject to numerous influences and alterations that result in these recollections being questionable at best. Other such techniques, including past life regression, have no clinical utility and are not considered to have any validity by competent researchers and mental health professionals.
  • Self-hypnosis: The large number of self-hypnosis programs on the market have very little clinical validation, and these programs often make claims that cannot be substantiated. Self-hypnotic induction can be useful, but it is best learned from a trained mental health professional.
  • Unqualified treatment providers: Numerous “workshops” are offered around the country that purport to teach individuals hypnotherapy. Anyone who is being treated for any mental health disorder, chronic pain, any other medical condition, etc., should only seek the help of a qualified health professional with expertise in addressing that particular issue. Individuals who practice hypnotherapy but have no formal training in psychology, counseling, medicine, etc., are not prepared to treat these issues.
  • Contraindications: Individuals who are emotionally unstable, hostile, or psychotic should not be considered candidates for hypnosis. This includes individuals with severe personality disorders, psychotic disorders, mania, and other disorders. Hypnosis may actually exacerbate these conditions.

Can Hypnosis Therapy Be Used to Treat Substance Use Disorders?

In general, hypnotherapy can provide a useful addition to established treatments for substance abuse, but the evidence indicates that the use of hypnotherapy alone for treating substance use disorders is not indicated. In addition, potential consumers of hypnotherapy should be wary when someone is advertised as a “professional hypnotherapist” or some other similar label. Individuals with mental health conditions, medical conditions, etc., should seek qualified treatment providers who have specific training in clinical psychology, counseling, therapy, medicine, etc. Professionals who have not achieved at least a master’s degree in one of these fields should be avoided. Individuals who are interested in the use of hypnotherapy can check with their State Psychological Association for a list of practitioners.