Welcome to hypnotherapy 101! If you’ve stumbled your way here through a maze of confusing and contradictory online sources, join the club. While hypnosis and hypnotherapy boast roots in ancient history and reams of experimentally-verified results, misinformation and mythology about the concepts abound.
As a trained, certified, and practicing Hypnotherapist, you’ve learned to seek out high-quality, science-based answers to your questions. But straight answers about hypnosis and hypnotherapy can be hard to come by.
So let’s start at the very beginning.
What Is Hypnosis?
Hypnosis is the act of guiding someone into the trance state. Different experts define the trance state differently, but they almost always refer to:
- A deep state of relaxation.
- Hyperfocus and concentration.
- Increased suggestibility.
If that sounds commonplace, it’s because it is. Most of us go in and out of the trance state regularly. If you’ve ever zoned out on your daily commute, fallen into a reverie while listening to music, or found yourself immersed in the world of a book or movie, you’ve been in the trance state.
The only difference between hypnosis and these everyday trance states is that, in hypnosis, someone induces the trance state to achieve something: healing, discovery, or stress relief, for example.
What Isn’t Hypnosis?
What about the part where the hypnotist tricks you into quacking like a duck or doing their evil bidding?
The idea that hypnotists can take over the minds of their subjects and control their actions is, of course, an entirely media-driven myth. In the trance state, you control all of your actions, you can hear everything around you, and you cannot be forced to do something against your will.
Certified hypnotherapist Cassie Salewske writes, “In a hypnotherapy session, clients are conscious; they are awake, participating, and remembering.”
Hypnosis, she points out, is known for harnessing “the power of suggestion.” But it’s hardly the only time our minds are susceptible to suggestion.
“Advertising, music, movies, and books routinely plant suggestions into our subconscious. Language and communication are saturated with suggestion,” Salewske writes.
Even participants in stage hypnotism shows operate under the control of their own minds, as it’s impossible for someone not to be conscious while in hypnosis.
What Is Hypnotherapy?
To understand the difference between hypnosis and hypnotherapy, think of hypnosis as a tool and hypnotherapy as the use of a tool. In SAT terms, hypnotherapy is to hypnotism as art therapy is to art.
The definition of hypnotherapy is clear from the word itself. Hypnotherapy is the practice of hypnosis for therapeutic purposes.
In other words, if you are a professional mental health therapist or medical doctor and you’re using hypnosis to help a client overcome a mental or physical condition, you’re practicing hypnotherapy.
The hypnotic trance state is a remarkably flexible tool for solving mental and physical health problems. Here are just a few ways mental health and medical professionals use hypnotherapy:
- Helping people quit smoking or reduce overeating by focusing their minds and suggesting healthier behavior.
- Accessing the mind-body link to relieve chronic and acute pain, including during surgery and childbirth. Hypnotherapy has also proven effective against stubborn physical afflictions like irritable bowel syndrome and dermatological conditions.
- Diving deep into the subconscious mind to uncover and treat the root causes of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction.
We’ll focus the rest of this article on that last use. As many hypnotherapists have discovered, the trance state is the key to unlocking the hidden depths of our minds, memories, and motivations.
How Does Hypnotherapy Work?
The most powerful feature of the trance state is how it connects our conscious minds to our subconscious minds.
Our subconscious is like our hard drive, where we store every experience, emotion, and though we’ve had.
In the relaxed, hyper-focused state of hypnosis — under the guidance of a hypnotherapist — we can run a Google search on our subconscious, pulling up the repressed memories and buried emotions at the root of our mental health challenges.
“Each unhealthy current behavior, such as smoking, losing one’s temper, excessive alcohol consumption, or compulsive overeating has a chain of events that laid the foundation for all of our current unhealthy choices. Through the ‘memory chip’ that has been laid down in the subconscious mind, we can trace back the experiences and subconscious decisions we made as children that may be leading us to the behavior that is no longer healthy for us.”
This goes well beyond simple suggestibility.
Experienced hypnotherapist Judi Vitale describes two very different approaches to helping a client quit smoking using hypnotherapy:
“With hypnosis, you might help someone stop smoking by suggesting the taste or smell of cigarettes is worse than it actually is. But a hypnotherapist can also use age regression to examine the impulse that fuels the client’s habit and discover old conclusions and behaviors. The healing will take place when the client creates new conclusions about old memories and chooses new behaviors rather than smoking.”
Because the second approach gets at the root of the problem, Vitale says, it is much more effective than the first. Results come quickly and they last.
Does Hypnotherapy Work? What Does the Science Say?
Because it provides instant access to the subconscious mind, many therapists find hypnotherapy to be more efficient than traditional therapy techniques.
“Hypnotherapy allows us to drop beneath the rational part of our mind,” explains hypnotherapist Stacie Beam-Bruce. “We can get hung up on not understanding why we do something or why we feel something because it doesn’t make rational sense. Hypnotherapy accesses those emotional beliefs that are running amok.”
We spoke with 23 professional hypnotherapists recently, and each reported that hypnotherapy has transformed their practice and the lives of their clients.
But there is more than anecdotal evidence that hypnotherapy works.
The American Psychological Association concludes, “Although hypnosis has been controversial, most clinicians now agree it can be a powerful, effective therapeutic technique for a wide range of conditions, including pain, anxiety and mood disorders.”
The British Psychological Society commissioned a working group to survey the evidence and write a formal report on hypnotherapy in 2001. They found, “Enough studies have now accumulated to suggest that the inclusion of hypnotic procedures may be beneficial in the management and treatment of a wide range of conditions and problems encountered in the practice of medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy.”
Cutting-edge brain imaging technology now gives us a window into the physical manifestations of hypnotherapy. When they scanned the brains of 57 individuals undergoing hypnosis, Stanford researchers reported that sections of the brain associated with insight and change showed “altered activity and connectivity.”
What Mental Health Issues Can Hypnotherapy Help With?
Many of the hypnotherapists trained by the Wellness Institute have found hypnotherapy to be most effective against issues stemming from repressed trauma.
“When clients can go back to a time when trauma occurred, express their feelings around events, and release their emotions, they can put a timestamp on events that might have been haunting them in a way that seemed as though they were constantly reliving that traumatizing moment,” Vitale says.
Hypnotherapist Wendy Pugh tells us hypnotherapy works exceptionally well when childhood trauma has occurred.
“With hypnotherapy, my clients have experienced so much healing and have been able to make so many connections to how their past traumas are affecting their current functioning,” she says.
For example, Pugh says, many people don’t realize how deeply their current anxieties are rooted in events of the past.
By probing the past, buried emotions, and the false conclusions locked in your clients’ subconscious minds, you can use hypnotherapy to treat some of the most debilitating and persistent mental health challenges.
Read more about how you can use hypnotherapy to treat:
- Performance anxiety
- Weight problems
- Anxiety and stress
How Does Hypnotherapy Work With Other Modalities?
“Learning hypnotherapy does not commit you to drastically changing your therapy practice,” says hypnotherapist Catherine Reiss. “The training will allow you to more quickly and effectively get to the cause of your clients’ unwanted behaviors and the feelings they present with it, but it also facilitates the use of trance in more traditional formats.”
Once hypnotherapy has opened up the door to your clients’ repressed memories and emotions — foregoing months or years of arduous talk therapy — you can set yourself to the task of healing using your tried-and-true techniques.
“One can continue to do cognitive behavioral therapy and add the use of trance and hypnotherapy techniques,” Reiss says.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), in particular, is an effective complement to hypnotherapy.
In our recent report, we explored how the two modalities are often strongest working in tandem. We discussed recent scientific studies that have demonstrated hypnotherapy is a beneficial adjunct to CBT for promoting weight loss and treating issues like bulimia nervosa and dissociative identity disorder.