What Is Hypnosis?


In many people the word “hypnosis” brings up an image of a stage-villain who swings a pocket watch back and forth and makes people behave crazy. In reality, hypnosis is nothing like that – it is a form of suggestion, but it certainly can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do.

What Hypnosis Actually Is

The definitions of hypnosis can vary, but in essence it’s an interaction in which the patient responds to the suggestions of the hypnotist. Note the use of the word interaction – it describes well that there’s a willing moment involved (we’ll talk about that more later in this article).

One of the formal definitions of hypnosis, given by the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, is that:

Hypnosis is a state of inner absorption, concentration and focused attention.

Hypnosis has two separate elements: trance and suggestion.

Hypnotic trance isn’t sleep – it’s a state of focused attention that can be brought about by giving the specific instructions to a person who is willing to participate in hypnosis.

We often enter the hypnotic-like state spontaneously – when we’re having a daydream, when we’re absorbed in an activity like sport, listening to the music, reading, or when we meditate; you perhaps recall a situation where you have been driving for a long distance and can’t remember the route you took – the state of your mind during that time was very similar to the hypnotic trance.

When we want to enter this state willingly, we usually need help from the outside (especially if we’ve never done it before) – someone who will induce this state by giving us instructions that usually include: focusing on the hypnotist’s voice, concentrating and paying attention to our inner mental world.

Hypnotic suggestions, the second element, are used to influence the thoughts and feelings of a person. Again, this can’t be done against our will – otherwise you’d be hearing all the time how people rob banks because they’re hypnotized, and the hypnotherapists would be very rich people 😉 It’s just that a person who undergoes hypnosis is more susceptible to respond to the suggestion than s/he normally is.

An example of a situation where the hypnotist’s suggestions can make the changes in your mind would be this: if, for example, you think you have a bad memory, you’d probably be saying things like: “Oh, I’m so bad with names, my memory is getting bad, you better call to remind me because I won’t remember…”. Sentences like that are only suggestions – you use them to describe your state, but you also believe in them, and repeating them makes you believe it even more.

In a situation like that, a hypnotherapist would also use suggestions, but in different direction – he’d use phrases like: “Your memory is getting better every day, you will easily remember things that are important…” etc.

This is just an example, but from which you can clearly see when people can be hypnotized: when they have the same goal as their hypnotherapist, but are unable to reach it by themselves.

To learn more about the processes that happen in our brain during hypnosis, see our article about how hypnosis works.

Types of Hypnotherapy

There are three main types of hypnotherapy:

1. Suggestion hypnotherapy

This type of hypnotherapy uses the power of suggestion that help  an individual to do the things they want to do more easily, or to stop doing the things they don’t want to do. This type of hypnotherapy is used, for example, when a person has trouble overcoming their fear of public speaking, or to stop smoking, drinking etc.

The suggestions that the hypnotherapist gives you can be direct (“You will stop smoking now”), or indirect (in the form of stories and metaphors). This type of hypnotherapy is used mostly when there’s no deeper root cause that has to be dealt with, or when there’s a need for a quick solution (for example, when someone needs to deal with the fear of flight because of the business trip in the near future).

Suggestion hypnotherapy can be very effective for dealing with unhealthy habits (smoking, nail biting, weight loss etc), and can be very quick – it often takes only one or two sessions to see the results. However, if the patient experiences conditions similar to those that started the original issue, the symptoms may return.

2. Analytical hypnotherapy

Analytical hypnotherapy (hypnoanalysis) delves into the root causes of the patient’s issue, when there is an experience buried deep inside our brain, which originally led to the formation of the problem. For example, a phobia can be treated using suggestion hypnotherapy, but it will only be masked that way. But if a therapist uses the analytical approach, he will be able to identify the root cause of the problem and to deal with it – the root problem will then become powerless, and the symptoms (the phobia in this example) will disapear.

Apart from phobias, some physical issues can be successfully treated using the analytical approach: pain, eczema, hay fever and similar, as well as some emotional issues.

In analytical hypnotherapy, issues and symptoms are less likely to return as this is a very involving process that deals with the root problem, and not only its manifestations. It may also release other connected issues, which is why some patients describe it as “a lifechanging experience”. However, it requires more sessions (8 or more) than the suggestion hypnotherapy, so it’s usually used in treating more complex issues.

3. Cognitive hypnotherapy

Cognitive hypnotherapy is a modern approach to therapy based on a number of other sciences and validated theories, such as positive psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and NLP*, and tools like positive suggestions and visualization, combining them to fit the personal values and goals of the patient. Cognitive hypnotherapy follows the principle that there’s no “one size fits all” model, thus a therapist creates a tailored approach for each patient.

*Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is based on the exploration of the relationship between how we think, how we communicate, and how we feel and behave, so that we can transform the way we think and act, and adopt new, more successful models. Essentially, NLP analyses the linguistic techniques that successful people subconsciously use, trying to produce “a recipe for excellence”.

The terms Cognitive hypnotherapist and NLP practitioner are often used interchangeably. An NLP practitioner will analyze your attitude, the way you use the language, your understanding of relationships, in order to bring you to effectively perceive yourself and others, and to form your own strategy for improving your motivation, learning, remembering, or another kind of issue that you may have.

Is Hypnosis Dangerous?

As we already said, a hypnotherapist can’t make you do anything you don’t already want to do – so in that sense no, it’s not dangerous at all. However, there are other concerns that you should be aware of, and they include:

  • Sometimes, when a person decides to undergo hypnosis because they want to recover some repressed memories, there is a possibility of creating false memories (usually as a result of unintended suggestions given by the therapist). 
  • Hypnotherapy should be used with extreme caution with the people who have some sort of mental disorder – hypnosis can worsen their mental state.
  • There can be some side effects, usually after the first induction, but they’re mild and not lasting, like a mild headache, drowsiness or dizziness.

In fact, apart from the possible headache, you can only experience negative effects with a poorly trained and incompetent hypnotherapist. If you’re considering hypnosis, be sure to learn as much as you can about your therapist: does s/he have a training in a field such as psychology, medicine, social work or dentistry; how much training does s/he have in hypnotherapy; what professional organisations s/he belongs to; how long has s/he been in practice.

In the right hands, hypnosis absolutely can’t harm you, it can only make you accept deep inside the positive suggestions which you want to accept anyway – it can be a powerful self improvement tool, as long as you let it be.

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