Hypnosis is a natural, relaxed state of body and mind where the critical faculty is bypassed and a person becomes more open to suggestions for positive change and growth. It has been found to be effective in treating such issues as nicotine addiction, compulsions, substance misuse, and dependencies on substances, as well as behavioral addictions.
Hypnosis sessions generally last between 60 and 90 minutes. Depending on the needs of the person, a typical course of hypnosis treatment can be anywhere from two or three sessions and up to multiple sessions over the course of several weeks or months.
Central Concepts of Hypnotherapy
Hypnotherapy relies on a model of the mind that includes conscious and subconscious aspects.1 These two parts of the mind have different functions and work together to help people navigate daily life. The concepts of these two categories of mind serve as a useful tool to help people elicit the positive changes they are seeking.
The conscious mind can be likened to a laser pointer. It is very focused on whatever it is paying attention to at any given moment. This focus includes experiences of all kinds such sights, sounds, thoughts, activities, and tasks. Like a laser pointer, however, the conscious mind is also limited in range. Generally speaking, a person can be consciously aware of only a few things at a time.2
Meanwhile, the sensory organs are still continuously receiving and processing millions of bits of information. This information is stored and managed by the subconscious mind.
The subconscious mind contains all of our memories, beliefs, habitual patterns, and past learnings. Things like learning the alphabet, riding a bicycle, or speaking a foreign language all fall under the domain of the subconscious mind.
In the case of dependence, a learned behavior such as drinking alcohol fixates in the subconscious. Even when a person consciously understands that the behavior has become unhealthy and has decided to change, when this fixation happens, it can be difficult to break free of the addictive pattern.
In the state of hypnosis—when the subconscious mind is more active and accessible—the hypnotherapist can help the person unlearn the old behavior. Then, through relaxation, guided imagery, positive hypnotic suggestions, and other methods, dependent behaviors can be reprogrammed into more positive ones.
Who Is Hypnotherapy Right For?
Because addiction can be a life-threatening condition, it is important to explore as many options as possible when seeking treatment. However, since dependence is deeply connected with subconscious causes and motivations, hypnotherapy can be an effective solution for people experiencing the effects of substance misuse and other addictive behaviors.
Symptoms of Addiction
It can be difficult for a person in the grips of dependence to admit to themselves or others that they have a problem. Recognizing that there is an issue and that they need help is the first step towards positive change.
If a person is unsure whether they are dependent on a substance or behavior they can check and see whether they experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Inability to stop a behavior despite negative consequences
- Craving and mental obsession
- Needing increasing quantities of a substance to achieve the desired effect
- Socially isolating
- Taking unnecessary risks
- Experiencing legal and financial trouble because of the behavior
- Withdrawal symptoms
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty in relationships because of the behavior
How Can Hypnotherapy Help Someone With Addiction?
Many people who want to stop an addiction or dependence may have already made multiple attempts to do so before trying hypnotherapy. This pattern can lead to feelings of discouragement, frustration and even hopelessness.
Hypnotherapy increases a person’s chance of success by addressing some of the contributing factors to dependence including low self esteem and emotional trauma, as well as resolving conflicts between conscious and subconscious motivations.
Low self-esteem may increase the chances of a person becoming dependent on a substance or behavior. In addition, many people who abuse substances or engage in compulsive behaviors report feelings of shame and guilt which contribute to decreased self-esteem.
During a course of hypnotherapy, the therapist will help the person improve their sense of self-esteem and their perception and value of themselves. Some of the methods used to achieve these benefits may include hypnotic suggestions, daily journaling, and positive affirmations.
Traumatic experiences can majorly contribute to dependence. In the case of a person in remission or recovery, trauma and PTSD can also increase the chances of drug or alcohol relapse.
For example, a 2007 study of three groups of war veterans showed that those who were diagnosed with PTSD or trauma exposure along with substance use disorders (SUD) were more likely to experience more intense symptoms and had a greater risk of relapse.3
During the course of a program of hypnotherapy, traumatic memories may resurface. A skilled hypnotherapist will spend some time working on those issues. By lessening the intensity of trauma and PTSD symptoms, the chances of addiction recovery increase.4
Conscious & Subconscious Motivations
Conscious and subconscious motivations may differ. For example, a person who has made the conscious decision to stop their dependent behavior may still continue to make choices that undermine that goal, which could be due to subconscious motivations.
Subconscious motivations are often related to the desire to meet basic needs for well-being, comfort, pleasure, and safety. A conflict arises when an attempt is made to change the behavior that has met those needs in the past without providing a viable alternative. The hypnotherapist can help the person identify these unconscious motivations and find healthy alternatives to meeting those needs.
Example of Hypnosis for Addiction
A typical course of hypnosis treatment for addiction will include an initial assessment, several hypnosis sessions, and some kind of follow-up and support.
During the initial assessment, a person may be asked about their past and current experience with dependence. As dependence can be a serious medical and mental health issue, a therapist will likely ask about any past or current treatments so they can coordinate with other providers as needed, including addiction counselors, primary care physicians, and other mental health therapists.
Some other areas that may be explored before treatment begins include:
- Identifying what external situations or stimuli trigger substance misuse or the dependent behavior.
- Clearly noting all the physical and emotional symptoms that signal an impending or ongoing episode. These symptoms can include mental images, inner dialog, looping thoughts, and physical sensations such as craving.
- Clarifying the person’s desired outcome from the treatment. For example, feeling relaxed, at peace, and at ease during situations that used to trigger the dependent behavior.
Using all this information, the person will then work with the therapist to create hypnotic suggestions and a plan of treatment that will best support recovery.
Next are the actual hypnosis sessions. The number of sessions needed will vary from person to person. Some people experience satisfying results after two or three sessions, while others benefit from a longer program of treatment.
During the first session, the therapist will induce the hypnotic trance, thus guiding the person into a state of deep relaxation and focused awareness. In addition to the strategies mentioned above, a therapist can then employ various techniques to relieve the symptoms of dependence, as well as address the underlying causes of anxiety.
Hypnotherapy techniques used to treat addiction include:
Post Hypnotic Suggestions
While in hypnosis, a person is more amenable to accepting and implementing positive suggestions. These suggestions are most effective when speaking in the present tense. For example, “Whenever I experience craving for my drug of choice, I reach out to friends in recovery for support.” The key to post hypnotic suggestions is that they are both believable and offer desirable alternative responses to substance use.
Normally, a person experiences the problem state, such as dependence or craving, while feeling they are at the mercy of whatever has triggered it. Anchoring is a technique that teaches a person how to effectively create their own positive triggers for more desirable outcomes.
While in trance, a person will be guided into a state where they feel relaxed, safe, and at ease. They will then be instructed to create an anchor to those feelings. This can be a phrase, a specific place, or a physical gesture such as pressing the thumb and forefinger together. Through physical and mental association, they are then able to enter the desired state whenever the chosen anchor is activated in the future.
As mentioned above, substance and behavioral addictions may have their source in memories of past traumatic events. In hypnosis, it is possible to revisit those memories with better resources. For example, a person who experienced physical or emotional abuse as a child can revisit the traumatic memory in the safety of the trance state. They can then re-experience the event with the full knowledge that they survived, that they are now more capable of protecting themselves as adults, and that they are no longer in imminent danger.
Is Hypnotherapy Effective for Addiction?
Hypnosis as entertainment became popular in the United States in the 1980s. As a result, some health professionals lost faith in the practice as a treatment for dependence.
However, the application of hypnosis for dependence is regaining credibility, and there have been many studies over the past several decades showing its effectiveness including:
- A study of 18 patients completed in 2004 showed that participants receiving intensive daily hypnosis sessions had a 77% success rate after a one-year follow-up.5
- A study of 4 groups of veterans showed that hypnosis can be a useful adjunct in helping those with chronic substance misuse with their reported self-esteem, serenity, and anger/impulsivity.6
- An unusual case worth mentioning is of a woman with a five-gram per day cocaine dependence who used hypnosis to overcome her dependence (which was costing her $500 a day). Her withdrawal and recovery were extraordinary because hypnosis was the only intervention, and no support network of any kind was available.7
- A study including70 volunteers in a methadone maintenance program found that those who received hypnotherapy experienced much less discomfort and illicit drug use, but a significantly greater number of withdrawals. At six-month follow-up, 94% of the subjects in the experimental group who had achieved withdrawal remained narcotic-free.8
Hypnosis as a Complementary Treatment for Dependence
Several types of therapy are available to people experiencing dependence that can compliment a program of hypnotherapy including:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT addresses dependence by helping people make changes to the way they think and behave. A therapist will help the person with dependence recognize potential triggers to drug use and formulate strategies to engage in more positive behaviors.
Evaluation for treatment of co-occurring disorders such as depression or PTSD is important when treating any substance abuse issue.
Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT)
A potential option for opioid dependence and alcoholism.
Long-term follow-up to prevent relapse is also an important part of any treatment program for dependence. This follow-up can take the form of individual counseling, therapy, support groups, and 12-Step programs.
How to Find a Hypnotherapist
Hypnotherapy as a treatment emphasizes personal empowerment and choice. Making an educated choice about your mental and emotional health requires some time and research.
Here are a few suggestions for finding and choosing an appropriate hypnotherapist:
The more knowledgeable you are about hypnosis, the easier it will be to make an informed decision about which hypnotherapist is right for you. Read articles and books, watch YouTube videos, and listen to podcasts about hypnosis. A little knowledge goes a long way when it comes to making decisions about your health and well-being.
Check on Credentials
Requirements vary from state to state and country to country. Some states allow people to describe themselves as hypnotherapists while others allow only the title hypnotist or clinical hypnotist. Either way, check the credentials of any prospective therapist and make sure they are qualified to practice in your state or region. One highly respected trade organization is The National Guild of Hypnotists.
Many hypnotherapists offer free initial consultations. These initial visits are great opportunities to personally meet a number of different therapists and compare their services.
Interview Potential Therapists
You are about to hire a person to perform a valuable service. Conduct your initial conversation with a prospective therapist like you would a job interview.
Before initiating care with a hypnotherapist, make sure you know the answers to these questions:
- What is the therapist’s experience with helping people overcome dependencies?
- What kind of success have they had with past clients?
- What kinds of additional support do they offer before and after your sessions?
- Who do they consider to be an ideal client?
In the end, trust your heart as well as your head. If you get the impression that the therapist has empathy for your issue and you feel a sense of rapport, then that person is likely to be a good fit.
At-Home Hypnosis for Dependence
The following suggestions can help to improve one’s chances of success with treating dependence. However, it should be emphasized that a robust approach to recovery includes many different approaches.
Because craving often manifests as physical symptoms, it can be very helpful to develop a more fine-tuned awareness of the body. This awareness can be attained through regularly practicing the progressive relaxation technique. Over time it will result in a heightened ability to recognize anxiety as soon as it begins to come up. It then becomes possible to treat the anxiety before the symptoms intensify.
Most hypnotherapists incorporate some kind of progressive-body relaxation into a hypnosis session. This mindfulness technique is easy to learn and apply at home. Simply find a quiet space, close your eyes, and bring your attention to each part of the body from the top of the head down to the feet. Spend some time noticing where there is tension or stress and do your best to let go and relax.
Once a person is relaxed, they can begin to visualize different scenarios where it becomes possible for addiction cravings to subside. One technique is to create a calm, safe place with the imagination. This can be a beach, a forest, or a safe and familiar room. Once this safe place is visualized, the person should pay attention to sensory details until the experience seems more and more real. This visualization can give the person suffering from dependence a much needed break and is often enough to treat the immediate symptoms for the short-term.
Break the Cycle
Dependence can make a person feel like they are caught in a cycle of intense emotions, irresistible craving sensations, guilt, and shame. It can be difficult, but breaking the cycle by changing the stimulus or environment can bring relief. Going outside for a walk, exercising, or simply calling a friend in recovery are all ways to expunge negative thinking and feeling.
For Further Reading
If you or a loved one are dealing with addiction, these resources may be helpful:
- Narcotics Anonymous offers support group meetings for people seeking help with dependence.
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides evidence-based information on dependence, current research, and other resources.
- In The Rooms maintains a list of support group meetings for dependencies of all kinds. Online meetings are scheduled around the world 24/7.
- The National Guild of Hypnotists is a professional organization that provides a directory of vetted hypnotists and hypnotherapists.