Hypnotherapy: How It Actually Works, and Should You Try It?

Updated: Jul. 25, 2016

Although many consider hypnosis little more than just a parlor trick, it may be the answer to some of your most menacing health problems.


For thousands of years, altered states of awareness—such as hypnogogic trance— have been employed for their psychological benefits. Using an individual’s subconscious mind, a hypnotherapist will attempt to bring about change through the power of suggestion. Dealing with emotional issues, health problems, insomnia, phobias, and weight loss are just some of the therapy’s applications.

Forms of hypnosis were practiced by many ancient civilizations, including the Romans and the Druids of ancient Britain. As scholars gained a deeper understanding of human psychology the concept of hypnosis was refined from the 15th and 16th centuries onward.

It was the work of Austrian physician Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer in the 18th century that popularized hypnosis, though his methods were somewhat dubious. Indeed, the word “mesmerize” is derived from his name. Dr. James Braid, Dr. Emile Coue and Sigmund Freud did much to authenticate the practice and advanced our understanding of its applications.

William J. Bryan Jr. became the first full-time practitioner of hypnotherapy and created the American Institute of Hypnosis in 1955. Today, hypnotherapy is readily available and has been shown to offer a considerable range of health benefits.

How Hypnotherapy Works
The term “hypnosis” comes from the Greek word hypnos, which means “sleep”; however, people have described the hypnotized state as feeling more like daydreaming. A hypnotherapist will help a patient to enter a trancelike state by inducing deep relaxation. Then the therapist will direct beneficial suggestions (previously agreed with the patient) directly to the patient’s subconscious mind. The patient remains in control while hypnotized and can bring themselves out of the hypnotic state at any time.

It is thought that hypnosis works by altering a patient’s state of consciousness in such a way that the analytical left side of the brain is turned off and the nonanalytical right side becomes more alert. As the subconscious mind is deeper-rooted and more instinctive, this is the part that has to change for a person’s behavior or physical stateto alter. A person who is terrified of flying, for example, might consciously try everything they can to overcome this. However, the phobia will remain while the subconscious mind retains this terror.

Hypnotherapy is used to help with or alleviate a wide range of conditions. There is some evidence that it helps people suffering with cancer and other serious illnesses deal with the pain, stress, and anxiety of their disease. The therapy can be used alone or alongside prescribed pain medication for pain management. Among the problems it has been used to manage are irritable bowel syndrome, sciatica, burns, joint pain, neck pain, and other injuries and illnesses. Studies suggest that using hypnosis to treat chronic pain resulted in a significant reduction in perceived pain, which was often maintained for several months.

There is even evidence that hypnosis can be used to treat warts. One report cites a seven-year-old girl with 82 warts that disappeared after hypnotherapy, despite having failed to respond to other treatments for 18 months.

What’s a Visit to the Hypnotherapist Like?
For hypnotherapy to be effective, a good rapport between client and therapist must be established. It is essential to feel at ease. Wear comfortable clothes and visit the bathroom before your appointment. And don’t be afraid to ask questions before you start.

A hypnotherapist will begin by taking a detailed case history to establish your mindset, personality type, the problem you wish to address and the desired outcome. Next comes the hypnosis itself. The hypnotherapist’s gently guiding voice will lead you into a state where body and mind are relaxed and almost asleep. At this stage, the therapist will introduce the things you wish to change or work on, as previously discussed and agreed on with you.

Finally, following the hypnosis, the therapist will encourage you to discuss your experiences during the session and any insights gained.

How to Use Hypnotherapy
In addition to attending sessions with a qualified hypnotherapist, self-hypnosis can be used to modify behavior, emotions and attitudes. Many people use self-hypnosis to help deal with everyday problems, to boost confidence and develop new skills. It canbe used to relieve stress and anxiety, overcome problems such as overeating or smoking, or to boost the immune system. It is popular among athletes to improve performance. Self-hypnosis techniques include eye fixation and guided imagery.

Safety First
Hypnotherapy should not be used on anyone suffering from psychosis or with a personality disorder, as it could make these conditions worse. If you do use a hypnotherapist, check that they are accredited and ensure they are trained specifically to work with your particular condition. Children should only be hypnotized by therapists trained to work with their age group.

Where to Find a Hypnotherapist
It is important to finda therapist with extensive training and experience. No formal licensing exists in the United States to govern hypnotherapists but your doctor should be able to refer you to a health professional experienced in hypnotherapy.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest