What is hypnotherapy?

People often think of hypnosis as being a mysterious or altered state of mind – a trance – and associate it with its popular use in magic shows. This has contributed to the misconception that you can be hypnotized against your will or made to do something against your will. This is not the case.

Hypnosis is a deep state of psychological, emotional and physical relaxation in which we have more focused attention. Hypnotherapy refers to the use of hypnosis in therapy to help people work with problems and create change. Hypnosis is not itself a type of therapy. Rather, it is a tool that can be used to facilitate progress within a therapy type like cognitive behavior therapy.

Hypnotherapy helps people learn to use their minds to manage feelings of distress or unpleasant physical sensations, and change habits or unhealthy behaviors.

Issues that hypnotherapy can help with

Hypnotherapy can help people with a wide variety of difficulties. Examples of these include: (1,5)

Effectiveness of hypnotherapy

Research shows that hypnosis can be a helpful tool to facilitate therapy for the difficulties noted just above. For example:

  • A review of 18 studies found that people who participated in cognitive behavior therapy supplemented with hypnosis had greater improvements than around 70% of people who did not receive hypnosis. (2)
  • Another review reported that hypnosis showed moderate levels of effectiveness for treating mental health problems, although advised that the results should be treated with caution for various methodological reasons. (3)

That said, people differ in the degree to which they respond to hypnosis and find it helpful. The decision to use hypnosis during therapy should be made in consultation with a licensed therapist with specific training in hypnosis.

How hypnotherapy works

During hypnosis, your therapist helps you to relax the part of your mind that is usually active, analytical and critical. This makes it easier to access other information in your mind, and use it to make helpful changes to your thoughts, emotions and actions. Researchers have found that hypnosis changes the brain’s state by allowing external input (such as the suggestions made during hypnosis) to overrule the person’s own internal goals. (4,5)

Let’s say that you are seeking hypnosis for pain management, for example. During the hypnosis, your therapist might suggest that you will be better able to manage pain following hypnosis. This suggestion can override your unhelpful pre-existing thoughts about the pain, which might be something like “I can’t cope with pain”.

Because the relaxed state of hypnosis involves focused attention and enhanced memory, suggestions tend to have a more powerful impact. This makes us more likely to respond successfully to these suggestions.

Frequency and length of hypnotherapy sessions

The frequency and length of hypnotherapy depend on your individual circumstances and the nature of the problems you want to work on. It does not have a set length.

That said, hypnosis is thought to help people make changes quite quickly, and so therapy is likely to be shorter-term. You are your therapist will decide together, based on your individual circumstance and progress, when the appropriate time is to end therapy.

What happens in a typical hypnotherapy session

Although there are variations, most hypnotherapy sessions have two stages:

  1. Induction: This is the process of entering the deeply relaxed state. Your therapist uses techniques to help you to do this. For example, they might lead you through a guided imagery exercise, where you imagine a peaceful scene. Some people say that this state feels a little like daydreaming, of the feeling just before falling asleep. (6)
  2. Application: Once you are deeply relaxed, your therapist makes suggestions to you that relate to the problem you want to work on. For example, if you are working on feeling anxious, your therapist might make the suggestion that, following hypnosis, you will be calmer.

Due to some common misconceptions, it’s worth noting that you remain conscious throughout hypnosis. As the nature of hypnosis involves enhanced attention and memory, you tend to remember everything that happens, contrary to popular belief!

What to look for in a hypnotherapist

They have a current license

Look for a mental health professional with a current license; this ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice. When browsing through therapists on Zencare, you can rest assured that our therapists have already been vetted.

They have completed specialized training

Hypnosis should only be performed by a therapist who has specialized training. Check that they are a member of a recognized association in your country, such as the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis or the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.

Take a look at therapists’ biographies, as this is often where they note their experience and specializations.

You feel comfortable talking to them

Prioritize the potential for developing a strong working relationship between you and your therapist. This trusting relationship, called the “therapeutic alliance” can have a significant impact on the effect of therapy.

Talk in advance

The best way to gauge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to do so. This gives you the opportunity to ask about your therapist’s:

  • Education and qualifications
  • Which type of specific training in hypnosis they have undertaken
  • Which professional associations relating to hypnosis they are members of
  • Which type of therapy they suggest combining hypnosis with and what that will be like
  • Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy

It’s a good idea to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.

Sources and references

  1. American Psychological Association, Society of Psychological Hypnosis, “Hypnosis: What it is and how it can help you feel better” (PDF)  
  2. Hypnosis as an adjunct to cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy: A meta-analysis (PDF)
  3. On the efficacy of hypnosis: a meta-analytic study
  4. Brain states and hypnosis research
  5. Australian Psychological Society, “The state of hypnosis
  6. Australian Society of Clinical Hypnotherapists