Overview: We hear this question frequently – What is hypnosis? This resource outlines exactly what hypnosis (and hypnotherapy) is, how it works, and how you can use hypnosis to transform your life. 

You’re getting sleepy, very sleepy… Hypnosis has a bad rap.

In movies and stage productions, hypnotism has been depicted as “magic.” You’ve probably seen it before. A patient or volunteer stares at a swinging pocket watch, and, in minutes, they turn into a zombie who’s highly susceptible to the hypnotists' every whim. 

But here's what is really true:

Hypnosis is one of the oldest forms of psychology.

The Hindus in ancient India, for instance, made self-hypnosis a tenant of their religious practice. Avicenna, a Persian physician, first documented the hypnotic state in 1027.

After decades of misrepresentations and falsehoods in TV and movies, hypnosis is finally regaining its credibility.

Today, a growing body of hypnotherapy research suggests that hypnosis has therapeutic benefits. The research is so compelling, in fact, that The Mayo Clinic offers hypnosis alongside its traditional medical treatments.

What Is Hypnosis: A Quick Overview 

In the simplest terms, hypnosis is a relaxation technique that's similar to meditation. We like to say that hypnotherapy is meditation with a goal.

Practitioners follow steps to reach a state of heightened concentration and relaxation. This is “hypnotic state,” and it’s similar to daydreaming or deep meditation.

In fact, you've likely felt this state before. “Highway hypnosis” is similar to this state, which occurs when you zone out after driving for long periods of time.

Under hypnosis, you remain conscious and in control. But you’re also relaxed and highly focused. This allows you to tune out stimuli and reach a heightened state of awareness.

In this state, the mind is highly responsive to suggestions. A hypnotherapist would then provide suggestions once when you've reached this state. These suggestions provide new information to the subconscious. 

For example, if you used hypnosis to quit smoking, you might subconsciously think, “quitting will be very difficult. I'm not strong enough.” During hypnosis, you would then update these automatic thoughts with more helpful ones. You might hear suggestions like, “withdrawal symptoms are temporary. You are strong enough to persevere.”

What Is Hypnosis Used For? 

blue lake with trees - visual for what is hypnosis guide

Unconscious thought triggers our bad habits, phobias, and negative preconceptions. A smoker experiences automatic cravings throughout the day. These cravings trigger the conscious mind to reach for a cigarette.

With hypnosis, the smoker can reframe these unconscious urges.

First, he or she would examine why these automatic thoughts exist. Then, the smoker could begin to remove, update, or replace them with more positive associations.

In other words, hypnosis pushes the positive thoughts to the front of the unconscious, and they drown out the old way of the thinking.

If you were using hypnosis to reduce anxiety, hypnotherapy could help you identify triggers and the cause of the trigger. For example, you might identify that running late is a trigger. You could then reteach your subconscious new coping mechanisms for the next time you're running late.

This is the basic idea of how hypnosis works. Hypnotherapy helps you get to the root cause of your habit or fixation.

You can begin to remove and update those subconscious thoughts. This is why hypnosis is so effective for fears like fear of public speaking, addictions like smoking, or for weight loss

Part 1: Defining What Hypnosis Is

Many terms are associated with hypnosis, but each term refers to a different part of the process.

As you begin to research hypnosis, it will be helpful to decipher between these different terms. They include:  

  • Hypnosis: This is the “hypnotic state.” It is the relaxed, highly focused frame of mind you reach after being hypnotized.
  • Hypnotism: The process used to induce the hypnotic state. A typical hypnotic induction might include focused breathing, closing the eyes, and a countdown.
  • Hypnotherapy: Hypnotherapy refers to using hypnosis and hypnotism as a therapy. Hypnotherapists are professionals who help patients reach self-improvement goals utilizing hypnosis.

For a closer look, see our research: Hypnotherapy vs Hypnosis.

Hypnotherapy: Taming the Unconscious Mind

You can think of hypnotherapy as meditation with a goal. Both seek to help you reach a state of relaxation and concentration.

But with hypnotherapy, you take it one step further.

In this state of heightened awareness, you begin to examine your subconscious mind. You can identify triggers, emotions, and negative attachments you hold. Then, you’re provided with suggestions that can help you reframe, improve, and enhance how the subconscious operates.

Here's a good explanation of how the subconscious mind works:

The process of hypnotherapy includes three steps:

  • Hypnotic Induction: This is the process you go through to reach hypnosis. Typically, you sit in a chair or lay down with your eyes closed. You might use controlled breathing techniques or follow a script to relax and focus. Grace, our hypnosis app, allows you to listen to recording scripts.
  • Hypnotic State: Following induction, you reach the hypnotic state. In the hypnotic state, you feel relaxed, you are calm, and you experience heightened awareness.
  • Hypnotic Suggestion: Once in hypnosis, the patient receives hypnotic suggestions. These suggestions replace and update your subconscious thoughts. Suggestions take many forms. Traditional hypnosis for example uses direct commands, while Ericksonian hypnosis uses metaphors. Neuro-linguistic programming, on the other hand, uses suggestions that closely mimic our thought patterns.

What Hypnosis Is NOT: Common Misconceptions

Hypnosis doesn't make you cluck like a chicken. Or act against your will.

Remember, hypnosis IS NOT a form of mind control.

Instead, it’s similar to meditation. You follow steps that allow you to enter into a state of deep concentration and relaxation. You remain in control throughout.

Unfortunately, pop culture has tarnished the image of hypnosis, resulting in some silly misconceptions. Common misconceptions about hypnosis include: 

  • You Lose Control. Hypnotized people are completely aware of their surroundings and experience a heightened level of focus. They tune out distractions, reach relaxation, and ultimately, calm the mind. So there is no loss of control. You can open your eyes at any time.
  • You Are Asleep or Unconscious. The deep focus and relaxation reached during hypnosis feels like sleep or unconsciousness. That’s why the origin of the word hypnosis is the ancient Greek word “hypnos,” or sleep.  But unlike sleep, you are aware and acutely aware.
  • You Can Get Stuck in Hypnosis. You can't stay hypnotized forever. This is pure fiction. You are in control and can open your eyes and come back into your surroundings. 
  • Hypnosis Is a Magic Bullet. Hypnosis isn’t a cure. You have to want to make a difference, and you have to continue to work at it. However, if you want to improve, research has shown that hypnotherapy can help.

Using Hypnotherapy to Transform Your Life

Your subconscious mind controls nearly all of your thinking. In fact, the subconscious generates about 95 percent of your thoughts

That’s why we get stuck doing unwanted behaviors.

These behaviors become deeply embedded in our minds due to repetition and reinforcement. Many of our fears, worries, habits, impulsions and doubts,  are held in place unconsciously.

For example, a person may have developed a fear of flying by having a negative experience. After this negative experience, the subconscious automatically associates flying as a life-threatening risk. Ultimately, the unconscious triggers responses like anxiety, panic attacks or vomiting.

As a therapy, hypnotherapy seeks to reframe and reverse these “habits of thought.”

What Hypnosis Is Commonly Used For

Therefore, hypnotherapy has been shown to be effective for a number of unconsciously motivated conditions. Some of the most common include:

  • Phobias and fears – Hypnosis reframes the fear and untangles the associations that keep that fear in place. Hypnosis can help with: Fear of flying, driving, heights, the doctor or dentist, insects, intimacy or success.
  • Habits – Habits are deeply embedded in our thinking due to repetition and reinforcement. Smokers have numerous triggers: Stress, mealtimes, driving, and boredom, to name a few. Hypnosis allows people to examine these unconscious triggers and get rid of them. Hypnotherapy can help with: Smoking, video game addiction, phone addiction, substance abuse, gambling, overeating and procrastination.
  • Worrisome Thinking: Worries, often times, are irrational and they can get in the way of life. Hypnosis helps us examine our worries, and provide new information that can help us establish more positive associations. Hypnosis can help with: General anxiety, social anxiety, exam anxiety, stage fright, performance anxiety, and public speaking.
  • Negative Self-Talk: Our subconscious minds control our perceptions of ourselves. Therefore, negative thoughts living in our subconscious impact our confidence. Hypnosis reframes these negative self-thoughts and update them with positive information. Hypnosis helps with: Self-criticism, self-confidence, self-awareness, body dysmorphia, negativism, indecision and insecurity.
  • Health Conditions: Many general health conditions stem from negative subconscious thoughts. For example, insomniacs may have a fear or worry that they won’t fall asleep. By examining and reframing these thoughts, insomniacs can begin to reverse the thinking behind their condition. Hypnosis can help with: Stress, hypochondria, headaches, chronic pain management, agoraphobia, impotence, and insomnia.   

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Part 2: How Does Hypnosis Work?

Up to this point, you have a general understanding of the theory of hypnotherapy.

But you might be wondering: Why is the hypnotized mind is so suggestible? What exactly happens to the brain during hypnosis? And what does the research say about hypnosis?

Can I Be Hypnotized?

Many people are “hypnotizable.”

About 75-85 percent of people are capable of reaching a light-to-moderate state of trance, according to the latest research. Many people who are “easily hypnotizable” people share some common personality traits like: 

  • Easily absorbed in everyday tasks
  • Frequent daydreamers
  • Show higher empathy
  • Are open to learning new skills
  • Have an open mind about hypnosis

If you don't see these traits in yourself, hypnosis is still possible for you. However, they offer a barometer of your susceptibility to hypnosis.

An important note: Even for those who cannot reach a light hypnotic state, there are still benefits to hypnosis. Much like meditation, hypnosis can be a powerful tool for reducing stress, relaxing, or visualizing positive outcomes.

What Happens to the Brain During Hypnosis?

Many theories exist as to why hypnotherapy is effective.

But the prevailing thought is that the deep focus and relaxation reached during hypnosis allows you to bypass the conscious mind.

Once we’ve passed the conscious part of the mind, psychologist speculate that we can begin to work directly with the subconscious. In other words, hypnosis allows you to go “under the hood” and access the deeper recesses of your mind.

In fact, recent brain research seems to confirm some of this theory. One study in particular showed that areas of the brain responsible for critical thought show reduced activity during hypnosis.

Dr. David Spiegel, chair of the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Stanford, studied the brain activity of people under hypnosis. Spiegel found that hypnosis allowed us to:

  • Tune Out Stimuli: The study showed reduced activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate, an area of the brain that’s part of our conscious awareness network. In other words, hypnosis allows us to tune out our worries and stresses. We’re become absorbed in the experience.
  • Increase in Mind-Brain Connections: The research found that the mind is more in tune with how it’s controlling the body. This could help explain why hypnotic suggestion can help us better control how the body responds in certain situations, i.e. to prevent cravings, fears, or negative natural responses.
  • Reduced Self-Consciousness: Finally, the researchers observed that the connection between two brain networks – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network – were less connected. In effect, we become much less self-conscious of our actions, and are thusly, more suggestible.

Overall, Spiegel’s research shows that our brains behave much differently in the hypnotic state. 

What Do You Experience During Hypnosis?

You may be wondering now: What does the hypnotic state feel like? What do I experience?

A hypnotic trance feels similar to deep meditation. You'll feel relaxed and free from distraction.

As you practice hypnosis, you can begin to experience a deeper state of trance as well. You might experience:

  • Physical sensations such as a heaviness and relaxation around muscles and eyelids. 
  • A tuning out of your surroundings and reduced alertness. You will move into the mind and push things like your worries or fears out.

Ultimately, many people describe hypnosis as similar to taking a nap. The big difference is that you are aware and follow a guide through the experience.

Hypnosis Clinical Research

In the last four decades, a trove of compelling hypnotherapy research has been published. Thousands of studies have examined hypnosis for a range of conditions, including chronic pain, fatigue caused by cancer treatment, smoking cessation, weight loss, IBS and a host of other conditions. And a majority of them highlight positive effects.

Some of the most compelling research includes:

Hypnotherapy vs. Psychoanalysis. Dr. Alfred Barrios compared hypnotherapy to traditional psychoanalysis, and found that hypnotherapy achieved a significantly higher recovery rate after much fewer sessions. His study found that 93 percent recovered after just 6 sessions after undergoing hypnotherapy, compared to 38 percent after 600 psychoanalysis sessions.

Hypnotherapy and Smoking Cessation. A 1992 meta-analysis examined a survey of more than 70,000 adults who had quit tobacco. Many who had used hypnotherapy were successful quitters. Ultimately the authors found that hypnotherapy was 15 times more effective than quitting cold turkey. Numerous celebrities have used hypnosis to quit smoking.

Hypnotherapy and Weight Loss. A 1996 study conducted by University of Connecticut researchers examined hypnotherapy as a complementary therapy for weight loss. Those who received hypnosis lost more weight than 90 percent of those who did not.

Hypnosis and Menopausal Hot Flashes. A 2012 joint study from Baylor University, Indiana University and the University of Texas found that hypnotherapy and self-hypnosis training helped women experience a 74-percent drop in hot flash frequency; the group that did not undergo hypnotherapy experienced only a 13-percent drop. Additionally, the hypnotherapy group also experienced a 57-percent drop in hot flash severity.

Hypnosis and Hypertension. University of Florida researchers explored how hypnosis could help patients could manage their conditions. They found that hypnosis was highly successful in helping patients better control stress and anxiety, conditions which can exacerbate hypertension conditions.

Part 3: Getting Started with Hypnosis

How can you practice hypnotherapy?

Many hypnosis options are low-cost, and you can do them at home. In fact, you can start today with self-hypnosis. This is a form of hypnotherapy in which practitioners self-induce the hypnotic state or listen to a recording on a hypnosis app.  

Another option is to read hypnotherapy books or meet with a professional hypnotherapist online or in person. 

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What Is Hypnosis: Different Approaches

Hypnotherapists, in general, use three methods for accessing and talking to the unconscious mind. And most professionals tend to specialize in a particular method.

You might not get results initially using one particular type of hypnosis. In that case, you might find a specialist or utilize methods for a different type of self-hypnosis.

The three main types of hypnosis include:

  • Traditional Suggestion Hypnosis: Once you reach a deeply relaxed trance state, you’re provided with direct suggestions. This type of hypnosis works best for people who are not highly analytical. Direct suggestions typically are straightforward commands and statements about what you can hope to achieve, i.e. you will feel better by not smoking, you will be OK if you don’t overeat, etc.
  • Ericksonian Hypnosis: This replaces direct suggestions with metaphors and brief stories. This helps the mind make connections between the metaphor and the intended behavior, and can help to disguise the message from the conscious, critical mind. Metaphors help us understand the underlying theme of a larger story. This is the technique that is mostly used at Grace.
  • Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP): NLP techniques are highly complex, and they are best left to a professional. In general, the process is similar to talk-therapy. The hypnotherapist will take a client through an unwanted behavior and determine triggers for the behavior. Then, using NLP suggestions the hypnotherapist can help to untangle negative associations in the mind, i.e. morning coffee triggering a sugar craving, and provide subtle suggestions for updating and reversing the behavior.

Common Options for Inducing Hypnosis

In general, there are three types of hypnotherapy that you can follow. They include:

  • Self-Hypnosis: This is self-guided hypnosis. You follow steps and/or a script from a hypnotherapy book to induce hypnosis. Once in hypnosis, you would continue reciting a memorized script that contains hypnotic suggestions. A simple session may last a little as five minutes.
  • Guided Hypnosis: In this form of hypnotherapy, you would follow a recording in a hypnosis app. This recording would include an induction, steps for falling further into trance, and ultimately suggestions for specific conditions.
  • Clinical Hypnosis (Hypnotherapy): You can also work directly with a professional hypnotherapist. This form works anywhere, in person or via video conference. The hypnotherapist learns about you, and what you’re hoping to accomplish. Then provides a hypnosis session tailored to your exact needs.

Hypnotherapy: Updating The Unconscious

In a nutshell, the unconscious mind is powerful and automatic. It’s responsible for nearly everything we do each and every day – the good and the bad.

And for centuries, hypnosis has given us a method for accessing our unconscious thoughts and providing more accurate, positive information for it to use.

Now you have an understanding of the basic mechanics of hypnosis. What it is. How it works. And how to use hypnosis right now. Are you ready to start your journey in hypnotherapy? We can help you start.