What Is Hypnotherapy? (Hint: It’s Nothing Like the Hypnosis You See on TV)

The truth about clinical hypnosis

Woman undergoing hypnotherapy with therapist in foreground

When you hear the word hypnosis, does it bring to mind a stage show where a hypnotist puts people to sleep and then wakes them up to make them cluck like chickens and perform other embarrassing tasks?

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If so, you might be surprised to learn that hypnosis is commonly used in medical care. It’s been shown to help people with certain conditions turn the dial down on their pain or cope with stressors.

But it’s not anything like what you see on TV.

Clinical hypnosis, or hypnotherapy, is not about coercing anyone to do anything against their will. Rather, it’s a set of techniques that can help people reach a state of heightened awareness where they may be able to change their perception.

“It’s very much about accessing an individual’s subconscious, accessing their emotions and understanding themselves,” explains licensed social worker and advanced clinical hypnotherapist Jillian Williams, LSW-S, MSW, JD, ACHT. “Much of what we do is focused on long-term benefits of changing a lifestyle.”

What does hypnotherapy help?

Hypnotherapy is led by a behavioral health specialist who’s been trained and licensed in clinical hypnosis. It’s usually used along with other therapies and treatments to help people:

How does it work?

Clinical hypnosis doesn’t involve a hypnotist who swings a pocket watch back and forth in front of someone’s eyes or puts them under a spell.

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It’s actually not even something that’s done to a person. It’s a state of deep mental focus that someone gets themselves into with help from a therapist.

“It’s rooted in a deep, guided, interactive mediation,” Williams says. “It allows patients to get to a point where they feel completely safe and are hyper-aware of themselves.”

When someone is in that deep, focused state, their conscious mind is quieted and they’re able to tap into the part of themselves where their thoughts and beliefs originate. Here, they may be able to access painful feelings and memories that are hidden from their conscious mind.

“Our process is about getting to the root emotion that is guiding certain patterns of behavior,” Williams says. “Many times, there is a suppressed or repressed emotion that is holding back someone’s progress.”

In this state, they might also be more receptive to gentle guidance from a therapist that can help them modify or replace the unconscious thoughts that drive their behavioral patterns.

For example, take a smoker who’s having trouble quitting. He or she may crave cigarettes especially during stressful moments of the day. Hypnotherapy might help that person become aware of the emotion that guides their subconscious thought process that associates cigarettes with stress relief and keeps their addiction going.

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The secret sauce for helping people achieve that deep relaxed state? It depends on the therapist, but it might include deep breathing, visualization, guided meditation and deepening techniques.

What to know before you try it

Clinical hypnosis isn’t for everyone. Some people might not be able to reach the deep state of focus and relaxation that’s needed for it to be helpful. Because it can also bring stressful events or strong emotions to the surface, it may not be appropriate for people with certain conditions.

But if your doctor recommend hypnotherapy, and you decide to give it a try, it’s important to go in with an open mind — and some patience.

“It takes some time and preparation,” Williams says. “It might take a few sessions before they’re able to get into the deep work.”

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