Hypnosis is a state of focused concentration during which a person becomes less aware of their surroundings. Hypnotherapy is the use of hypnosis to treat physical or psychological conditions.
During a hypnotic state (trance), a person may be more likely to accept suggestions that can help change their behavior. A therapist (hypnotherapist) can lead the hypnosis, or the therapist can teach people to hypnotize themselves (self-hypnosis). You can also learn self-hypnosis by following instructions from online resources or books.
The hypnotherapist's goal is not to control a person or give the person answers but rather to help the person solve their own problems.
Hypnosis does not work for everyone. You must be willing to focus your attention and follow the suggestions of the therapist. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot be hypnotized unwillingly. Also, when you are hypnotized, you will not follow directions against your wishes.
Experts do not know how hypnosis works, but it seems to put the body in a state of deep relaxation.
Some people believe hypnosis causes the brain to release natural substances that affect the way you perceive pain and other symptoms. Others believe hypnosis acts on the unconscious mind and allows you to control body reactions that you cannot normally control, such as blood pressure, heartbeat, and hunger.
Some people have found hypnosis to be helpful for anxiety, depression, and managing painful conditions. Studies on hypnosis have found conflicting evidence about if it's helpful for quitting smoking. And there is some evidence that it helps with weight loss, anxiety in cancer patients, and symptoms during breast cancer treatment.1
Hypnosis is not intended to cure disease but rather to relieve symptoms of illness. It's widely used to help with substance use disorder. And hypnosis may be able to reduce stress by increasing relaxation, offering positive suggestions, and eliminating negative thoughts.
In some cases, hypnosis is combined with cognitive therapy or other relaxation and behavioral techniques.
No formal licensing exists in the United States to govern hypnotherapists. It is important to find a health professional with extensive training and experience in hypnotherapy. Many psychologists, counselors, doctors, and dentists are experienced in hypnotherapy.
Self-hypnosis is also considered safe, even when done by inexperienced people. There are no reported cases of harm resulting from self-hypnosis. But do not perform self-hypnosis while you are driving a vehicle or are in any situation where you need to be fully alert or able to respond quickly (for example, while operating machinery or while supervising children).
Talk with your doctor about any complementary health practice that you would like to try or are already using. Your doctor can help you manage your health better if they know about all of your health practices.
- Freeman, M, et al. (2019). Guided imagery, biofeedback, and hypnosis: A map of the evidence. VA Evidence-based Synthesis Program Reports. Washington (DC): Department of Veterans Affairs (US). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545738/pdf/Bookshelf_NBK545738.pdf.
Current as of: January 3, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine