Hypnosis comes from the Greek word hypnos — which means sleep — and has been used in some form by nearly all ancient cultures from Persia, China, Sumer, and India. In Egypt and Greece, the sick often went to healing centers known as sleep or dream temples to be cured by hypnosis. How is this age-old healing modality used today and is it a legit treatment for mental health conditions?

You’ve likely heard about people who’ve quit smoking or lost weight with the help of hypnosis but if you’re envisioning staring at a swinging pocket watch or being magically compelled to kick the habit, that’s not what we’re talking about. People clucking like chickens or drinking hot sauce thinking it’s orange juice is the stuff of late-night TV and is known in the field as stage hypnosis.

Hypnotherapy is a well-studied treatment modality 1,2 with quite a bit of clinical data to support it. In fact, Milton H. Erickson, MD, the psychiatrist who introduced hypnosis to the American Psychological Association back in the 1950s, had more than 10,000 case studies.

When delivered by a licensed practitioner, hypnotherapy can be an effective and complementary therapeutic tool for a host of issues ranging from anxiety, stress, and pain to weight loss and yes, smoking cessation. (Some psychologists and therapists receive training, too, finding it a useful add-on to more traditional forms of therapy.)

To better understand how hypnotherapy works, Psycom connected with Susan Holman, a seasoned clinical hypnotherapist and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) trainer who has been practicing in New York City since 2005.

What is hypnosis anyway?

Hypnosis is a technique that enables people to experience a heightened state of attention and focus that can aid them in changing their behavior. While often described as sleep-like, people in a hypnotic trance state aren’t asleep or zombie-like at all. They are actually highly-focused and hyper-aware.

Hypnotherapy—or guided hypnosis—is a form of psychotherapy that uses relaxation, hyper-focused attention, and intense concentration to achieve a heightened sense of consciousness that allows access to parts of the mind that are generally left untapped and underutilized, making real change possible.

The idea is to utilize one’s mind to alleviate or reduce a variety of issues, from phobias (generally defined as irrational fears rooted in anxiety), debilitating habits like smoking, overeating, and other unhealthy behaviors.

[Read this Next: Six Tips for Overcoming Anxiety and Phobias]

While myths and misconceptions about hypnosis persist, it has real medical and therapeutic benefits and has even been shown in some studies to reduce the symptoms of dementia.3

How does hypnotherapy work?

Hypnotherapy involves speaking to a person’s unconscious mind to facilitate and encourage positive behavioral change.

The type of hypnotherapy I use helps people use their unconscious mind to look at the “how” instead of the “why” behind a problem behavior. For instance, say you’re depressed, rather than ask why you’re depressed, I ask how you do that thing called depression so we can examine the underlying behaviors.

By carefully observing how a person communicates—their tone, tempo, body language, etc—and examining the internal representations of what is being shared, that individual’s experience and process are revealed and together we’re able to create new neural pathways to address the presenting problem.

Hypnosis is NOT mind control. Believe it or not, you are far more in control of your mind than you may think but remember it wasn’t so long ago that literature on the topic was relegated to the witchcraft section of bookstores!

Hypnotherapy can be used for deep work, light work, and advanced work. (An advanced hypnotic technique known as hypnoanesthesia is used to reduce pain during medical procedures.4)

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Who can be helped by hypnotherapy?

Anyone who is genuinely interested and sufficiently motivated to make a change can likely be helped by hypnosis. The key to achieving pretty much any goal is motivation. You have to want to make the change. If you are reaching out because your husband/wife/mother/children influenced you to do so, I can’t help you.

Many of my clients have fears or phobias that impact their lives. Fears about snakes and fears about flying can make people shut-ins and are fairly common in my practice. I’ve also used hypnotherapy and NLP successfully to help with weight loss, reduce stress and anxiety, and to give people the confidence necessary to overcome a fear of public speaking or optimize their performance in sports.

Hypnotherapy can also be useful for getting rid of negative emotions like grief, shame, anger, and sadness.

[Click to Learn More About Repressed Anger and Emotional Avoidance]

People with serious mental health conditions sometimes seek hypnotherapy as well. I won’t treat a person living with something like bipolar disorder however unless they are also receiving care from a specialist.

What happens during a hypnotherapy session?

During what I call the discovery call, I lead the client thru a series of questions to see if they are a good candidate for hypnosis. The process takes about 20 minutes. Then I gather a detailed medical history. I also inquire about a person’s favorite places, what they would like to do less of, and more of, and if tactile touch is acceptable during sessions. Finally, I give them a writing “assignment,” that I ask them to complete prior to our first session. It’s nothing complicated but it helps them examine the reason they are seeking treatment.

If you are interested in losing weight, for example, I’ll ask you to write a paragraph about how those extra pounds have affected you and what you think your life will look like after the weight loss. This work helps create a new vision of yourself in your mind which helps set up your neurology for success.

What does the process of hypnosis involve?

My patients are invited to sit in a comfortable chair or couch and relax. Sometimes I integrate essential oils, in particular lavender, which calms the limbic system (the parts of the brain involved with emotion and memory).

During the first meeting—in what I call the breakthrough session—we spend some time talking before we move into hypnotherapy, which can be 20-30 minutes of light to deep hypnosis. I use suggestibility tests to determine the client’s ability to access a deep state of calm and take instruction from me which can be a bridge to accessing profound self-discovery.

Here’s how suggestibility works: imagine a balloon tied to the index finger of your right hand and a heavy hard-covered book on your left — does the hand with the balloon go up while the one holding the book goes down?

The reaction to an exercise like this provides a window into a person’s suggestibility and helps me figure out which form of induction to use to induce a hypnotic trance state. Once in a trance state, we’re able to tap into the unconscious mind and start the process of changing behaviors.

If a person is analytical, the suggestibility test will show me that I’ll need to work to put that part of their mind to rest. Generally speaking, creative/imaginative people have an easier time accessing their unconscious mind, which is the seat of all behavioral change.

Another way to think of hypnosis is an active state of imagination —and as Einstein said —“Imagination is your unconscious mind.”

You can talk forever, but talking about the problem doesn’t necessarily help you discover what caused it and what you need to do to let go of emotions and beliefs that might be barriers to solving it. I plant the seeds of change by working on conscious/unconscious mind integration.

Most hypnotherapy happens in a light to medium state of hypnosis. I tend to reserve deeper hypnotic work for issues that require a more profound therapeutic approach, like letting go of a painful or traumatic memory.

What is a hypnotic trance state?

Being in a hypnotic trance state is essentially being calm, relaxed, and open to suggestions. We slip in and out of trance states naturally many times a day. Think of the last time you were in the shower and lost track of time. It has a lot to do with being fully present—genuinely living in the moment.

Imagine driving down the highway lost in thought. So preoccupied that you miss your exit and don’t realize it until 20 minutes after you drive by it. That’s what it’s like to be in a trance state.

When someone is in a hypnotic trance, my role as a hypnotherapist is to shift to the side of “cause” from “effect”. It’s less about this “happened to me,” and more about “I could have done this, which may have contributed to that, I will try this instead.

In this way, I help move my patients from victim to victor. That’s how real progress is made.

How do you decide when to end the trance state?

The amount of therapy I do with a patient is dictated by what the patient is prepared for. How are they responding? What is their readiness for the work?

Some people are able to cover a lot of ground in one session that for another person takes 15 sessions. It depends on the person, the particular problem, their process, and the pace they find comfortable.

My role is to zero in on the patient and their cues. I look for physical markers that tell me a patient has gone through a change. For example, I might notice a shift in breathing or skin color. Body temperature and changes in expression (angry to calm, for example) can also be noticeable; many subtle cues are frequently overlooked in more traditional psychotherapeutic models. The strength of hypnotherapy is in the subtlety of the work.

When people are letting go of a feeling, or behavior, they often become emotional and cry; that’s natural. I don’t want the patient to relive a painful experience; I want to help them through it. My goal is to anchor all the good feelings that may come from hypnosis, but if they are having a tough time in the trance state, I ease them out of it and get them comfortable again. When the patient is in a gentle, restful place, I bring them back to reality.

How exactly do you bring a person back?

Through some very simple techniques like changing the tone of my voice and counting backward like this: “When I say 5 — start wiggling your toes; 4—start to feel your fingers and toes; 3—you’re feeling energized; 2—begin to feel the rest of your body; 1—open your eyes.

If someone is in a really deep state, I might count down from 10 to give us a bit more time to bring them back to conscious awareness.

How many sessions are typically required for treatment?

The length of treatment depends on what we’re working on. For example, smoking cessation is typically between three to five sessions but some people will need eight. Most people will start to experience differences right away because hypnotherapy for behavioral change (like a smoking habit) taps into a part of the mind that is generally untapped. Quitting smoking is usually tackled with the analytical mind but tapping into the emotion around it and accessing what’s happening below the surface can be a real game-changer.

How much does a session cost?

Prices can range from $195-$295 per session depending on where the hypnotherapist is located, the length of treatment, and the nature of the session. Many hypnotherapists offer a sliding scale to make treatment more affordable. Be sure to inquire when you schedule an appointment.

I prefer to work with clients in-person but will visit their homes on occasion, if necessary. ZOOM sessions can also be arranged for reasons of convenience and social distancing.

How to Find a Licensed Hypnotherapist

Founded by Dr. Milton in 1957, the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis has educational videos and a hypnotherapist finder tool. Visit the group’s website to learn more.

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Last Updated: Oct 8, 2020