Hypnotherapy (or the art of suggestion) is the use of hypnosis (entering a state of altered consciousness) and the power of suggestion to achieve therapeutic healing. During hypnosis, the unconscious mind is open to the power of suggestion. The word “hypnosis” originated from the Greek term hypnos, meaning “sleep”. In fact, to the casual observer, people under hypnotization appear to be asleep, but are actually awake under a different state of awareness. An individual may enter a state of hypnosis by either self-hypnotizing or through the suggestions of another individual. Hypnotherapy has been shown to alter brain waves in a similar fashion to that of other deep relaxation treatments, and may also alter the release of hormones within the body.

A trance refers to a state of altered consciousness, and has four main characteristics: (1) Absorption, or the ability to focus attentively on a single theme or issue; (2) Intentional alteration of attention, or the ability to not focus on something; (3) Dissociation, or the ability to separate the trance experience from normal conscious existence; and (4) Suggestibility, which indicates an increased ability to take direction and suggestions.

Common uses for hypnotherapy include the following: attempts to change hard to break habits or obsessive behaviors, to treat emotional or psychological disorders, to relieve pain, to lessen the symptoms of a variety of medical issues, such as hay fever or eczema, to lower heart rate and/or blood pressure, to alter skin temperature, to alter intestinal secretions, and to alter immune responses.

History of Hypnotherapy

Forms of hypnosis were common in most early societies, including those of Africa, China, Egypt, Greece, India, North America, and Northern Europe. States of trance were described in Chinese texts from 2600 B.C.E., were written about in Greek mythology, and mentioned in sacred religious texts such as the Bible, the Talmud, and the Hindu Vegas.

Austrian physician Franz Mesmer (the “Father of Hypnosis”) popularized hypnotherapy in the 1700s when he hypothesized that illnesses could be cured by correcting imbalances of magnetic bodily fluids by transferring “animal magnetism” from other persons. Despite its popularity, the traditional medical establishment was resistant to Mesmer’s hypnotherapy, or “mesmerism”. In the 1800s, a number of British physicians used hypnotherapy in place of anesthesia before performing major surgeries such as amputations. However, this practice ended quickly after it was discovered that chloroform could be used to knock a patient out.

Because of a number of studies by prominent physicians, hypnotherapy became an accepted practice by the mid-20th Century for the American Medical Association, the British Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association. More recently, the National Institutes of Health in the United States endorsed hypnotherapy as a way to alleviate chronic pain in 1995.

How Hypnotherapy is Practiced

A typical session with a hypnotherapist begins with the therapist asking the client questions about their background and goals for the therapy. Then, the hypnotherapist explains what the therapy will involve, and ascertain whether the patient has any questions or concerns. Once this is concluded, the hypnotic process begins.

 First, the patient must achieve deep relaxation, and often guided imagery or other types of focusing techniques are used to “still” the conscious mind and allow the hypnotherapist access to the unconscious mind. Then, during the “suggestion phase”, the hypnotherapist probes the hypnotized unconscious, asking questions, making suggestions, or exploring the memory. Once this is over, the hypnotherapist returns the hypnotized individual to a normal conscious state. At this point, behavioral, emotional, mental, or physical changes may have occurred to the previously hypnotized individual. To retain the benefits of hypnotization, some may have to have multiple sessions of hypnosis. An individual may also choose to hypnotize themselves.

While no standard licensing system exists for hypnotherapy, there are plenty of options for training and certification through organizations such as the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis, the American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists, and the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. Individuals should take care to ensure that their hypnotherapist is properly trained and licensed in order to avoid imposters and scam artists.

As with many treatments, some individuals are more affected by hypnosis than others. While some postulate that this is because of differences in brain structure, others point out that individuals who believe in the power of hypnosis are more likely to achieve positive results through hypnotherapy. Research has shown that around 10% of the population can be easily hypnotized, 80% can be hypnotized without too much difficulty, and 10% are nearly impossible to hypnotize.

How Hypnotherapy Works

Hypnotherapy may still be used as an alternative to anesthesia, and is often used to help ease pain, especially pain experienced after operations. It is also used to help overcome the fear and anxiety that may accompany surgery. Often, hypnotherapy is used in conjunction with other treatments such as meditation, guided imagery, neurolinguistic patterning, autogenic training, and cognitive behavior therapy.

One controversial use of hypnotherapy is the practice of using it as an aid to help witnesses recall the events surrounding a crime or criminal activity. The reason for the controversy is because while witnesses often do recall events, there is no way to prove that their newfound memories are real. It is suggested that instead, these new memories are planted by the hypnotherapist, and are not actually memories at all. This is also known as “false memory syndrome”. 

Another type of hypnotherapy is called autogenic training, a technique developed by German psychiatrist and neurologist Johannes Schultz in the 1930s. In autogenic training, the patient is given visual and verbal cues and told to imagine that they are in a restful place, and eventually reaches a state of deep relaxation. Then, the individual is asked to focus their attention on physical sensations throughout the body. Autogenic training is often used to treat hypertension, and requires professional training. 

Conditions Benefited by Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy has been shown to aid the following health issues:

Addictive Behaviors

Hypnotherapy has been used to help curb addictive behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, gambling, grinding teeth, nail-biting, and even kleptomania.


Three trials published by the Cochrane review in 2005 showed that hypnosis may help ease the pain of labor and facilitate childbirth.


Autogenic training was more effective than standard medical treatment or standard educational materials in improving symptoms and reducing the use of steroid skin creams, according to a trial at Oxford University in England.

Hay fever

A 2005 study at University Hospital Basel in Switzerland showed that hay fever patients who use self-hypnosis are able to significantly reduce their symptoms.


A study by Headache in 2003 found that four months of regular autogenic training caused a significant reduction in the frequency of headaches among 25 women who regularly suffered from migraines, tension headaches, or other types of head pain. Additionally, these women were also able to reduce their use of medication for headaches and anxiety by using regular autogenic training.


It has been postulated that autogenic training may help cure some forms of infertility that are caused by psychological stress by improving hormone levels and conception rates.

Irritable bowel syndrome

A 2005 review by the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas found that hypnotherapy improved the symptoms for patients with irritable bowel syndrome.

Multiple sclerosis

A report published by Behavioral Medicine in 2005 found that multiple sclerosis patients reporting having more energy, vigor, and fewer physical and emotional problems after receiving 10 weekly autogenic training sessions. The control group did not fare as well.

Weight control

While studies have suggested that hypnotherapy may aid weight loss, results are mixed. A 2005 review done by Exeter and Plymouth Universities in England found that any weight loss benefit from hypnotherapy would likely be small.


  • Bratman, S. The Alternative Medicine Ratings Guide: an expert panel rates the best treatments for over 80 conditions, Prima Health A Division of Prima Publishing (1998)
  • Brown, L. Alternative Medicine, NTC/Contemporary Publishing (1999)
  • Deepak Chopra, M.D. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Celestial Arts (2002)
  • Nancy Allison. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines, The Rosen Publishing Group (1999)
  • Servan-Schreiber, D. The Encyclopedia of New Medicine: Conventional & Alternative Medicine For All Ages, Rodale International Limited (2006)

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