Getting hip to hypnosis: Taking the mystery out of a centuries-old medical marvel

 Despite a somewhat mysterious quality—and its occasional use in some decidedly unscientific quarters—hypnosis has finally earned a well-deserved place in modern medicine. I’ve seen it do some truly remarkable things, and think it’s one of the best treatment options there is. It’s completely non-invasive, and harnesses your body’s own power to heal itself. And that’s what all good medicine should really aim to do. Of course, with origins dating back to the 1700s, it certainly took a while for hypnosis to gain the respect it deserves. But hypnosis found its way into mainstream medical practice in the 1950s. In 1955, the British Medical Association endorsed it. Then a few years later—in 1958—both the American and Canadian Medical Associations followed suit.

Since then, interest in hypnosis has grown, and the practice of hypnosis has found numerous clinical applications. The technique is important for various psychological conditions. And has been used successfully to treat anxiety, phobias, and to help people quit smoking.

But what many people don’t realize is that hypnosis is also a promising tool for many physical ailments. And these aren’t just anecdotal accounts.

Yes, believe it or not, there are many new scientific studies on the benefits of hypnosis. In fact, there are now abundant reports published in the medical literature describing the benefits of hypnotherapy for a wide variety of medical conditions. For example…

  • One study published in April 2012 showed that hypnosis can help alleviate the maddening ringing, buzzing, and hissing in the ears associated with tinnitus.
  • Another study showed significant blood sugar lowering benefits in patients with Type 2 diabetes who used hypnosis along with acupressure.
  •  Two specific studies showed impressive benefits for people using hypnosis for irritable bowel syndrome. In one, 40 percent of patients in the hypnosis group experienced significant relief— compared to just 12 percent in the control group.3 And in the other study, 85 percent of IBS patients who used hypnosis reported that they still felt the benefits seven years later.

Thrusting hypnosis even further into the scientific realm are some of the high-tech imaging techniques now available. MRIs and PET scans in particular have made it possible—for the first time—for researchers to see the actual metabolic changes that occur during hypnosis. Proving, once and for all—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that hypnosis is very much “for real.”

Still, even with strong science behind it, many people still think of it as little more than a “parlor trick.” So today, let’s take a few minutes and go over exactly what hypnosis involves— and what it can do for you.

What is hypnosis?

Physiologically, hypnosis resembles other forms of deep relaxation. It decreases nervous system activity, decreases oxygen consumption, and lowers blood pressure and heart rate. It can also increase or decrease certain types of brain wave activity.

Hypnotherapy’s effectiveness lies in the complex connection between the mind and the body. It is now understood how illness affects your emotional state. And, conversely, that your emotional state affects your physical state. For example, stress, an emotional reaction, can make heart disease worse. And heart disease, a physical condition, can cause depression.

Hypnosis carries this connection a logical step further by using the power of the mind to bring about change in the body.

How hypnosis works

Like many other functions of the human brain, the precise physiologic mechanisms of hypnosis aren’t fully understood. On a superficial level, hypnosis patients appear to be asleep. But their EEG brainwave patterns resemble wakefulness.

The difference between “normal” wakefulness and the hypnotic state appears to be where the brain wave activity occurs. Neurologic studies using EEGs in hypnotized individuals have shown a shift of brain wave activity to different regions of the brain.

For example, imagining colors while hypnotized results in measurable increases in blood flow to the visual cortex—the area of the brain that is normally stimulated during actual sight.

What is it like to be hypnotized?

By most accounts, hypnosis is characterized by increased mental focus and concentration, a “belle indifference” (a French- like indifference) to the external environment, and heightened receptiveness to suggestion.

Most people describe feeling a pleasantly altered state of consciousness (but not sleep), an air of calm, and a general feeling of well-being.

Hypnosis works best when the hypnotized subject is able to thoroughly discontinue conscious “censoring” of information. In other words, to suspend their disbelief (which most people have a lot of practice doing simply from watching movies—or just observing Washington DC). But a large percentage of patients benefit from even “light” levels of hypnosis.

How is hypnosis done?

You’ve no doubt seen hypnosis depicted by swinging a pocket watch in front of a person’s face. Along with the phrase “You’re getting very sleepy…” But I don’t often see either of these techniques used in real life (nor do I see a lot of pocket watches anymore).

That said, there is no uniform method for inducing hypnosis. But there are three common elements in most applications of clinical hypnosis.

in the words or images presented by the hypnotherapist.

Dissociation from your ordinary critical faculties.

Responsiveness to the suggestions presented by the hypnotherapist.

A hypnotherapist either leads patients through relaxation, mental images, and suggestions. Or he or she teaches patients to perform the techniques themselves. Many hypnotherapists provide guided audiotapes for their patients so they can practice the therapy at home. The images presented are specifically tailored to the particular patient’s needs and may use one or all of the five (or six) senses.

A hypnosis session usually incorporates five steps:

1.) Preparation. You’re placed in a comfortable, secure environment. Usually sitting in a quiet room. Distractions and interruptions are minimized.

2.) Induction. You’re guided to a state of relaxation by deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and/ or the use of imagery.

3.) Deepening. In this phase, the hypnotic state is deepened through repetition and reinforcement. Conscious thinking is minimized.

4.) Purpose. This is where the specific goal of the hypnosis is addressed. Hypnotic suggestions are given to modify perceptions or behavior. For example, in the case of pain management, you may be asked to transform the perception of pain to a numbness or tingling sensation.

5.) Awakening. In this final phase, you’re gradually brought out of the hypnotic state. During this stage, the therapeutic suggestions presented during step 4 are repeated and reinforced as the level of hypnosis lightens. Then the hypnotherapist offers some final suggestions. And you will awake refreshed and relaxed.

Usually, a hypnosis session will produce immediate positive results. Patients also generally report a sense of well-being and calm, although they’re often uncertain about how deeply they were “under.” They often comment on how they were completely aware of what was going on, but with a curious unconcern about their surroundings.

Subsequent sessions usually produce “deeper” levels of hypnosis, since patients are usually less apprehensive about the technique and feel safer.

A typical hypnosis session takes between 30 minutes and an hour. There are no studies or guidelines about the optimal frequency of hypnosis sessions. Weekly sessions are probably realistic for most people. Especially since between sessions, most patients are encouraged to practice “self-hypnosis.”

The self-hypnosis method, while not quite as effective as guided therapy with a skilled hypnotist, uses your own skills at achieving a hypnotic state by applying breathing techniques and imagery that you learn during regular sessions.

 Finding a practitioner

Hypnotherapy is generally provided by a licensed mental health practitioner, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. And believe it or not, some dentists are also trained in the clinical practice of hypnosis. The American Society of Clinical

Hypnosis (; 1-630-980-4740) is a great resource that can help you locate a hypnotherapist in your area.

But no matter who you choose, in order for hypnosis to work, a state of trust and confidence must exist between you and the therapist. Most patients—even the most open-minded ones—usually need some reassurance, especially at the first session, that they won’t be surrendering control or be subjected to inappropriate suggestions. Good practitioners will ease your mind of these worries and allow you to relax—which is, after all, an essential part of effective hypnotherapy. 

Oh, I can’t be hypnotized”

It never fails. Anytime I mention hypnosis, someone tells me he or she is “immune.” But that’s only true in about 10% of people. Everyone else can be hypnotized to some degree.

Although it is true that women are slightly more “hypnotizable” than men. And children are usually more receptive than adults.

To find out whether hypnosis will work for you and your particular health concerns, see my new book with Michael Jawer, Your Emotional Type: Key to Finding the Therapies That Will Work for You.

1 “Effectiveness of Ericksonian hypnosis in tinnitus therapy: preliminary results,” B-ENT 2012; 8(1): 7-12
2 “Combined therapy using acupressure therapy, hypnotherapy, and transcendental meditation versus placebo in type 2 diabetes.” J Acupunct Meridian Stud 2011; 4(3): 183-186
3 “Effects of Gut-Directed Hypnotherapy on IBS in Different Clinical Settings—Results From Two Randomized, Controlled Trials.” The American Journal of Gastroenterology 2011; 107 (2): 276
4 “Long-term effects of hypnotherapy in patients with refractory irritable bowel syndrome.” Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology 2012; 47 (4): 414