Hypnosis might seem like voodoo magic or made up to some individuals. However, others say it actually works. In fact, some people use it to try to overcome specific health problems. How does hypnosis work? Is it really effective for health conditions?
Hypnosis is a trance-like mental state in which you have increased attention, focus, concentration, and suggestibility. This isn’t a unique experience. Your body is in a similar state when zoning out while watching a movie or daydreaming. Essentially, you’re fully conscious, but you tune out most of the stimuli around you.
Each person experiences hypnosis differently. Some feel a sense of detachment or extreme relaxation; in some cases, they describe it as feeling that their actions seem to occur outside of their conscious volition. Other individuals may remain fully aware and able to carry out conversations. The general concept is that people tend to do things without reflecting on doing them. This is why at staged hypnosis shows, people will do embarrassing or silly things.
Hypnosis isn’t a new phenomenon. People have been practicing it for thousands and thousands of years. In fact, it was used during the Civil War when Army surgeons hypnotized injured soldiers before amputations. However, the scientific conception of hypnotism didn’t come into being until the late 1700s. It began to grow during this time from the work of a physician named Franz Mesmer. Unfortunately, it got off to a poor start, thanks to his mystical views.
Thankfully, interest eventually shifted to a more scientific approach. By the late 19th century, it became more important in psychology and was used by Jean-Martin Charcot to treat women experiencing what was then known as hysteria. His work influenced Sigmund Freud and the development of psychoanalysis. Despite its popularity, how it actually worked wasn’t understood. There have been several different theories.
One of the best-known is Ernest Hilgard’s neo-dissociation theory of hypnosis. According to him, people in a hypnotic state experience a split consciousness in which there are two different streams of mental activity. One stream responds to the hypnotist’s suggestions, while another processes information outside of the hypnotized individual’s conscious awareness. James Braid, a 19th-century Scottish surgeon, originated the terms “hypnotism” and “hypnosis” based on the word hypnos, which is Greek for “to sleep.” Along with other scientists of the era, he theorized that hypnosis isn’t a force inflicted by the hypnotist but a combination of psychologically mediated responses to suggestions.
The current school of thought on hypnosis is that it’s a way to directly access a person’s subconscious mind. Your subconscious stores a vast amount of information that lets you solve problems, construct sentences, and puts together plans and ideas before running them by your conscious mind. Your subconscious also regulates your bodily sensations, such as taste, touch, sight, and emotional feelings. In addition, it takes care of all the stuff you do automatically by processing the physical information your body receives.
Basically, your subconscious mind does most of your thinking, and it decides a lot of what you do. When you’re awake, your conscious mind evaluates most of these thoughts, makes decisions, puts specific ideas into action, and processes new information that gets relayed to the subconscious mind. When you’re asleep, your subconscious has free reign. The theory is that hypnosis puts your body in a deeply relaxed state that calms and subdues the conscious mind.
Essentially, your conscious mind takes a backseat to your subconscious mind. Since your conscious mind doesn’t have to filter through everything, you’re more willing to do things you might not normally do. However, it’s important to note that your subconscious mind does have a conscience, a survival instinct, and its own ideas, so there are things it won’t agree to.
There’s physical evidence that hypnotic states alter the body in some way. Researchers have compared how a person’s body responds to hypnosis compared to those who aren’t hypnotized. In most studies, the researchers found no significant physical change. While a person’s heart rate and respiration may slow down, it’s most likely due to the relaxation involved in the process, not the hypnotic state itself.
However, studies have shown that there do seem to be changes in brain activity. The most significant data comes from electroencephalographs (EEGs), which measure the brain’s electrical activity. EEG research shows that brains produce different brain waves, rhythms of electrical voltage, depending on their mental state. For example, deep sleep has a different rhythm than dreaming, and full alertness has a different rhythm than relaxation.
Individuals under hypnosis had a boost in the lower frequency waves associated with dreaming and sleep and a drop in the higher frequency waves associated with full wakefulness. This pattern coincides with the thought that the conscious mind backs off during hypnosis, and the subconscious mind takes a more active role.
Other studies have looked at patterns in the brain’s cerebral cortex that occur during hypnosis. Hypnotic subjects showed reduced activity in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex, while activity in the right hemisphere often increased. Neurologists believe the left hemisphere is the logical control center of the brain, which operates on deduction, reasoning, and convention. On the other hand, the right hemisphere controls imagination and creativity.
It’s important to note that skeptics have a convincing explanation for this state. They claim hypnotic subjects aren’t actually in a trance state. Instead, the individuals only think they are. Skeptics feel that social pressure and the hypnotist’s influence are enough to convince people that they should act a certain way. Therefore, when they find themselves following the suggestions, they think they must be in a hypnotic trance. Essentially, if you feel someone is compelling you to act a certain way, you’ll act that way. Or, if you think a hypnotic suggestion will ease your pain, your mind will bring about this feeling. Generally, this is known as the placebo effect.
Hypnosis is a tool used for therapeutic treatment. Hypnotherapy is the use of that tool. It’s considered a safe, complementary, and alternative treatment. It could assist you in gaining control over undesired behaviors or coping better with anxiety, stress, or pain, especially before a medical procedure. Hypnosis may be used to relieve symptoms of hot flashes associated with menopause, reduce smoking/overeating, and treat insomnia or bed-wetting. Hypnosis has been used to ease side effects related to chemotherapy or radiation treatment. There’s some evidence it’s effective in dealing with phobias and post-traumatic stress. However, it may not be appropriate for people with severe mental illness.
While adverse reactions to hypnosis are rare, they can include headache, drowsiness, dizziness, and anxiety or distress. In very rare cases, amnesia may occur. People generally remember everything that transpired while they were hypnotized. Posthypnotic amnesia can lead an individual to forget certain things that happened before or during hypnosis. This effect is generally limited and temporary.
Hypnosis is usually done with the help of a therapist using verbal repetition and mental images. Typically, you approach the hypnotist’s suggestions as if they were real, but you’re aware that it’s all imaginary the entire time. Keep in mind, imaginary events can cause real fear, sadness, or happiness. Once you’re in a hypnotic state, your mind is open to suggestibility. So, when the hypnotist tells you to do something, you’ll probably embrace the idea completely.
It’s critical to know that although you’re more open to suggestions, you don’t lose control over your behavior. The process requires voluntary participation on the part of the patient. The point of hypnosis may be to work on deep, entrenched personal problems, breaking negative behavior patterns, building up willpower, or bringing underlying psychiatric issues up to the conscious level. Accessing fears, memories, and repressed emotions can help clarify difficult issues and resolve persistent problems.
It’s important to note that while you may be able to access past events that you have completely forgotten, it’s also possible to create false memories. In the 1990s, hypnosis got a rap when some therapists convinced patients they had been molested or abused as children because of hypnotically induced memories. However, there was no evidence to support these claims. As a result, many innocent people were wrongly accused of abuse in hundreds of court cases.
There are several different hypnotic techniques. A method used in the early days but isn’t anymore due to not being effective on most of the population is the fixed-gaze induction (or eye fixation). The idea is to get the person to focus on an object so intently that they tune out any other stimuli.
Another approach is rapid, which is to overload the mind with sudden, firm commands. The thought is if the commands are forceful and the hypnotist is convincing enough, the person will surrender their conscious control over the situation.
The loss of balance method creates a loss of equilibrium using slow, rhythmic rocking. Most parents have been putting babies to sleep this way for thousands of years.
The most commonly used form is progressive relaxation and imagery. The hypnotist does this by speaking to the person in a slow, soothing voice, gradually easing them into full hypnosis. A variation of this is guided hypnosis. This form uses tools, such as recorded instructions and music, to induce a hypnotic state. Often, online sites and mobile apps utilize this type.
Self-hypnosis is when a person self-induces a hypnotic state. It’s mainly used as a self-help tool for controlling pain or managing stress. The key is finding the right process because many smartphone apps and Internet videos promote self-hypnosis, but they’re usually ineffective. According to researchers, it’s probably because they aren’t created by a certified hypnotist or hypnosis organization.
Before undergoing hypnosis, your therapist will explain the process and review your treatment goals. Then, they’ll talk in a gentle, soothing tone and describe images that create a sense of relaxation, security, and well-being. Once you’re in a receptive state, the therapist will suggest ways to achieve your goals and help you visualize vivid, meaningful mental images of yourself accomplishing your goals. When the session is over, either you bring yourself out of hypnosis, or your therapist helps you end your state of relaxation.
A couple of things to remember are to wear comfortable clothing and to make sure that you’re well-rested so that you don’t fall asleep. The entire process can take anywhere from a few minutes to more than a half-hour. Although one session can be helpful, most therapists will tell you to begin hypnosis therapy with four to five sessions. After that, you can discuss how many more sessions are needed.
Hypnotists usually test a person’s willingness and capacity to be hypnotized before bringing them into a full trance. Typically, this involves making several simple suggestions, such as “Relax your arms completely,” and working up to suggestions that ask the subject to suspend disbelief or distort normal thoughts. Some individuals aren’t able to enter a state of hypnosis fully enough to make it effective. It’s thought the more likely you are to be hypnotized, the more likely it is that you’ll benefit from hypnosis.
Research indicates that between 10% to 15% of people are very responsive to hypnosis, whereas, approximately 10% of adults are considered difficult or impossible to hypnotize. Children and people who are easily absorbed in fantasies are usually more susceptible to hypnosis. It’s vital to approach the experience with an open mind because studies have shown that people who view hypnosis in a positive light tend to respond better.
When it comes to choosing a therapist or health care professional certified to perform hypnosis, look for someone certified by the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). Their program is open to health professionals with a master’s degree and requires 40 hours of approved workshop training, 20 hours of individual training, and two years of practice in clinical hypnosis.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) both have strict standards for the professional practice of hypnotherapy. When you first get to the therapist’s office, start by asking questions. Find out their specific area of training (ex. psychology, medicine, social work, or dentistry) and any licensures they have. Ask where they went to school, did their postgraduate training, and how much training they’ve had in hypnotherapy. You should also find out how long they’ve been in practice. Once you’ve got that information and are comfortable proceeding, find out their fees and whether or not insurance will cover the cost.
Research demonstrates that using hypnosis for some, but not all, of the conditions for which it’s used, is beneficial. It’s essential to remember that a person must want to be hypnotized, believe they can be, and eventually feel comfortable and relaxed. While methods vary, with the proper relaxation and focusing techniques, almost anyone can enter a hypnotic state and begin to see changes in their life.