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Does Hypnosis Work? What You Need to Know ... and to Watch Out For

Hypnosis has long been a favorite trick of comedians and magicians alike. Grab an unsuspecting audience member, swing a pocket watch in front of their face while chanting "you are getting sleepy" -- and then order the hypnotized person to cluck like a chicken, sing opera and do any number of other humiliating antics.


The type of hypnosis used for stage acts has little in common with the type given by licensed hypnotherapists.

Good for a laugh, yes, but does hypnosis really work?

Well, when used in the manner described above, it's anyone's guess, but in more serious situations it turns out that hypnosis may be far from a laughing matter. In fact, numerous studies have shown that it may actually be an effective tool for everything from pain relief to overcoming food cravings.

What IS Hypnosis?

There are several types of recognized hypnosis (all of which are very different from the entertainment version described above). These include:

  • A hypnotherapist talking to you gently and describing relaxing images. Once you are relaxed, the therapist suggests ways for you to achieve certain goals.

  • A hypnotherapist describing specific mental images that help you to visualize what you want to achieve.

  • Self-hypnosis, in which a hypnotherapist teaches you how to hypnotize yourself to achieve certain goals.

During all of these methods, you are not controlled by the hypnotherapist, nor do you lose consciousness. Instead, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Your mind will be focused

  • You become very relaxed

  • You tend to me more open to suggestion and less critical or disbelieving

Although no one is sure exactly why hypnosis can be beneficial for some people, it is generally described as a type of mind-body medicine that helps you to put your focus on a desired outcome.

What Does the Science Say?


During hypnosis, you are completely conscious. Yet, while your body is relaxed, your mind is extremely focused.

Many preliminary studies have verified the benefits of hypnotherapy. For instance, the National Institutes of Health has approved hypnosis as a relaxation method that can treat chronic pain. Further, according to the Mayo Clinic, studies suggest that hypnotherapy may help:

  • Change negative behaviors, such as smoking, bed-wetting and overeating

  • Reduce or eliminate fears, stress and anxiety

  • Treat pain during childbirth and reduce labor time

  • Control pain during dental and surgical procedures

  • Relieve symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Control nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy

  • Reduce the intensity or frequency of headaches, including migraines

  • Treat and ease the symptoms of asthma

  • Hasten the healing of some skin diseases, including warts, psoriasis and atopic dermatitis

Getting even more specific:

  • A study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that a brief hypnosis session prior to breast-cancer surgery reduced women's pain, discomfort and costs after surgery.

  • A study in Pain found that women who used self-hypnosis during a breast biopsy experienced less anxiety and pain than women who received standard care.

What to Know About Hypnosis

If you are thinking of trying hypnosis, you should be aware that it is not a regulated field, so you must be sure to find a reputable hypnotist. Generally, a hypnotist is considered to be certified if they have completed more than 200 hours of hypnosis training. You may also be able to find a psychologist, doctor or social worker who has trained in hypnotherapy and offers this along with their usual services.

No matter who you choose, be sure to ask for references, where they received their training and what their sessions entail. In general, you should ask them the same types of questions you would ask any health care practitioner.

A typical session lasts from 30 to 60 minutes, and you will generally bring yourself out of the hypnosis at the end. Keep in mind that you will probably remember the entire session, and will not be controlled by the hypnotist. In fact, it is nearly impossible for someone to become hypnotized against their will.

While most hypnosis, when conducted by a reputable therapist, is considered safe, you should avoid hypnotherapy that claims to restore your lost memories. In these cases, someone could actually suggest memories to you that did not actually happen, causing you emotional harm.

In general, however, hypnotherapy can be a beneficial supporting tool for those looking for pain relief, behavioral changes (to quit smoking, lose weight, etc.) or a relaxation technique to help relieve stress.

Recommended Reading

Shopping as a Form of Therapy? According to Some Research, You Bet!

How Does the Way You Think Impact Your Health?


Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2007 Sep 5;99(17):1304-12.

Pain. 2006 Dec 15;126(1-3):155-64.

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