When Emily, a 28-year-old music teacher from Orlando, Florida, decided to try medical hypnosis, she had plenty of doubts — but she also had nothing to lose.
“It was a ‘last resort’ kind of thing,” Emily recalls. “I figured things couldn’t get any worse.” After two sessions, Emily felt her depression beginning to lift. Several months later, she nearly felt like her old self again.
Today, Emily isn’t sure whether she can credit her recovery to hypnosis, a new medication regime or her therapist. But she’s able to clarify a few common misconceptions about the procedure — ones that experts say prevent many from seeking hypnosis for medical and psychological reasons ranging from depression to chronic pain to irritable bowel syndrome.
Myth No. 1: Hypnosis is a party trick performed by stage performers — not licensed medical professionals.
Most people have encountered hypnosis, but chances are it wasn’t in a doctor’s office. From stage performers to party magicians, many think of hypnosis as an “act” — an exaggerated display that’s designed for an audience’s amusement.
However, the practice of medical hypnosis can be traced back thousands of years in cultures around the world. It was once used for pain management during surgery until doctors started using ether. Today, it’s commonly used as a tool by physicians, dentists, licensed social workers, psychologists and therapists. Hypnosis has been known to help patients with everything from depression and phobias to smoking cessation, weight loss, stress management and irritable bowel syndrome. Some hospitals even use it as a tool to reduce pain in individuals before, during and after surgery, as well as in patients with chronic conditions or diseases.
Hypnosis is a phenomenon in which one person — the “subject” — is prompted by a hypnotherapist to enter into a state of deep mental relaxation, says Dr. David Patterson, a professor of psychology in the departments of rehabilitation medicine, surgery and psychology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Their critical judgment decreases, making them more responsive to outside suggestions or ideas. “It’s almost as if you’re talking directly to the centers of the brain that influence things,” Patterson says. “You’re able to adjust them.”
For every medical professional who practices hypnosis, there’s another who remains skeptical of it. Research suggests susceptibility toward hypnosis varies widely from person to person — and some are resistant to the procedure all together.
Bottom line? It’s hard to pinpoint the exact strength of its power, or define precisely what constitutes a “hypnotic state.” However, brain scans indicate that changes occur in brain activity during hypnosis. The “control mechanisms” that help an individual make critical decisions during a conflict are lowered, Patterson says, causing them to reach a more open state of consciousness. And randomized controlled clinical trials indicate that the end goal of hypnosis isn’t simply mental relaxation — it’s also effective for everything from pain reduction to irritable bowel syndrome relief.
Although hypnosis can be an effective medical tool, it isn’t closely regulated. Some states require mandatory licensure or registration, or have guidelines for its practice. But the majority of states have a hands-off approach — meaning that anyone from a psychology Ph.D. candidate to a curious layperson can join a local hypnosis guild and learn it on their own.
Patterson says a lack of oversight, combined with misconceptions gleaned from stage performers, means many individuals who might benefit from hypnosis don’t take it seriously. Emily, herself, harbored doubts about whether it would work; she had previously dismissed hypnosis as the domain of charlatans. But after her therapist told her to search for an “ethical” and reputable professional, she made a specific point to locate a seasoned therapist who offered hypnosis. These individuals, Emily says, exist — and are the best bet if you’re considering hypnosis for medical reasons.
Long story short? When searching for someone who performs medical hypnosis, don’t just Google “hypnotist” and see what comes up, says Charlene Williams, a clinical and health psychologist at the University of California-Los Angeles who uses hypnosis as preparation for surgery. “A lay hypnotist has no medical or mental health training,” Williams says. “It’s not recommended, for safety and efficacy’s sake, to see them for heath reasons. Even with panic and things like smoking cessation, there’s often anxiety involved. And you can’t treat anxiety if you don’t understand psychology and anxiety treatments. It’s very important to go to a hypnotist that’s, above all, a licensed medical professional. They’ll be more more ethical in knowing the limits of their expertise.”
While some licensed medical professionals advertise hypnosis services, many don’t. Williams recommends individuals seek a qualified hypnotherapist through their therapists or primary care physicians, or contact organizations like the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis for more information.
Myth No. 2: You’re unconscious — and powerless — during hypnosis.
Although you might be sitting or supine, with your body completely still and eyes closed, you’re still awake during hypnosis, Emily says. She recalls her hypnotist’s words and instructions during the hypnosis process.
“He asked me to identify any reason, event or thing in my subconscious that might be causing me to have trouble connecting with my son and the people in my life,” she says. She was also able to move her fingers at will — lifting one right-hand finger meant “yes;” a left-hand finger meant “no.”
Of course, everyone’s response varies. Some people have a clear memory of what happens during hypnosis, while another’s recollection might be fuzzier. Some might be able to move their head or lift a finger if they’re prompted, whereas others will remain impassive. However, you aren’t rendered unconscious, Patterson says — you’re simply in a deeply relaxed state.
“We usually first focus on slowing down breathing, and then there’s a stage of deepening,” Patterson says. “That’s often done by getting people seeing themselves walk down staircases or counting numbers. You go deeper and deeper into the subconscious until you reach the suggestion phase. Then, you give them whatever clinical suggestions you want to give.”
Although you’re receiving “suggestions” from the hypnotist, you aren’t at the practitioner’s mercy, says Sally Greer, a clinical therapist who practices in Alexandria, Virginia, and performs hypnotherapy for smoking cessation, weight control, phobic responses and stress reduction
“Whatever you do under hypnosis, there is an underlying consent or compliance within you,” Greer says. If you’re trying to use hypnosis to, say, quit smoking, the hypnotist can’t force you to shed the habit if, deep down, you have no real desire to give up your Marlboros. Instead, you have to be receptive to the suggestions they give you. If you’re not, hypnosis won’t work on you.
Myth No. 3: Hypnosis will cure what ails you.
“A common misconception is that hypnosis is a magic bullet, and the problem will be magically erased by the power of the hypnotist,” Williams says. Hypnosis can be highly successful in some, yet ineffective in others. Sometimes hypnosis works well in conjunction with other treatments — say, therapy if you’re depressed, medication if you’re physically hurting or exercise and diet if you’re attempting weight loss. Sometimes hypnosis works after one session; other times, it takes multiple appointments. But hypnosis alone is rarely the be-all, end-all solution to someone’s problems.
And although it’s a versatile tool that can be used for everything from pain to panic, experts caution it could worsen trauma or severe psychological disorders if the provider isn’t skilled and the patient is unstable. “Hypnosis can sometimes cause as many problems as it can help,” Patterson says.
And in many cases, experts say, it’s not even clear where the hypnosis ends and psychological or physical healing begins. All you know is that your body or mind is working again — even if you’re not sure whether or not the hypnosis did.
“I remember talking to my regular therapist after I started to get better,” Emily recalls. “I felt uncomfortable about not knowing why I got better. I didn’t know whether it was going on the right medication or whether it was the hypnotherapist. And she said, ‘Why don’t you just consider that it was a mix of everything?’ And I guess I kind of have to.”