Jack Harley, Therapeutic Neuroscience at Oxford University
reviewed by Dr Michael Yapko
Friday, January 14, 2022
Jack Harley, Therapeutic Neuroscience at Oxford University
Friday, January 14, 2022

Hypnosis 101: What is it and how does it work?

Contents

Despite its common media portrayal, hypnosis is serious business. Heavily backed by research, it’s now used in therapeutic settings to manage everything from chronic pain to menopausal hot flashes.

What is hypnosis?

The American Psychological Association defines hypnosis as

“a state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.”

Another way of describing it is as a state of relaxed focus. The body is relaxed, but the mind is in a state of focused attention and more open to suggestions.

If you have ever daydreamed or zoned out while watching a movie, or can’t remember much of a drive along the highway, then you’ve experienced something akin to hypnosis.

How does hypnosis work?

Scientists have been debating hypnosis for more than 200 years, and have yet to fully explain this phenomenon. Modern technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allows us to detect the moment a person’s brain enters hypnosis, but we can’t explain why it happens.

However, recent research from Stanford University has shown that observable changes happen to your brain during hypnosis:

#1 You relax

A decrease in activity in the part of the brain involved in cognition and movement (dorsal anterior cingulate)⸺so you may feel more relaxed and not worry about outside concerns while hypnotized.

#2 Improved mind-body connection
An increase in activity in the region of the brain that is responsible for the brain-body connection. This is particularly useful when hypnosis is applied as a therapy to manage health conditions, such as managing the brain-gut connection for people with IBS.

#3 You are more open to suggestions

Greater activity in two parts of the brain is involved in processing your actions. This may be how suggestions to change your behavior, such as avoiding sugary foods, or not smoking, are more readily accepted.

A diagram of the changes to the brain in hypnosis

Other studies have also shown marked changes in activity in the two hemispheres of the brain during hypnosis. Activity on the left hemisphere (the side associated with reasoning and logic) reduces. Activity on the right hemisphere (the side associated with creativity and imagination).  

Hypnosis in therapy

When hypnosis is applied in clinical practice to treat medical concerns such as anxiety, pain, or even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it is called hypnotherapy.

In this setting, hypnosis can be used as a psychological treatment for changing sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and behaviors.


While you are in a hypnotic state of relaxation you are more open to proposals or advice that can benefit your health and well-being, or change behaviors.


Hypnotherapy can be used to manage:


  • Sleeping difficulties: if you suffer from insomnia, hypnosis can help you relax and fall asleep more easily. Studies indicate that hypnosis can also improve the quality of your sleep by helping you spend more time in deep sleep.

  • Anxiety: relaxation techniques such as hypnosis can be useful to ease anxiety. Hypnosis tends to be more effective for anxiety that stems from a chronic health condition⸺such as cancer or heart disease⸺than from a generalized anxiety disorder, and it is not recommended for people who have experienced psychosis.

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): the effectiveness of hypnosis for irritable bowel syndrome has been supported by numerous clinical studies. IBS is abdominal pain associated with either diarrhea or constipation. Hypnotherapy relieves many physical symptoms of IBS.

  • Chronic pain: hypnosis can help relieve chronic pain. People with pain-related conditions, such as arthritis, cancer, and sickle-cell anemia, may find relief from hypnosis. Hypnosis can also help manage pain after surgery or from tension headaches.

  • Quitting smoking: hypnosis can help to guide your subconscious away from cravings, and overcome smoking addiction. The practice can also help with managing the effects of nicotine withdrawal. A randomized controlled trial from 2008 showed 20% of those who received hypnotherapy quit smoking compared to 14% who received standard behavioral therapy.

  • Hot flashes: also referred to as hot flushes, are a common symptom of menopause. Hypnotherapy can reduce hot flashes by up to 80%, according to recent research.

What happens during a hypnotherapy session?

In a clinical setting, the therapist will help you relax in a comfortable setting. Then, they’ll use repetitive verbal cues to guide you into a dream-like state. Once you’re in a trance, the therapist will make suggestions to help you reach certain goals and make healthier decisions. At the end of the session, the therapist will bring you back to a full state of consciousness.

Hypnosis will not turn you into a chicken

Even though hypnosis is a clinically proven practice, it has become popularised by what is known as stage hypnosis⸺ demonstrated in performances and Hollywood movies where people are prompted to act out certain behaviors. This has led to misconceptions and misinterpretation about hypnosis and in particular, clinically based hypnotherapy.

During hypnosis you remain in control, you are just in a very relaxed and focused state. You can also hear everything that is going on around you and at no time can your therapist make you do anything you do not want.

Is hypnosis the same as meditation?

Hypnosis and meditation induce similar states of relaxation that can help you get through your day in a stress-free way. However, the two practices are not quite the same.  Hypnosis tends to have a specific goal in mind—such as overcoming fear or anxiety—whereas meditation is usually practiced with no particular goal, and involves emptying the mind.

Hypnosis is a generally cooperative activity between the hypnotherapist and the subject, whereas, meditation is generally performed alone. That being said, guided meditation can involve external cues much like in hypnosis, and hypnosis can be performed alone, in a practice known as ‘self-hypnosis’.

While several studies have shown mind-body interventions, such as mindfulness meditation, can help improve stress and reduce symptoms such as hot flashes, hypnotherapy can be more effective.

In a recent interview, world-leading hypnotherapist Dr. Gary Elkin explained why.

“Rather than just guiding people through imagery, they are given the freedom to experience the visualizations with all their senses. And in that hypnotic space, their minds are more open to suggestions for regulating their body temperature.

‘“Guided imagery, hypnosis, mindfulness meditation, relaxation, autogenic training; almost all mind-body interventions involve a focus of attention.

“But hypnosis is characterized by an increased capacity for response to suggestions. The suggestions that we give in hypnosis may be for alteration in perception, behavior, feelings, and so on.”

Is hypnosis the same as sleep?

Many people think hypnosis is similar to sleep, but the two mental states are not alike. Unlike a person who is asleep, a hypnotized person is alert at all times. Hypnosis is more similar to being absorbed in a daydream, or ‘lost’ in a good book, or movie, in that you are aware of what is happening around you, but most of your focus is upon one subject. As in these cases, you are entirely in control of your behavior at all times.

Can everyone be hypnotized?

The ability to be hypnotized is individual. While some people have a high amount of hypnotic ability, others have a low range. The vast majority of people sit somewhere in the middle. The vast majority of us are in the middle.

Interestingly, studies indicate that hypnotizability is partly due to childhood experiences. Children whose parents are physically abusive tend to be more hypnotizable. However, positive experiences in childhood can also contribute to hypnotizability, and children who had parents who used to tell stories and use their imagination tend to be more hypnotizable.

Even without the ability to be easily hypnotized, it is still possible to receive therapeutic benefits from hypnotherapy. Similar to taking prescription medicine, you may just need a larger dose.

Where did hypnosis come from?

The history of hypnosis can be traced back to an 18th-century physician, Franz Anton Mesmer, and his ability to mesmerize people. The word hypnosis, however, was coined by 19th-century physician James Braid. He used relaxation and mental imagery methods to help his patients. He observed that his patients appeared relaxed during such sessions with their eyes closed. He thought they were in a kind of sleep and called it ‘hypnosis’ from the Greek word hypnos, meaning sleep.

Methods of hypnosis then became more popular and were used in neurology and even in surgery. Several cases reported in which patients were able to enter a very deep hypnotic state and undergo surgical procedures using these methods without anesthesia.

We now know that highly hypnotizable people are able to manage pain and can accomplish a great deal of control when provided with proper guidance.

The Wrap Up

Hypnosis is a safe and natural state that can be induced for therapeutic purposes. Hypnotherapy sessions generally involve a hypnotic induction and suggestions to encourage positive changes to behavior and thoughts. Despite the growing recognition of the clinical potential of hypnosis, little is known about the mechanism of action on a physiological level. Yet scientists have uncovered observable changes in the brain during hypnosis.

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Our Sources

Mindset Health only uses high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed research, to support our articles. We work with experts to ensure our content is helpful, accurate and trustworthy.

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