You’ve probably heard of hypnotherapy (also known as hypnosis therapy) before, but it might not be clear exactly what it is or how it’s supposed to work. The name is exactly what you might expect: its hypnosis used as a therapy measure to help people deal with traumas, unsolvable pains and other problems that require major, long-term therapy work to solve. But how is it supposed to help?

What is hypnotherapy and how does it work?

The idea behind hypnotherapy is based on the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, part of psychology that’s still being researched. Someone with phobias, long-term pain, anxiety or various involuntary behaviours and disorders can often require more than just therapists to practice relaxation or chatting with. Through hypnotherapy techniques, a suggestion can sometimes be implanted into their thoughts to help them deal with the condition: for example, if you have a phobia, a hypnotherapist could use verbal communication and recorded messages to help you understand that your fears are irrational over a long period of time, reducing the stress that the phobia triggers cause and helping you lower the level of fear you feel around them.

Hypnotherapy can also help with specific illness types, health issues, and even behaviour issues that stem from events while you were a child. If handled correctly, a hypnotherapist might be able to give their patient a number of different sets of information, such as helping them stay motivated or making it easy to quit an addiction that’s harming your body. There are plenty of possible applications for hypnotherapy – however, understanding how it works isn’t as straightforward.

In all people, there’s a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. Our conscious mind handles all of the things we actively think about, such as social, work and personal situations that we have to deal with, being the logical part of our brain. This can be a good and a bad thing: your conscious mind is the part you use to think clearly, but it’s also the part of us that will rationalise bad behaviour and make excuses. The unconscious mind is more personal, acting as the ‘instinct’ half of our brain: it focuses on us as an individual and sends information we know back to our conscious mind. For example, if we have a phobia, the unconscious mind tells us to respond in a certain way when a certain stimulus happens. We’re not actively wanting to respond in that way, but because the unconscious controls the conscious, we don’t have a choice.

Hypnotherapy bypasses (or tries to bypass) the conscious and enters the unconscious, inserting information into our mind in a way that can control the rest of our behaviour. If we insert a desire to practice our concentration, then we’re more likely to consciously think about concentrating, and it can even become a small part of our personality. Studies are still being done on how hypnotherapy actually works and how the hypnotic state can be used in different ways, but so far many therapist groups use it as a way to control certain behaviour types without the side effects of drugs or other types of conditioning.

What’s hypnotherapy used for?

As mentioned earlier, hypnotherapy can be used to insert suggestions or certain actions into a person’s mind. However, this actually gives it quite a varied range of use, since a hypnosis therapist can do almost anything as long as they know what the patient wants or needs. This can be used for everything from weight loss (implanting the idea of eating less, exercising more or just having the motivation to try and lose weight) to pain management (helping you try to block out the pain or subconsciously avoid activities that could cause more problems). In fact, hypnotherapists could even use a therapy session to help people handle PTSD or struggled with emotions and mental health conditions, which can often take a fully-blown psychologist to deal with permanently.

In most cases, it helps to make sure that the counsellor, doctor or hypnotherapist has a good relationship with the patients, but that’s not always necessary, especially if the hypnosis is being used to help with small tasks like reducing how much you’re smoking or making it easier to sleep when listening to a certain piece of music. There are obviously also certain limits – no matter your beliefs, you won’t be able to cure cancer or the coronavirus through hypnotherapy – but many mental health professionals use it as a good catch-all way of helping people deal with certain behavioural issues without any major risks.

What happens during hypnotherapy?

A hypnotherapy session always starts with the patient being put in a relaxed, comfortable situation where they don’t have to split their attention between multiple different events and can focus purely on one thing (in this case, the hypnotherapist). This often also includes things like the therapist playing relaxing music at a quiet volume or using ambient noise to set a mood. Regardless of how it happens, the hypnotherapist creates a situation where the clients can feel at ease, then attempts to use hypnosis to put them into a ‘trance‘-like state where they’re more receptive and open to instructions. Unlike the way hypnosis is depicted in a lot of media, the hypnotherapist doesn’t have any kind of control over the patient – instead, they’re just using the sessions to approach certain topics and plant particular ideas or habits in the client’s mind while they’re in that state.

A major part of the hypnotherapy session is making sure that there’s no conflict between either party, since there’s a lot of trust involved in even the earliest stage. The client had to eventually give up their natural habit of using logic in every situation and questioning everything that’s said to them, letting the therapist make full use of their new state if they want maximum effectiveness out of the procedure. Keep in mind that hypnosis isn’t an all-controlling tool that the therapist can use to force suggestions. In each hypnotherapy session, the patient is still in a state where they can reject certain ideas if they choose to: the trance state is simply to make them more open to these suggestions, and to stop their logical conscious minds from refusing things immediately. This is important for clients that have depression or mental health issues, since they’re more likely to have a “nothing will work” mentality without even trying a single hypnotherapy session.

Once the right state is achieved, the suggestions are made. This can be anything from having more control over your diet to changing the way you view other people, depending on the situation. The hypnotic state should – hopefully – let the subconscious operate properly without being held back by the conscious, giving the patient a better awareness of how they’re feeling internally and letting them experience any internal feelings or relive past experiences that their logical conscious mind may have blocked out or tried to justify away with excuses.

There are multiple ways that hypnotherapy can go from this point: some clients will need hypnotherapists to replace their negative feelings with positive ones, whereas others might want their hypnotherapist to use hypnotherapy as a way to give them a new outlook on a certain event. In some cases, it might be used to deconstruct a phobia or irrational fear, or even help somebody get over sexual abuse trauma that’s made it difficult for them to approach sexual matters again. It might even be weight loss therapy or a way for them to build some self-confidence. It all depends on the client’s needs, the hypnotherapist carrying out the hypnosis and the kind of hypnotherapy work that needs to be done.

Does hypnotherapy really work?

Hypnotherapy is often considered a close counterpart to regular Cognitive Behavioural Therapy practice, meaning that it definitely has a place in mental health, care, and support systems. Hypnosis doesn’t affect everybody in the same way, and the therapist involved can have a large impact on how well the hypnotherapy work will go in terms of results, but in many cases, hypnotherapy is considered a valid method of helping people deal with internal struggles and problems. In some cases, people may even employ self-hypnosis as a way to control their emotions if they know they suffer from certain conditions. As a general health care tool, hypnotherapy can also be useful for determining the mental health information of a patient by letting them relax and explain themselves in a stress-free environment.

While a lot of media would like to have you believe that hypnosis is an instant process, hypnotherapy can require a long-term treatment plan with a hypnotherapist (or multiple hypnotherapists) to fully complete, especially if a person is suffering from mental health issues or on medication that might make it harder for them to respond to hypnosis in an expected way. Not all people are susceptible to hypnosis in the same way, either. Human brains are like complicated computers, and there’s no guarantee that a person will be able to give up the logical part of their mind easily, or even at all. Thankfully, if it really doesn’t work, there are plenty of alternatives to hypnotherapy available that can have the same effect.

Should I use hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy might seem scary at first, especially if your understanding of hypnosis comes from media that doesn’t represent it very well, but it can be surprisingly useful if done well. Hypnotherapists with a certification and the proper training are best, and can sometimes even help you reach a full transformation of your behaviour or give you something to aim towards. Even if you suffer from something like insomnia, which can be difficult to cure correctly, a hypnotherapist might be able to lessen the impact or make it slightly easier to handle in the long-term. Just be aware that hypnotherapists don’t always know exactly what you need, and that it’s your responsibility to be clear with a hypnotherapist about what you’re hoping for: you can reject any ideas that you don’t want to use, but they rely on your information to go the procedure correctly.