Hypnotherapy, sometimes called clinical hypnosis, is a beneficial mental health treatment that helps a person achieve change through a heightened state of awareness. Despite the myths and misunderstandings, experts have shown the benefits of hypnotherapy when used to treat numerous physical and mental health conditions. A person seeking therapy for their symptoms should consider pushing past any preconceived notions to consider hypnotherapy as a short-term and goal-focused option.
Central Concepts of Hypnotherapy
Hypnotherapy is a treatment style involving a therapist helping to increase the client’s focus and concentration to induce a trance-like state. A person cannot be hypnotized against their will, the treatment will require the person’s cooperation. During a period of hypnosis, the person will experience a powerful sense of calm and relaxation. The trance-like state is important to attain, because in this state the person is more open and receptive to suggestion, which helps create the desired change.1
Hypnotherapy is Not a Sideshow or Scam
At this point, it is essential to differentiate hypnotherapy from popular conceptions of hypnosis portrayed in TV and movies. Hypnotherapy and clinical hypnosis are legitimate treatments and not a spectacle intended to entertain a group of people. With hypnotherapy, no one is forced to quack like a duck or become instantly attracted to strangers. Hypnotherapy is not about losing control of one’s freedom and independence. Instead, it is about gaining power and control over issues adversely influencing life.2
Additionally, the fear that someone will lose their memory or experience periods of amnesia during and after hypnosis are mostly false. In reality, most people will recall everything that happens during a hypnotherapy session.2
Hypnotherapy is Not Psychotherapy
Hypnotherapy, especially hypnotherapy used for behavioral health issues, may share many similarities with psychotherapy or talk therapy. Like hypnotherapy, psychotherapy involves a person meeting with a trained and experienced professional with the goal of decreasing psychological distress.
The main difference is that hypnotherapy is commonly regarded as a complementary or alternative treatment. Hypnotherapy can be used by itself, in addition to talk therapy sessions with a psychotherapist, or as a tool used by a therapist during psychotherapy sessions. Alone, though, hypnotherapy is not the same as psychotherapy.3
Which Clinical Hypnosis Concepts Create Change?
The central concept of hypnotherapy is to focus on the power of guided relaxation, intense concentration, and focused attention. When the hypnotherapist helps the person to achieve a heightened state of awareness, changes in perception are possible.4
Along with changed perceptions, the trance-like state that accompanies the heightened awareness may:
- Increase a person’s response to suggestion. With this, a hypnotherapist can offer a suggestion connected to the person’s goal, and the individual will be more likely to follow the suggestion.
- Improve their ability to manage some bodily functions that are ordinarily involuntary, like breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.
- Enhance self-understanding. During the hypnosis, the person may uncover a better understanding of their past and the root causes of unwanted symptoms.4
A person’s ability to benefit from hypnotherapy is highly variable, but for some, the treatment can significantly improve their life and overall well-being.
What Can Hypnotherapy Help With?
Hypnotherapy is a versatile treatment style that is capable of addressing many mental and physical health issues quickly and efficiently. The treatment can improve diagnosed disorders, undesirable behaviors, and even improve unwanted characteristics like poor self-esteem and anxiety when taking tests.5
Mental & Behavioral Health Disorders
Mental health conditions can negatively influence a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
When used with psychotherapy, hypnotherapy may limit the influence of numerous psychological symptoms and conditions like:2,4,5
- Anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety and phobias
- Unwanted or repetitive behaviors linked to nail-biting and skin-picking disorders
- Sleep disorders connected to psychological conditions
- Eating disorders like binge-eating disorder, anorexia, and bulimia
- Addictions, especially nicotine use disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
Overall, hypnotherapy is an effective treatment for reducing a person’s overall stress level. This impact on stress is valuable, because when left untreated, high stress levels can spawn many damaging mental health symptoms.
Beyond its use in psychotherapy, hypnotherapy can be an option for physical health and medical issues for some people. Hypnotherapy is not a first-line treatment in guidelines for any medical conditions, but it may be helpful in minimizing the burden of physical health issues. Like with psychotherapy, though, hypnotherapy may be more beneficial as a complementary therapy, rather than being the sole treatment.1,5
Common Hypnotherapy Techniques
Hypnotherapy may differ greatly from psychotherapies and other treatments used to address mental and medical issues, but like other approaches, hypnotherapy is grounded in sound therapeutic techniques that help create the wanted change. It is important to note that these interventions usually require the person to be in the state of heightened awareness, which is a collaborative process between the hypnotherapist and the client. This state is not something that the therapist “does” or forces on the client.6
While the techniques used in hypnotherapy may seem abstract and difficult to identify, they are well-considered interventions like:
- Mental imagery: Once the person is in a focused state of attention and focus, the power of the client’s imagination is increased. From there, the therapist prompts the client to use visualizations to imagine the root of their problem and begin to resolve the concern.
- Suggestions: While in the trance-like state, the therapist can offer suggestions that fit in line with the goals and vision of the client. If the treatment team is working to improve self-esteem, the therapist could offer some encouraging and optimistic thoughts that will serve to increase confidence after the session.
- Unconscious Exploration: Hypnotherapy views the conscious mind as a critic that may sensor valuable information and block it from becoming expressed. When the client is in their state of awareness, they can tap into the underlying issues and motivation connected to their unwanted problem. With a better understanding of the issue, the person can identify more helpful solutions.5
In some ways, the techniques used in hypnotherapy are not so unique from relaxation techniques and cognitive reframing used in psychotherapy styles like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The primary point of distinction is the trance-like state used in hypnotherapy.
Because of its nature, hypnotherapy is flexible enough to be employed in a variety of settings, used to address numerous problems, and accomplish many goals. Like other treatments, hypnotherapy will vary greatly based on the professional, their education, experience, and specialties.
Hypnotherapy for Anxiety
When a person sees a hypnotherapist to reduce their anxiety, the therapist will work with the client to learn more about the anxiety, the intensity and duration of symptoms, and when the condition started. From there, the hypnotherapist will explain the plan to use imagination, suggestion, and exploration to aid the condition.
With the client entering the desired trance-like state, the therapist will:
- Encourage positive imagery of the clients seeing themselves as not being anxious in situations and presenting with a sense of calm confidence instead
- Use suggestion to propose the idea that the client no longer sees the need to worry and reinforce the idea that stress and anxiety are not necessary to stay safe
- Ask the client to access their unconscious memories to reflect on experiences that contributed to current anxiety
With this procedure, the client will begin to understand their anxiety while being freed from its influence.
Hypnotherapy for Chronic Pain
Despite the differences between chronic pain and anxiety, much of the early stages of hypnotherapy will likely remain the same. The person will meet with the therapist, establish goals, and provide some background about their condition.
When entered into the heightened state of awareness, the hypnotherapist will:
- Ask the client to imagine the source of their pain is healing or recovering, so in time, the pain will dissipate
- Offer the suggestion that the pain level is decreasing or that the body is improving its ability to manage the pain and remain comfortable
With a presenting problem like pain, exploring the unconscious may not be required if the condition has an obvious origin, like a car accident or workplace injury. In this situation, the mental imagery and suggestions may be enough to create change.
Hypnotherapy for Addictions
Hypnotherapy for addictions will employ all of the core techniques to decrease the impulse to use substances, establish a period of recovery, and understand the source of the issues. For addictions, hypnotherapy may be able to change the person’s response to triggers and cravings.
During hypnotherapy for addictions, the therapist will:
- Ask the client to explore the situations surrounding first use and escalation towards addiction. This process may identify underlying issues that the substance use concealed.
- Encourage the client to imagine how different life would be without substance use and how their relationships, mental health, financial status, and physical health would improve.
- Offer the suggestion that substances no longer have control over their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Instead, the client is in control.
As mentioned, all hypnotherapy sessions will be unique. These examples only offer a general idea of what typical hypnotherapy sessions provide.
How to Find a Hypnotherapist
Depending on your location, finding a hypnotherapist could be much more challenging than finding a mental health or physical health practitioner to address your concerns. Plus, separating clinical hypnotherapists from people with no education and training could be complicated.
The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) offers a member search to help locate ASCH members who have completed the education and training requirements. Some states, like California, are home to many members, while Idaho and Wyoming only offer one ASCH member in the entire state. Aside from the ASCH, people should always consider word-of-mouth and recommendations from another provider as a valuable source of referrals.
Who Can Perform Hypnotherapy?
Hypnotherapy should only be performed by a professional specially trained in clinical hypnosis. They should have a license from the state as a healthcare provider, and they should have a certification from a hypnotherapy organization, like the ASCH, to practice this treatment.4 People should be wary of those with limited or suspicious knowledge or training regarding hypnotherapy.
Cost of Hypnotherapy?
The cost of hypnotherapy will generally range from $75 to $125 per session, with some specific programs, like those designed to address common goals like smoking cessation, costing $400 or more.7 Like other forms of treatment, hypnotherapy costs vary greatly depending on the location and expertise of the therapist.
Some hypnotherapists will accept only cash payments, while others will accept insurance to cover the cost. Insurance coverage may pay for hypnotherapy entirely if it is used as part of an overall mental health or physical health treatment plan. In other situations, insurance may pay for between 50% and 80% of the total cost.8
If the cost of hypnotherapy seems high, it can be helpful to remember that treatment often progresses quickly, so the total number of sessions will be limited.
Key Questions When Considering Hypnotherapy
When preparing to begin hypnotherapy, learning about the professional in question is one of the best decisions you can make. By interviewing the hypnotherapist, you have better odds of identifying unscrupulous providers.
You may want to ask a hypnotherapist questions like:
- Do you have training in psychology, dentistry, or medicine?
- Do you hold a current license to practice a specialty in this state?
- What types of training and experience do you have performing clinical hypnosis?
- Do you belong to professional organizations for hypnotherapy? Which ones?
- Is there evidence to support the benefit of hypnotherapy for my goals?
- Do you believe I will be a good candidate to be hypnotized?
- How long will treatment last?1
Always be cautious when providers offer results that seem too good to be true.
What to Expect During the First Appointment
The first hypnotherapy appointment usually begins with meeting the therapist and learning about the process of hypnosis and its clinical uses. The session will then shift to discuss the client’s reason for seeking hypnosis, the desired outcomes, and treatment goals.1
Once treatment starts, the therapist will play a recording or talk in a calm, soothing voice while describing situations and images that spawn relaxation, peacefulness, and a sense of security. When in the heightened state, the therapist will make suggestions or prompt the client to visualize mental images with significance to help achieve the goal.1
As the session concludes, the therapist will end the trance-like state or ask the client to return from the state. The client may have limited knowledge of the session or feel like time passed by very quickly.1
Is Hypnotherapy Effective?
Based on numerous pieces of research and studies, hypnotherapy is an effective treatment for many physical and mental health issues, but the therapy is not a remedy for every condition. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially recognized hypnotherapy as an approved treatment.9
Studies indicate that hypnotherapy is most effective when used to:
- Lessen Pain: Various meta-analyses in the early 2000s demonstrated that hypnosis provided a moderate to major relief of pain. The effect is so profound that, at times, hypnosis is more beneficial than other pain relief methods.
- Aid Surgeries: A study conducted in 1999 showed hypnosis combined with sedation can shorten recovery time and improve. A 2007 study proved hypnotherapy before surgery could improve the effectiveness of sedation during the procedure and limit the pain, nausea, and distress following the operation.
- Reduce Anxiety: Hypnotherapy helps to reduce anxiety and blood pressure. Subjects from a 2006 study who received hypnotherapy reported their anxiety was cut in half, while those who did not receive hypnosis reported an increase in anxiety.9
Some evidence also supports hypnotherapy for many other conditions, including depression, eating disorders, and addictions, but further research is needed in the future to solidify its effectiveness.9
Risks of Hypnotherapy
Hypnotherapy offers minimal risks, but one possible outcome is the chance of creating false memories. If a therapist intends to use the process to uncover important memories from the past, they could inadvertently implant memories of events that never really occurred.4
For this reason, hypnotherapy should be avoided for accessing repressed memories. Additionally, people with certain mental health conditions, like dissociative disorders, should consider other treatments.4
Criticisms of Hypnotherapy
Several criticisms of hypnotherapy exist, but they are largely based on myths and misunderstandings.
Hypnotherapy criticisms include:
- “During hypnosis, the client loses control of their body.” Actually, there is very little evidence to suggest the person loses their free will while in the state of awareness.
- “Hypnotherapy requires a trance so deep the person has no memory of the hypnosis.” In reality, clinical hypnosis requires only a mild or light state of trance to accomplish most of its goals.
- “The hypnotherapist is in complete control.” In many cases, the hypnotherapist is guiding the process, but the values of collaboration and teamwork are at the center of the process.2
People should always consider limitations and criticisms of any treatment style to ensure they make the best choice for their needs and goals.
How Is Hypnotherapy Different From Psychotherapy Techniques?
Although hypnotherapy clearly stands apart from psychotherapy approaches, it may overlap with therapies at times.
Hypnotherapy vs. CBT
As a traditional talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) uses interventions like exposure, desensitization, conditioning, and cognitive reframing to elicit change. These techniques are not native to hypnotherapy, but they can be used during hypnosis as suggestions to create change.6
Hypnotherapy vs. EMDR
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and hypnotherapy are similar because they use alternative techniques when compared to usual talk therapy interventions.
After a closer inspection, the treatments differ in areas such as:
- Altered state: Whereas hypnotherapy relies on the trance-like state for change, EMDR does not aim to produce a state of mental relaxation. Instead, EMDR strives to keep the person connected to their surroundings.
- Focus on positive: Rather than focusing on the positive or relaxing images used in hypnotherapy, EMDR stresses the importance of balance between both positive and negative.10
History of Hypnotherapy
The current form of hypnotherapy connects back to the 1700s and F. A. Mesmer, a man whose name gave birth to the word mesmerize. At this time, the prevailing belief was that a mystical substance that connected the subject to the hypnotist permitted hypnosis.11
It was not until the 1840s that the term hypnosis was introduced by a surgeon named James Braid.
Around this time, experts developed many theories of hypnosis, including:
- Hypnosis is a special state of sleep
- Hypnosis is a unique physiological state
- Hypnosis is a psychological state of suggestibility11
Early in his career, Sigmund Freud experimented with hypnosis during his therapy sessions before trading in the technique for another way to access repressed thoughts called free association.11
In the 1950s and 1960s, hypnosis moved towards legitimacy with one practitioner, Milton Erickson, helping to lead the charge.5
With his help, professional organizations like the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association began viewing hypnotherapy as a helpful treatment for medical and mental health conditions.9
Like other forms of treatment, the field of hypnotherapy is continuously evolving. Over time, the practice will undoubtedly make additional strides to meet the needs and achieve the goals of people hoping to minimize their symptoms and improve their overall well-being.
For Further Reading
For more information specific to clinical hypnosis and hypnotherapy, please see these sites:
- American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists
- American Society of Clinical Hypnosis
- The Council of Professional Hypnosis Organizations
- National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists
For more information about various mental health conditions and evidenced-based treatments, browse these professional organizations: