People often regard hypnosis as hokum or as a party trick or some sinister form of mind control. But it actually has its respectable side as a mind-body technique (like meditation and biofeedback) included under the rubric of complementary and alternative medicine. It’s a real phenomenon with potential therapeutic uses, though it remains shrouded in mythology and misconceptions.
Hypnosis achieves a state of heightened suggestibility and deep relaxation. Depending on the depth of the hypnotic state, people can do things that they previously could not do, such as control physiological responses (notably pain) and psychological ones (such as anxiety), as well as change habits. The hypnotic state is similar to the relaxed alertness or “altered consciousness” achieved through meditation, tai chi and yoga. The therapeutic use of hypnosis is called hypnotherapy, and its goal is to help treat various psychological conditions as well as medical conditions in which psychological factors play a strong role.
Despite what you may have seen in movies, you can’t be hypnotized against your will—a hypnotist can only guide you. Hypnotized subjects are awake, not asleep. Some people can learn to do self-hypnosis, to put themselves into a deep state of relaxation and try to encourage themselves to make positive changes.
The ability to be hypnotized is not universal, but it has nothing to do with being gullible or passive. The more negative your attitude, however, the less likely you are to be hypnotizable. There are standard tests such as the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale to gauge a person’s ability to be hypnotized.
Hypnosis: possible benefits and limits
Hypnotherapy has been the subject of much scientific research, though studies tend to be of poor quality, have variable designs and use different methods of hypnotherapy. What’s more, it’s hard to set up a “control” group to see if the benefits are more than just a placebo effect. The best evidence concerns pain control and anxiety disorders, for which hypnotherapy may be part of a multidisciplinary approach. For most other proposed benefits, the claims remain iffy.
Pain management, such as headaches, backaches, burns and arthritis. Hypnotherapy can help people stay calm, concentrate on sensations other than pain, and detach themselves from it. Studies have found, for instance, that patients hypnotized for surgical procedures tend to need less anesthesia and pain medication and/or experience less nausea and anxiety. Research also suggests it can be an effective treatment for migraines and other headaches—at least in some people. Hypnotherapy has been used, with some success, in skin conditions involving itching and irritation, such as eczema and dermatitis. Hospitals and pain clinics often have therapists trained in hypnosis.
Psychological disorders. Some psychiatrists and psychologists use hypnosis as part of treatment for anxiety, phobias (such as fear of flying), and other disorders.
Gastrointestinal disorders, notably irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). A 2009 Canadian review paper concluded that “there is strong evidence supporting the use of hypnotherapy for the treatment of IBS; safety and potential long-term benefits add to its appeal.” Two Swedish studies also found benefits in people with IBS.
Menopause symptoms. Some small studies suggest that hypnosis may decrease the frequency and severity of hot flashes, but larger studies are needed.
Smoking cessation. Though there have been anecdotal reports of success, hypnotherapy’s effectiveness for this (and other addictions) is unclear. A Cochrane Collaboration review found that studies on smoking had inconsistent results, and that there’s no evidence that hypnosis works better than other quit-smoking methods—or no treatment.
Weight loss. A few studies from the 1990s suggested that hypnosis, as an adjunct to cognitive behavioral and other therapies, may help some dieters maintain weight loss longer.
Bottom line: If you want to try hypnosis for one of the conditions mentioned above, look for a therapist who has formal training and credentials not only in hypnosis but also in conventional medical or mental-health care. You can search for practitioners either through the Societies of Hypnosis (SocietiesofHypnosis.com) or the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH.net). Hypnosis should not be used as the sole treatment for any serious medical disorder.