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We’ve all seen or heard of the stage hypnotists who claim to hypnotize people to cluck like chickens or perform other funny stunts on stage. But did you know that hypnotism has been used in healthcare for hundreds of years?
The hypnotherapy used in medical and mental healthcare bears little resemblance to what you would see on a stage. For example, stage hypnotists often screen participants on their ability to be hypnotized and their exhibitionist tendencies. They want people who will perform and have a good time.
In healthcare settings, hypnotherapy candidates are indeed screened for hypnotizability (it won’t work for everyone). Unlike stage shows, though, they’re also screened for whether they have a condition that hypnotherapy has been scientifically shown to treat.
Here’s a look at what clinical hypnotherapy is, the conditions it can help treat, and the science behind it.
What is hypnotherapy?
The term hypnosis refers to both an altered state of consciousness and the technique that produces it. You might also hear the altered state called a hypnotic trance (Häuser, 2016).
Either with the help of a certified hypnotherapist or through self-hypnosis, a person can enter into a trance-like state. This state can be characterized by (Häuser, 2016):
- Altered perception of time
- Selective amnesia (you may not remember the session)
- Regression to a younger age (used to address experiences from an earlier developmental stage)
- A marked focus inward rather than on surroundings
- Heightened suggestibility (a stronger reaction to suggestions)
During this state of hypnosis, you are open to suggestions. That doesn’t mean that the therapist can control you during a hypnotherapy session. It just means that your subconscious mind is more open to possibilities you already knew existed. That openness makes you more likely to consider or act on those possibilities when they are suggested to you (Häuser, 2016).
How does hypnotherapy work?
Your hypnotherapist can use various techniques to induce a hypnotic state. The goal is for your attention to be detached from the surrounding environment and focused inward. You can achieve this through (Williamson, 2019):
- Visual imagery, such as a candle, swinging watch, or computer screen
- Auditory focus, such as music, chanting, or mantras
- Kinesthetic techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation
- Imagination, such as remembering an experience, daydream, or fantasy
Hypnotherapy isn’t a therapy in and of itself. Instead, it’s a tool that facilitates the delivery of treatment. It’s often combined with other forms of psychotherapy, depending on the person’s needs. It is considered a complementary form of therapy (Williamson, 2019).
A skilled hypnotherapist can help you get greater access to your mind/body connections and unconscious processing, allowing you to (Williamson, 2019):
- Access calmness to relieve anxiety
- Manage side effects of medications
- Ease pain or unpleasant symptoms
What is hypnotherapy used for?
Clinical hypnotherapy has been used to treat a wide variety of mental and physical conditions both as the primary treatment and in combination with other therapies. Here’s a summary of the research on some of the most common ones.
Depression is a widespread mental health condition, and many people still report having symptoms that bother them even with treatment. The standard treatment for depression is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves identifying the thoughts and feelings that cause behaviors and making helpful changes to them over time (Fuhr, 2021).
How to fight depression: 12 ways to cope
Researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial to see how hypnotherapy compared to CBT when treating mild to moderate depression. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either 20 sessions of hypnosis or CBT (Fuhr, 2021).
At the end of the study, more participants in the hypnosis group reported at least a 50% reduction in symptoms than those in the CBT group (44.6% versus 38.5%). Follow-up visits at six and twelve months confirmed this (Fuhr, 2021).
Hypnotherapy is often promoted to help those who want to quit smoking. Hypnosis can potentially weaken the desire to smoke and strengthen the desire to stop smoking (Barnes, 2019).
A review of the randomized controlled trials conducted found that while some studies showed a benefit from hypnotherapy, they also showed a high risk of bias. The researchers concluded that there was insufficient evidence to say that hypnosis was a better tool for quitting smoking than other interventions (Barnes, 2019).
They also noted that there isn’t much research into whether hypnosis can cause negative side effects or not. They stated that the data they did have didn’t show any evidence that it had an adverse impact (Barnes, 2019).
Adding self-hypnosis techniques to regular weight loss interventions has been shown to result in improved outcomes for participants (Bo, 2018).
A randomized controlled trial was conducted with individuals with a diagnosis of obesity. All of the participants received education on nutrition, exercise, and behavioral recommendations. Half of the participants also received three sessions to learn self-hypnosis to increase self-control before meals (Bo, 2018).
The people who learned self-hypnosis reported feeling fuller after meals and having a better quality of life. Those who made a habit of using self-hypnosis work also reported greater weight loss (Bo, 2018). It is possible that those who used self-hypnosis more than others were more motivated or dedicated to their weight loss plan, which may have contributed to their improved weight loss results compared to those who did not practice self-hypnosis regularly.
Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders
Functional gastrointestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and some types of nausea, vomiting, and constipation, are among the most commonly diagnosed GI disorders. They are often resistant to treatment and can result in poor quality of life for those affected (Vasant, 2019).
Acid reflux: causes, symptoms, treatment
While we don’t know exactly how it works, multiple studies have shown that hypnotherapy can be successful in reducing symptoms where other treatments have failed (Vasant, 2019).
During sessions, the therapist repeatedly reinforces the idea that the person has control of their gut rather than it having control of them. They may also introduce suggestions on overcoming anxiety or fear of their illness (Vasant, 2019).
Gut-focused hypnotherapy has been shown to significantly improve symptoms in up to 76% of participants with lasting effects (Vasant, 2019).
Hypnosis has a long history of use for pain management. Before the use of chloroform and ether, it was being used to reduce pain during surgeries. Since then, it has been found effective for reducing both acute and chronic pain (Moss, 2019).
Clinical hypnosis has been used to improve outcomes when combined with standard treatments in (Moss, 2019):
- Dental procedures (including in children)
Multiple randomized controlled trials have found that hypnosis reduces pain and anxiety at least as effectively as comparable supportive treatments such as biofeedback, medication, and relaxation techniques (Moss, 2019).
Are there any risks to hypnotherapy?
Researchers have found that not everyone responds equally to hypnotherapy. Approximately 20% of people do not respond or may even respond poorly. These people will require different types of interventions (Moss, 2019).
Your hypnotherapist will screen you for your ability to be hypnotized before you begin your session. They can suggest modifications or alternate types of therapy if needed.
Finding a hypnotherapist
If you feel like hypnotherapy might be helpful for your condition, reach out to your healthcare provider. They can help you address any medical issues that may be causing your symptoms and provide you with a referral to a clinical hypnotherapist in your area.
- Barnes, J., McRobbie, H., Dong, C. Y., Walker, N., & Hartmann-Boyce, J. (2019). Hypnotherapy for smoking cessation. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 6(6), CD001008. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001008.pub3. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6568235/
- Bo, S., Rahimi, F., Goitre, I., Properzi, B., Ponzo, V., Regaldo, G., et al. (2018). Effects of self-conditioning techniques (self-hypnosis) in promoting weight loss in patients with severe obesity: A randomized controlled trial. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 26(9), 1422–1429. doi: 10.1002/oby.22262. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30226009/
- Fuhr, K., Meisner, C., Broch, A., Cyrny, B., Hinkel, J., Jaberg, J., et al. (2021). Efficacy of hypnotherapy compared to cognitive behavioral therapy for mild to moderate depression – Results of a randomized controlled rater-blind clinical trial. Journal of Affective Disorders; 286, 166-173. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032721002032?via%3Dihub
- Häuser, W., Hagl, M., Schmierer, A., & Hansen, E. (2016). The efficacy, safety and applications of medical hypnosis. Deutsches Arzteblatt International, 113(17), 289–296. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2016.0289. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4873672/
- Moss, D., & Willmarth, E. (2019). Hypnosis, anesthesia, pain management, and preparation for medical procedures. Annals of Palliative Medicine, 8(4), 498–503. doi: 10.21037/apm.2019.07.01. Retrieved from https://apm.amegroups.com/article/view/27360/25678
- Vasant, D. H., & Whorwell, P. J. (2019). Gut-focused hypnotherapy for functional gastrointestinal disorders: Evidence-base, practical aspects, and the Manchester Protocol. Neurogastroenterology and Motility: The Official Journal of the European Gastrointestinal Motility Society, 31(8), e13573. doi: 10.1111/nmo.13573. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6850508/
- Williamson, A. (2019). What is hypnosis and how might it work? Palliative Care: Research and Treatment, Volume: 12. doi: 10.1177/1178224219826581. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1178224219826581
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.