Hypnotherapy, or clinical hypnosis, is a solution-oriented therapy treatment that works with a person’s conscious and subconscious minds to elicit emotional and behavioral change. It has been found to be effective when treating such issues as anxiety, stress, phobias, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A typical hypnosis session lasts between 60 and 90 minutes.
A course of treatment for a condition such as PTSD can be anywhere from two or three weekly sessions and up to multiple sessions over the course of several weeks or months.
How Does Hypnosis Work?
Hypnotherapy relies heavily 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 to navigate through day-to-day life. The subconscious mind contains all of our memories, beliefs, habitual patterns, and past learnings. Things like knowing how to tie your shoes, ride a bicycle, or speak a foreign language all fall under the domain of the subconscious mind. In the case of a condition like PTSD, the memory of a traumatic event can get “stuck” in the subconscious. This can result in adverse reactions whenever some external stimulus reminds the person of the original trauma.
In the state of hypnosis, when the subconscious mind is more active and accessible, the hypnotherapist can help the person resolve the traumatic memories and experiences that have become problematic. Through relaxation, guided imagery, positive hypnotic suggestions, and other methods adverse reactions and behaviors can be reprogrammed into more positive ones.
How Does Hypnotherapy for PTSD Work?
Because PTSD is deeply connected with subconscious phenomena, hypnotherapy can be an effective solution for people suffering from the effects of past trauma.2 People with PTSD can exhibit a wide range of symptoms from mild to severe. Whatever the case, symptoms can persist for months or even years after the original traumatic experience. This can result in a severely reduced quality of life as well as contributing to higher rates of addiction and even suicide in some cases.3
Again, because PTSD can be a complicated and serious condition, a variety of health professionals should be consulted when making a decision on the best course of treatment. Different types of therapies including other psychotherapy like EMDR and CBT, and drug therapies can all be used in conjunction with hypnotherapy when treating this condition.4
How Can Hypnotherapy Help Someone With PTSD?
Most people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. The brain’s natural response to a dangerous or life-threatening situation is what is known as the “fight, flight, freeze” response. During a crisis, the amygdala alerts the hypothalamus to release stress hormones that in turn cause the sympathetic nervous system to react appropriately. Once the danger has passed, the brain stops producing those stress hormones and returns to normal functioning.
With PTSD however, a person has not been able to process the traumatic event and the brain’s natural process is disrupted. When situations arise in the future that remind a person of the original trauma, the fight, flight, freeze response can be triggered unnecessarily. With its emphasis on physical and mental relaxation, hypnotherapy can be a highly effective intervention for PTSD.
Hypnotherapeutic techniques for working with PTSD include:
- Relaxation: In order to achieve sufficient relaxation to enter the hypnotic trance state, the therapist will guide a person through a progressive attention to each part of the body. This process of mental and physical relaxation can be a natural antidote to many of PTSD’s symptoms. When the intensity of symptoms is reduced, it is easier to begin meaningful therapeutic work.
- Identifying Triggers: Oftentimes symptoms of PTSD can be triggered by non-threatening stimuli. For example, many combat veterans experience severe reactions to the sound of fireworks or backfiring motor vehicles. While in the relaxed state of hypnosis, it is often easier to identify common triggers that may have previously gone unnoticed.
- Aversion Therapy: While in the trance state a person can vividly imagine experiencing triggering stimuli and safely practice more appropriate reactions. With repeated attempts, the severity of the adverse reactions decrease until the stimulus is no longer triggering.
In addition to all of these techniques, many hypnotherapists will suggest various self-management tools to deal with PTSD symptoms as they may come up in the future. These can include instructions for self-hypnosis, deep breathing exercises, and self-guided relaxation meditations.
Example of Hypnosis for PTSD
When a person initially seeks hypnotherapy treatment, PTSD is not always the original presenting issue. Co occurring disorders such as depression, panic attacks, sleep disorders, low self-esteem, and addiction are oftentimes associated with PTSD.
As these issues are addressed while under hypnosis, it is common for traumatic memories to come up. A skilled hypnotherapist will recognize the relationship of these memories to the problem behaviors and symptoms. Through a variety of techniques the therapist will then guide the person towards a healthy resolution.
Some examples of hypnotherapeutic techniques include memory regression, reframing/restructuring memories, and anchoring resource states.
One of the most common tools available to the hypnotherapist is memory regression. While under hypnosis, memories can be recalled in various degrees of intensity and detail. In a full memory regression, it is possible for a person to re experience the original event as if it were actually occurring.
This kind of experience can include intense recollections of the event itself as well as the person’s emotional state at the time. In order to keep the person calm and feeling safe, the therapist will create the conditions for what is called “dual awareness”. This is done by simply reminding the person throughout the process that although the memory seems quite real, they are actually in the present moment and free from danger. This allows the person to work with the memory therapeutically without repressing it or dissociating from it.
*It should be noted that memory regression should only be performed with an experienced hypnotist or hypnotherapist.
Once a traumatic memory is accessed in regression, fear responses can begin to be modified. One way of doing this is by reframing and restructuring the traumatic memory by allowing the person to bring new resources to the original event.
For example, while experiencing a memory, the therapist can instruct the person to remind themselves that their original response was appropriate at the time but is no longer useful. It is also helpful to be reminded that no matter what happened, the person has survived the traumatic event and is no longer in danger.
Through guided imagery, it is also possible to have the person reenact the experience with resources and abilities that they may not have had at the time of the trauma. For example, a person who experienced abuse as a child can imagine being there as an adult to offer the child protection and support. By experiencing the memory in a new, empowered way it is possible for the original trauma responses to be neutralized.
Anchoring Resource States
Once some progress has been made towards reframing the old emotional/behavioral responses to traumatic triggers, new triggers (also known as “anchors”) can be installed to help the person deal with PTSD symptoms in the future.
First, the person will be asked to generate an empowered resource state such as feeling safe, competent, or being in control while under hypnosis. This state should be experienced with as much detail as possible. Once a sufficient feeling is built up, the person is instructed to create an anchor for the feeling such as touching the forefinger and thumb together. This effectively connects the feeling state with a physical stimulus.
In the future, it is then possible for a person to re experience the resource state by employing the anchor.
Is Hypnotherapy Effective for PTSD?
Hypnotherapy has proven to be highly effective when working with PTSD either alone or as a part of a larger treatment plan. Several studies have shown the efficacy of hypnosis for PTSD for a variety of populations.
Here are the results of several studies on hypnotherapy for PTSD:
- A 2011 study looked at the effectiveness of hypnosis on the children affected by PTSD after the terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002. Statistically significant results showed that the children who received hypnosis treatment reported a 77% improvement rate of PTSD symptoms after one year. The study concluded that hypnosis is an effective and easily implemented treatment for PTSD and other life-threatening catastrophic events.5
- A 2013 meta-analysis looked at 6 experiments that tested the efficacy of hypnosis on PTSD. It found that hypnosis had both short and long term success in alleviating PTSD symptoms.6
- A study done in 2019 showed that women who experienced PTSD from sexual abuse reported decreased symptoms after receiving hypnotherapy.7
- A 2001 report detailed the successful treatment of a British war veteran who had experienced severe PTSD symptoms for over 40 years. After receiving hypnotherapy treatment, the man was reported to be almost symptom-free and was able to begin normal relational contact with family and friends.8
How to Find a Hypnotherapist to Help You With PTSD
Here are a few things to consider when looking for a hypnotherapist:
- Learn: Become more knowledgeable about hypnosis by reading articles and books, watching YouTube videos, and listening to podcasts. A little knowledge goes a long way when it comes to making decisions about your health and well-being. See some of the resources at the end of this article for more information.
- Check credentials: Always check the credentials of any prospective therapist and make sure they are allowed to practice hypnosis in your state or region. Credentials can include degrees in other fields, certifications, or the types of hypnosis training your prospective therapist has received. Note that not all professional hypnotists are required to be licensed therapists. This has no bearing on their qualifications to practice.
- Schedule consultations: Take advantage of free or low-cost consultations to personally meet a number of different therapists and compare their services. Pay attention to how you feel about the person throughout your conversation. Ask yourself: Do you feel comfortable sharing your issues with them? Do they seem to have empathy for you and do you feel like you have good rapport with them?
- Conduct Interviews: Since you are about to hire a person to perform a valuable service, treat your initial consultation like a job interview. Ask them about their experience with helping people with PTSD. What kind of success have they had with your particular symptoms and issues? What kind of additional support do they offer before and after your sessions? Have them describe how they have worked with people with similar issues in the past.
There are also many professional organizations that maintain directories of hypnotists and hypnotherapists in your area. Some respected ones include:
Pros & Cons of Hypnotherapy for PTSD
As with any therapy, there are pros and cons for treating PTSD with hypnosis. Some of the pros include lack of side effects, immediacy of relief, and the ability to resolve underlying issues, while cons include varying results, lack of national standards, and lack of access to insurance for hypnotherapy, so one is likely to pay out of pocket.
Pros of hypnotherapy for PTSD include:
- Drug-free: Although drug therapies are common for treating PTSD symptoms, the risk of adverse side effects are likely. Hypnosis relies on expanding a natural state of mental and physical relaxation and side effects are rare.9
- Immediate results: People can oftentimes find immediate relief from PTSD symptoms when receiving hypnosis treatment. Even if symptoms temporarily return after a session, follow-up techniques such as focused breathing, progressive relaxation, and anchoring can be applied as needed.
- Resolution of underlying issues: As mentioned before, PTSD has its roots in past traumatic experiences. Hypnosis alone or as an adjunct to other treatments can help the person resolve the psychological effects of traumatic memories.
Cons of hypnotherapy for PTSD include:
- Results vary: As with any treatment, not everyone will experience the same results. Although the person-centered approach of hypnotherapy can be a great advantage to many people, it means that sometimes the treatment will be more or less effective. As a result, a person may have to seek out more than one hypnotherapist if they are not satisfied with the initial outcome.
- Standards: There is not one set of standards that govern the profession of hypnotherapy. As a result, the services and treatments provided by hypnotists may vary. Nonetheless, most practitioners do adhere to some kind of ethical and professional standards. Make sure that your hypnotherapist belongs to a reputable trade organization such as the National Guild of Hypnotists.
- Insurance: Many insurance companies do not cover hypnosis treatment which can result in out of pocket costs. Check with your insurance company before committing to hypnotherapy as a treatment for nicotine addiction.
At-Home Hypnosis for PTSD
Many of the techniques and principles of hypnosis can be applied at home, including practicing mindfulness and relaxation meditations. It may also be helpful to try self-hypnosis or join a support group. As with any serious mental health condition, be sure to seek the advice of a professional mental health provider before trying these yourself.
One of the requirements for hypnosis is cultivating a state of focused awareness. This mindfulness technique can be practiced at home to develop a more fine-tuned awareness of the body. Over time it can result in a heightened ability to recognize PTSD symptoms and triggers as soon as they come up. It then becomes possible to manage the symptoms before they intensify.
Most hypnotherapists incorporate some kind of progressive body relaxation into a hypnosis session. This mindfulness technique is easy to learn and use 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.
The mechanics of a self-hypnosis session are not that difficult to learn. Books and other resources have scripts for self-hypnosis routines that can be memorized or recorded. Once one has learned how to elicit a trance state for themselves, they can employ a variety of techniques to address PTSD symptoms including creating and anchoring resource states and repeating positive suggestions silently or out loud.
PTSD can be a difficult condition to live with alone. Fortunately, there are many in-person and online support groups that can help you find relief. Ask your hypnotist or therapist to help you find a support group in your area.
For Further Reading
The following are helpful resources for hypnotherapy for PTSD:
- Hypnosis Basics A video explaining some of the basic principles of hypnosis.
- The National Guild of Hypnotists offers educational material as well as a listing of hypnotists who are in good standing with the Guild.
- The National Center for PTSD is an excellent resource provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
- The PTSD Foundation of America is a nonprofit that offers help to combat veterans and their families who are suffering the effects of PTSD.
- Online Therapist Directory: Sort therapists by specialty, cost, availability and more. Watch intro videos and see articles written by the therapists you’re considering working with. When you’ve found a good match, book an online therapy appointment with them directly.
Hypnosis for PTSD Infographics