Overview of Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy

Hypnosis is similar to daydreaming. But unlike daydreaming, hypnosis is deliberate and goal directed. Hypnotherapy is the use of hypnosis in a therapeutic setting to help achieve a specific, achievable short-term goal, such as the following:

  • Habit control
    • Nailbiting
    • Bedwetting
  • Improving performance
    • Athletic
    • Career goals
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Pain management
    • Cancer pain
    • Chronic pain
    • Child birth pain
    • Pain during surgery
  • Smoking cessation
  • Social confidence
    • Public speaking
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Stress reduction
  • Weight management

Hypnotherapists help clients select relevant goals, commit to the achievement of the goals, and carry out posthypnotic suggestions. A posthypnotic suggestion is made while the client is hypnotized. After hypnosis, the client consciously incorporates the suggestion into everyday life to achieve a specific goal, such as stopping cigarette smoking or overcoming the fear of speaking in front of an audience.

Hypnotherapy is a therapeutic tool, and the hypnotherapist is a facilitator of behavior change. For many of the desired goals, such as self-confidence and curbing unwanted habits, hypnotherapists work with clients to provide a means of behavioral change. When necessary, hypnotherapists work with primary care physicians (e.g., in medical conditions such as cancer).

Hypnotherapists combine hypnosis with relaxation techniques, affirmations, guided imagery, reframing, and goal-setting techniques. For example, a hypnotherapist may help a patient who is preparing to undergo a surgical procedure by teaching the client to mentally rehearse the procedure, thereby reframing a feared event into a relaxed and healing event.

Hypnotherapy is based on the theory of the mind-body connection, which means that accessing the subconscious can effect change in the body. When used in hypnotherapy, hypnosis can enhance one's own healing potential.

Hypnotherapy Applications

Hypnotherapists provide consultations to individuals as well as small groups. They may also offer self-hypnosis classes, and some make books and cassette tapes available. Hypnotherapists often specialize in one or more areas, such as the following:

  • Mental and emotional health
  • Physical health
  • Psychic and spiritual development
  • Creative and educational pursuits
  • Athletic performance
  • Career

Screening for Hypnotherapy Eligibility

Although experts estimate that at least 80 percent of the population can be hypnotized, hypnotherapy is not recommended for everyone. Hypnotherapists assess clients' receptivity and suggestibility by asking questions about the clients' personalities, and they screen out those who are likely to have negative reactions to hypnosis.

Receptivity is the most important element in hypnosis; the person being hypnotized must voluntarily choose hypnotism, must agreeably participate in hypnosis, and must believe that hypnosis can help in achieving the specified goal. Suggestibility is the capacity the client has for engendering the state of hypnosis and for facilitating the effects of post-hypnotic suggestions.

People who actively abuse drugs or alcohol are not good candidates for hypnotism. Similarly, people experiencing delusional or hallucinatory states should not be hypnotized. Rarely is hypnotherapy used to treat clients who have psychosis or borderline psychosis. Only well-trained, very experienced hypnotherapists treat these clients, and then only in collaboration with the client's psychiatrist.

Although some very young children can be hypnotized, they lack the attention span necessary for hypnosis. Older children, however, can undergo hypnosis to help treat nailbiting, bedwetting, and childhood fears.

If the client is seeking treatment for a medical or psychiatric condition and has not consulted a physician or psychiatrist, the hypnotherapist postpones the session until the client consults a physician or psychiatrist.

Hypnotherapy & False Memories

Following a hypnotherapy session, images or memories sometimes spontaneously surface. These images or memories and their accompanying emotions could be welcome and enjoyable or uncomfortable and stressful. There is little evidence to prove that memories from childhood obtained through hypnosis are completely accurate. False memories (memories believed to have been repressed, but in fact are fantasized) may feel real and/or cause distress or uneasiness, and the client's reaction should be addressed by the therapist. These feelings do not signal that the client is experiencing a valid, accurate, or recovered memory.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 22 Sep 2015