I Tried Hypnotherapy for Anxiety—Here’s What Happened

Updated: May 28, 2024

A health editor describes her experience with hypnotherapy, with insights from a clinical expert on the science behind this unusual but effective treatment.

As someone who’s been in and out of talk therapy for a decade, I have a pretty good idea of what works for me and what doesn’t: I’m more of a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) person than a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) person, I like a therapist who has experience with Internal Family Systems (IFS), and I’m endlessly curious about eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).

But with so many treatments for my twin mental health struggles of depression and anxiety—and with the culturally growing awareness that integrative modalities can add complementary impact to more traditional psychotherapeutic approaches—I’m open to trying anything once. Recently, that meant giving hypnotherapy a try.

I recently visited the beautiful Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg, AZ. While browsing which activities I could explore at this dude ranch resort, I discovered a hidden gem available at its spa: A hypnotherapy session with a certified clinical hypnotherapist.

I’d heard that hypnotherapy can help with smoking cessation and other health-related issues, and I found some research that seemed to suggest there’s science to supports its effectiveness for anxiety. A 2019 study published in the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences found hypnotherapy helped study participants with anxiety who don’t use medication, like me.

A clinical trial published in 2023 in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis studied 34 participants over eight weeks, randomly placing some in weekly therapy sessions with daily mindful hypnosis tapes to listen to while others were placed in a waitlist control group. Researchers noted “clinically significant differences” over time between the two groups, indicating that “hypnotherapy is an effective intervention for treating depression as well as reducing psychological inflexibility and improving self-compassion for patients with major depressive disorder.”

Fascinated—and hopeful—I signed up. Ahead, I share what this powerful experience taught me about hypnotherapy for anxiety.

How hypnotherapy works

When I showed up for my hypnotherapy session, I was nervous that I was walking into something that would make me feel vulnerable and sensitive. My worries were quickly squashed, though.

My hypnotherapist, Cathy Higgins-Peterson, CCHt, greeted me warmly, offering me tea and ushering me into a dimly lit room with a flickering candle, quietly humming music, and an elevated massage bed for me to recline on. She encouraged me to take my shoes off and get cozy under a blanket. Already, this was the most comfortable therapy session I’d ever experienced. 

We began with Higgins-Peterson getting to know me by asking me a series of personal questions, including what I hoped to work on that afternoon. According to Dr. Sera Levelle, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who owns and practices hypnotherapy at NY Health Hypnosis, it is important for your hypnotherapist to have a “complex understanding” of any issues you’re facing before incorporating hypnosis. Afterward, “the therapist would lure you into a relaxed state and work with you on a specific goal using a technique similar to guided mediation, but very specific to you and your issue,” Dr. Levelle explains, adding: “Hypnotherapy works by tapping directly into your unconscious mind and removing blocks so that you get in touch with your internal motivation for change.”

“Similar to guided meditation” is exactly how I would describe my experience of hypnotherapy. After sharing about my mental health issues, it was time for me to stop talking and start listening. Higgins-Peterson slowly began to draw me deeper and deeper into my subconscious.

I could feel myself sinking into a sleepy, barely-aware state, my limbs getting heavier and my breathing getting slower. As I relaxed, Higgins-Peterson narrated visuals for me to imagine, with one in particular that stands out: She described stars falling over the top of my head, slowly trickling down my body and into my hands, where she told me I could hold them tightly every time I needed to center myself. As she walked me through different moments of my life and waves of emotion washed over me, I felt myself clinging to those stars.

What are the benefits of hypnotherapy for anxiety?

In my experience, the benefits of hypnotherapy for anxiety have been significant. Throughout my session, my hypnotherapist spoke about forgiving myself for things my anxiety was fixating on, reframing mistakes or past choices as lessons that I learned and internalized.

This sounds so simple but felt so profound, as my deeply relaxed state helped it sink in. I thought of past relationships, career decisions, and other major life choices that I’ve since questioned or been tough on myself about. Embracing the decisions I make as lessons has helped me let go of the self-judgment I often rehash on a daily basis, and instead see myself as a person on a lifelong journey of growth and learning. 

A lasting effect from the hypnotherapy experience has been the star visual Cathy gave me, which has helped me manage my anxiety in real moments of crisis. On an evening bike ride a few weeks ago, I was suddenly overcome with an intense panic attack that made me pull over and try every breathing technique and counting strategy I know to calm myself down.

The stars! I remembered.

It wasn’t until I tightly gripped those stars in my hands that I was pulled right back to that extreme relaxation of my hypnotherapy session and finally felt some relief. It seemed like a real psychological association had happened in that deeply relaxed state.

“There is a vast amount of literature proving the effectiveness of incorporating hypnosis into the treatment of anxiety,” Dr. Levelle says. “Hypnosis without the complement of other methods, however, can be limited if you don’t address the roots of the anxiety through other therapy methods. For instance, several studies have shown that the addition can cut the number of therapy sessions in half when added to CBT, and that the effects tend to be twice as powerful.”

Noted. I know better than to cancel any of my regular therapy sessions, but knowing that I have those stars when I need them has been a comfort in itself. 

Who should try hypnotherapy, and who should avoid it?

If you’re curious about hypnotherapy and think it could help you, based on my experience, I suggest giving it a try. From just one session, I unlocked a level of self-reflection and connectedness with myself that I’ve struggled to reach for a long time. Like Dr. Levelle said, by tapping into my unconscious mind and examining the mental blocks I was facing in a calm and supportive setting, I learned a practical and evidently effective tool that helps me manage my anxiety in realtime.

“Nearly everyone can benefit from hypnotherapy, the same as most people can benefit from meditation,” Dr. Levelle agrees, with one exception: “The caveat would be working with psychosis, which is contraindicated for the use of hypnosis due to suggestibility. However, there is also research that suggests that with the proper training and guidelines in place, it could be beneficial even for this population.”