Listen to the sound of my voice. You’re getting sleeeepy.
Just kidding. Of course you can’t be hypnotized by reading a couple of sentences. In fact, most of the ways pop culture depicts hypnotism — swinging a pendulum in front of someone’s face, for instance — don’t work.
Real hypnotism, which is a guided state of relaxation and calm, isn’t used to control people but instead can actually help people heal.
What conditions can hypnosis help treat?
Hypnosis can be used along with other therapies to treat a variety of conditions, from mental health issues like anxiety and depression to substance use disorders to chronic pain.
Amy Starosta, a pain management specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the UW School of Medicine, has co-led research projects looking at how hypnosis can help people who have chronic pain from spinal cord injuries. Her colleagues and other researchers have found that hypnosis is effective even when people have been living with pain for a while. Early projects suggest that it could also be helpful when used as an early intervention shortly after injury.
“Hypnosis helps reduce the amount that pain is interfering in their lives,” Starosta says.
But why does it work? Well, the jury is still out on that, which is why the work of researchers like Starosta is important.
“Imaging and neurophysiology studies show us that hypnotic suggestions activate areas of the brain involved in memory, executive function and emotional processing,” says Barbara McCann, a licensed clinical psychologist and Hypnosis Endowed Chair in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
So, while we don’t yet know exactly how hypnosis acts on the brain, we know it’s doing something.
What is a hypnosis session like?
Real-life hypnosis isn’t like the theatrical version you see in movies and TV. It looks more like someone sitting in a therapist’s office, eyes closed, for half an hour to forty-five minutes while the therapist talks with them, says McCann.
A hypnosis session might start with a discussion between you and your therapist about what you find helpful and calming, and then your therapist will try to incorporate those things into the session.
Aspects of mindfulness, relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, and components of other therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) will likely be part of the session, too. The therapist may ask you to notice all of your senses to help you feel grounded.
They will then guide you in thinking about, and imagining differently, whatever is causing a problem in your life, offering alternative options for how to respond that you will remember after the session ends.
“The difference about hypnosis is those suggestions, which are designed to access and collaborate with a part of your brain that does things for you automatically,” says Starosta.
For example, if you have chronic pain and your automatic response during a flare-up is to get upset about how much pain you’re in, the therapist might guide you to train your brain to respond with neutrality or curiosity instead. This is called cognitive restructuring.
“The more interesting aspect of the session will be the person's report of what they experienced during hypnosis and whether it will help them do something different or think about things differently once they are back in their usual surroundings,” says McCann.
Hypnosis can also help change harmful core beliefs about yourself and your life and encourage you to make meaningful changes.
“You can use it to clarify how people understand the meaning of their life and make sure the automatic thoughts and images are consistent with their deeply held values,” says Mark Jensen, a pain management specialist and vice chair of research for the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine who co-led the chronic pain studies with Starosta.
Is hypnosis dangerous?
Hypnosis can’t compel someone to do something they don’t want to do — that’s just fiction, McCann explains. It also won’t uncover traumatic repressed memories or make you act like a different person.
The only real danger is seeking help from someone who says they can do hypnosis but doesn’t have qualifications to treat patients — aka they aren’t a licensed therapist or doctor.
“Like any tool used in therapy, hypnosis needs to be conducted by someone with the experience and training to use it appropriately for the problem at hand,” McCann explains.
As long as hypnosis is performed by a licensed mental health or medical professional, and it’s something you want to try, there isn’t any risk in doing it. If you don’t see a licensed therapist, well ... you’re probably wasting your time and money and won’t get results.
Does hypnosis actually work?
Like any other treatment, hypnosis is helpful for many people but not everyone.
One aspect of hypnosis that pop culture gets (kind of) right is the idea that some people are more suggestible or hypnotizable than others. In real life, one person may feel like what the therapist tells them during a session is actually happening, whereas others may just imagine it vividly.
But hypnosis can be beneficial for many different people, regardless of how intensely they experience hypnosis.
McCann emphasizes that hypnosis is not a standalone therapy — it won’t solve all your problems on its own. McCann uses hypnosis as one part of therapy for some patients, but not all.
“That said, some people benefit greatly from a single, thoughtfully conducted session,” McCann adds. “Others may benefit from repeated practice with the therapist’s guidance.”
Jensen is currently studying whether hypnosis delivered via an app is just as helpful as hypnosis delivered in person — if it is, it could make hypnosis more accessible for lots of people.
In general, Jensen recommends people who are interested in hypnosis try at least four sessions before deciding if it’s helpful or not for them. He’s had some patients who say it isn’t helpful — but many who say it is. In fact, he started studying hypnosis after a session with a patient who said hypnosis was the reason they had been able to experience being pain-free for the first time in 18 years.
“Many patients are surprised by how effective it is for them,” he says.