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9 Things to Know Before You Try Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy has been used for over 100 years to help with issues from smoking to low self-esteem. Read this before you try it.

Hypnotist dangling a watch in front of his patient.iStock/Patrick Heagney

So, what is hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy is a form of therapy used to reprogram the subconscious mind. When under hypnosis, you put your mind and body into a heightened state of learning, making you more susceptible to suggestions for self-improvement or behavior modification, the American Psychological Association points out. Many describe hypnosis as a state of focused attention. They feel very calm and relaxed. Media portrayal of hypnosis does it a disservice because it creates an aura of power between the hypnotist and person being hypnotized, says Eric B. Spiegel, PhD, president of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and practice director at the Attune Philadelphia Therapy Group.

You may have been hypnotized on your own without even realizing it, Dr. Spiegel says.  “You may have been daydreaming at a traffic light and got so lost in your own thoughts that you didn’t realize the light has changed. That’s hypnosis.”

“As a general rule of thumb, most people are hypnotizable—about 10% are highly hypnotizable, meaning they can be hypnotized during childbirth or in surgery in place of anesthesia, while 60 to 70 percent are moderately hypnotizable meaning that it could help with anxiety, smoking cessation, weight loss,” he says.

 

Woman lying on a table with a crystal above her.iStock/Wavebreakmedia

What isn’t hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy is not like what you see in stage shows, where you’ll often see people barking like a dog or clucking like a chicken, according to the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. There are no swinging pocket watches. In a hypnotherapy session, you are in control the whole time. You will hear the suggestions made to you, and you will be able to remember them after the session. Here’s a primer on how hypnotherapy works.

Statue of a man in a park.iStock/AmandaLewis

How did hypnotherapy start?

Many of the clucking chicken images are the result of hypnosis’s forefather, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). Mesmer believed that there was an invisible force, a magnetic force, that could be harnessed by one person to influence another person’s behavior, the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis explains. While his theory was wrong, the techniques he used were effective. These techniques were picked up on and developed over the years for therapeutic and medical purposes. Sigmund Freud, for instance, used hypnosis techniques. In the mid-1900s, hypnotherapy as we know it evolved. Milton Erickson (1901-1980) pioneered “indirect hypnosis,” during which therapists work with individual patients to shift their perceptions of themselves and their issues.

Woman on a hypnotherapist's couch.iStock/Paula Connelly

What’s hypnosis like?

During your first session, you will likely begin by telling the therapist about your goals and issues. You will then work together to come up with a treatment plan. The American Psychological Association adds that your therapist will ask you to imagine or think about something pleasant.  Once you enter a state of hypnosis, your body will feel calm and relaxed, even as you enter a state of increased awareness, similar to the way you might feel when meditating. Your therapist will speak to you in a calm and gently assertive voice, and place the suggestions you agreed to in your treatment plan into your subconscious mind.

Man drinking a beer and holding a cigarette.iStock/Bunyos

What does hypnosis work for?

Hypnosis for weight loss or to quit addictive behaviors like smoking or drinking is how most people think of hypnosis. While people do often seek hypnosis therapy for these reasons, there are numerous other benefits of hypnotherapy. People may see a hypnotherapist before and during childbirth or to increase self-esteem. It can also be used to deal with chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety, or to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), according to the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. Although studies are promising, more research is needed. Learn how one woman overcame her fear of spiders through hypnotherapy.

The literature is particularly strong for they use of hypnotherapy in treating irritable bowel syndrome, Dr. Spiegel says. In one study in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology journal, people reported that IBS symptoms including constipation, diarrhea, gas and bloating improved after three months of hypnotherapy and this improvement lasted for at least nine months.

 

Nurse putting a reassuring hand on another woman's shoulder.iStock/monkeybusinessimages

What doesn’t it work for?

It’s important to remember that hypnotherapists are not medical doctors. While hypnosis can help with pain management, it does not cure diseases, like cancer or heart disease, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Woman having a consultation with a doctor.iStock/sturti

Where can I find a hypnotherapist?

As with other treatment providers, recommendations from family or friends are a great place to start. You can also check with a therapist, naturopath, integrative physician, or acupuncturist for recommendations. There are several databases of certified hypnotherapists online, too. Try checking the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis’s look-up, or the General Hypnotherapy Register. You’ll want to check the therapist’s website before you choose, making sure to look for credentials and testimony from previous patients if available.

“See a therapist who is licensed in hypnotherapy to get the best treatment for you,” Dr. Spiegel says. “Hypnotherapy is just one tool that a therapist has in their tool box.”

Woman meditating in a field.iStock/Redrockschool

Can I hypnotize myself?

There are a number of articles, books, and audio guides available for free or purchase online that can give you pointers or guides for self hypnosis. There are also hundreds of self hypnosis apps available for download. However, it is important to note that many of these apps have not been scientifically tested, and are not proven to work, but if they help relax you, there’s little downside, according to the study in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Michael Spertus, MD, on September 19, 2019
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Alison Wilkinson
Ali Wilkinson lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, three small children, and two large cats. She is a lawyer, writer, knitter, runner and over-consumer of Nutella. Her writing has appeared on Red Book, Scary Mommy, Elephant Journal and Babble, among others. She writes about parenting and other things that make her laugh (and cry) at her blog Run, Knit, Love.