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Hypnotherapy: The Power of Suggestion

The Power of Suggestion

What is hypnotherapy?
What is it used for?
Can anyone be hypnotized?
What is a session like?
How does the hypnotherapist snap me out of it?
What is a typical course of treatment?
Will my health insurance pay for it?
How can I find a hypnotherapist?

OK, true or false:

  • A person who hypnotizes you can make you do embarrassing things that you would never do normally—like imitate Elvis Presley or quack like a duck.
  • When you're under hypnosis, you're likely to reveal personal secrets you'd never tell anyone when you're awake.
  • When you get hypnotized, you don't remember anything that happened when you were "under."
  • Some people who are hypnotized never come out of it again.

Guess what? These are all myths. If you answered true to any of these questions, you've probably been watching too many old movies. Or you may be thinking of hypnotists you've seen on stage, the ones whose "victims" are willing participants (and often eager to show off). In the real world, when a health professional uses hypnotherapy, the goal is to help you gain control over some area of your life, not lose it. A hypnotherapist may teach you some cool tricks to use, but the only person who has the power to hypnotize you is you. back to top

What is hypnotherapy?
Hypnotherapy uses hypnosis, or trance, to help people overcome a wide range of problems, from kicking a smoking habit to relieving pain or anxiety. You already know what it's like to be in a trance: it's the state of mind you get in when you watch a suspenseful movie, daydream on the bus, or get totally into a book—times when you're so lost in your thoughts that you tune out everything around you. When you're in a trance, your attention gets very focused or concentrated, like the rays of the sun when they pass through a magnifying glass. Just as you can use a magnifying glass to make sunlight stronger, you may be able to use a trance state to increase the power of your mind to help change or heal some aspect of your life. back to top

What is it used for?
Hypnotherapy is used along with other therapies to treat a variety of physical and mental health conditions. For example, because your mind controls the way you experience pain, hypnotherapy is commonly used for pain relief, whether from dental work, headaches, backaches, period cramps, surgery, cancer, or other conditions. Some areas of your body are sensitive to stress and emotion—such as your skin and gastrointestinal system—and may respond to hypnotherapy as well. Some people use hypnotherapy to shrink warts; fight skin rashes and acne; improve symptoms of eczema, psoriasis, and herpes; and help ease heartburn or irritable bowel syndrome.

Hypnotherapy is also used to curb unwanted habits, such as overeating or smoking, or to improve performance in sports. In addition, some people find hypnotherapy helpful in relieving stress, anxiety, mild depression, phobias, or sleeping disorders. back to top

Can anyone be hypnotized?
Actually, no. A small percentage of people simply can't be hypnotized. It may have to do with a fear of being controlled (even though a good hypnotherapist always makes it clear that you'll be in control at all times). On the other hand, some people slip into a trance at the drop of a hat, while most of us fall somewhere in the middle range.

Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing whether you're a good candidate for hypnotherapy without having a session for yourself. A hypnotherapist can do tests to make sure you're suggestible (able to be hypnotized) before you start any kind of therapy.

You may also decide that the whole idea of being hypnotized is just too scary. That's OK. Hypnotherapy is not for everyone—and it's not the right therapy for you if it makes you too uncomfortable. back to top

What is a session like?
A first session with a hypnotherapist begins with just talking. Your therapist will want to get a sense of who you are, including what you expect from the treatment and how motivated you are. You, on the other hand, will want to get a sense that the hypnotherapist is someone you can trust and have a good feeling about. Talking will help you both figure out the best way to work together to achieve your goals.

Then you'll sit comfortably in a chair and learn what's called an "induction technique" that will help you enter a trance state. Hollywood's version is the swinging watch chain ("You are getting very sleepy . . ."), but there are many other methods. Some are as simple as closing your eyes and counting backward; others involve listening closely to the hypnotherapist's voice as you're given instructions. You may be asked to picture yourself walking down a long flight of stairs, say, or to feel your arm being lifted as though it's tied to a bunch of balloons.

As you slip into a trance, you'll feel deeply relaxed, but still aware of your surroundings. You may be told to imagine yourself in a beautiful, peaceful place that will relax you even further. This will help clear your mind of distracting thoughts and allow you to focus totally on the hypnotherapist's suggestions, which are designed to use the power of your mind and imagination to help you solve the problem at hand.

For example, if your problem is acne, your hypnotherapist may suggest that you imagine that your skin (which you may think of as a battlefield) is now smooth, clear, and at peace. If your problem is some sort of chronic pain, you may be told to imagine packing your pain into a box, locking it into a steamer trunk, and putting the trunk in the bottom of a basket attached to a hot-air balloon, which you then watch rise up and drift out of sight. A typical session lasts anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.

When hypnotherapy works, it's because your mind is very open to suggestion when you're in a trance. One role of the hypnotherapist is to plant strong suggestions in your mind that will help you achieve your goal. But a suggestion will only work if you want it to, and nobody can make you do something under hypnosis that goes against your will. During hypnotherapy you're always in control, and you can stop a session at any time if it makes you feel uncomfortable. back to top

How does the hypnotherapist snap me out of it?
To help you get back into a fully conscious state, the hypnotherapist may reverse the process that helped you get into a trance—say, telling you to count from 1 to 10 or "walk" back up a long stairway. Or you may simply be told to wake up. But even if your hypnotherapist bolted from the room and left you there, you would eventually wake up on your own. There's no chance of getting stuck in a hypnotic trance forever.

After the session, most people remember everything that happened when they were under hypnosis. Some therapists taperecord each session just in case, and you can certainly request that your therapist do so. The tape may then be used to help you practice self-hypnosis on your own. back to top

What is a typical course of treatment?
Depending on what condition you're treating, how easy you are to hypnotize, and other factors, you may need anywhere from one to five visits. During those visits, your hypnotherapist should be teaching you how to practice self-hypnosis without any help. Once you get to that point, you won't need any more sessions and can use hypnotherapy on your own as often as you want. back to top

Will my health insurance pay for it?
Your health insurance plan may cover hypnotherapy if it's done by a medical doctor (M.D.), a licensed psychotherapist (Ph.D.), or a clinical social worker. back to top

How can I find a hypnotherapist?
Your best bet when looking for a hypnotherapist is to find a health professional (such as an M.D.) with experience treating your condition who is also trained in hypnotherapy. For information on how to find a hypnotherapist, contact the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis at

The other possibility is to look for a psychotherapist who specializes in hypnotherapy and has treated other people with your condition.

Avoid therapists who ask for a certain number of sessions in advance, as it may be possible to achieve your goal in just one session. And stay away from anyone who promises to "cure" you—the job of a hypnotherapist is simply to teach you how to use skills you already have. back to top

Professional hypnotherapy is considered safe for anybody. But when it comes to finding a good hypnotherapist, "chemistry" is key. Listen to your gut: if you don't like or trust your therapist, your treatment isn't going to work. In addition, if you feel at any time during hypnotherapy treatment that you're being pushed in a direction you don't want to go, stop the treatment and find another therapist.

There has been a lot of controversy in recent years about therapists who use hypnotherapy to uncover "repressed memories." Because your mind is very open to suggestion when you are under hypnosis, it is possible that you might imagine false memories during a session if your therapist persists in asking you leading questions. One way to prevent that from happening is for you and your parents to be very clear with your therapist from the outset about what your goals are, and to stick to them. back to top

Last Modified Date: 4/4/2001