Hypnosis: Fact vs Fiction

What hypnosis is not…

Most people have some idea of what hypnosis is. Unfortunately, these ideas are frequently based on the portrayal of hypnosis within the entertainment industry. Captivating as they may be, these impressions derived from stage performances and Hollywood’s version of the evil mastermind are totally incongruous with the practice of clinical hypnosis.

Perhaps a stage performer’s greatest skill is not hypnotism, but rather the ability to choose the perfect participant. This type of hypnotist relies upon the fact that volunteers often come to the performance primed and ready to be a part of the act. Some of the “subjects,” no doubt, experience a hypnotic state allowing them to access a less inhibited part of their minds. Others may find it uncomfortable to embarrass the hypnotist and therefore “go along” with the suggestions. Then, of course, there are those who just want to be a part of the entertainment. Participants who do not fit within one of these groups are generally returned to the audience rather early in the performance. The handful of chosen subjects are the real show. Yet, no matter how outlandish the antics of the remaining participants, there is never a point at which the hypnotist “controls” any person. The hypnotist cannot entice any of these people to do anything that goes against his/her personal beliefs, morals, ethics or will. Furthermore, the participant could, at any time, refuse to cooperate. This is true in the entertainment industry and it is true in clinical/medical hypnosis. No one can hijack a person’s mind and entice them to do anything against their will. Hypnotism is not mind control.

Neither is hypnosis a truth serum. It is not sleep nor is it unconsciousness. While hypnosis can be a powerful tool, it is not a cure-all. It is not a memory enhancer. Hypnosis is not magic nor mystical; neither do hypnotists possess any special powers.

So, then, what is hypnotism?

Hypnosis is a common, natural and, frequently, spontaneous phenomenon. Most people enter hypnotic states at least twice during the day: those moments just after awakening and then again just before sleep. In addition to these times, there are many other times throughout the day when a person is likely to slip into this type of deep concentration: while watching T.V. or reading a book, perhaps during morning rituals or when performing any task that has become so routine that it no longer requires one’s full attention.

Most of us can relate to the phenomenon called “highway hypnosis.” You’re driving a familiar road…you navigate the correct route, keeping the vehicle in the proper lane; you automatically respond to conditions correctly (e.g. stopping at traffic lights, using a turn signal, slowing as traffic slows). Yet, when you arrive at your destination you have no memory of doing any of these things. That is a hypnotic state. This is the same level of consciousness many people achieve during clinical hypnosis.

The label “hypnosis” can be a bit deceiving.

Derived from the Greek “Hypnos” (“the personification of sleep”), one might assume that hypnosis is akin to sleep. However, hypnosis, rather than being a level of decreased consciousness, is a state of alert, focused concentration. In 2014, the American Psychological Association (APA) defined hypnosis as “A state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.”

Definition of Hypnosis

Hypnosis is a collaborative undertaking between the client and the hypnotist. The hypnotist’s role is to assist the client in reaching the desired state of consciousness and focus in order to accomplish the client’s stated goal. This is not unlike any other guide that might assist a traveler to find the best route to their destination. As noted earlier, the client remains in control the entire time and while he/she is more receptive to suggestions, the suggestions given within hypnosis originate from the client, not the hypnotist. In a very real sense, all hypnosis is self-hypnosis.

What can hypnosis do for you?

If hypnosis did nothing more than teach a person how to relax and decrease stress it would be an invaluable tool.

But, the use of hypnosis has been found to be efficacious in the treatment of many mental and/or physical problems1.For example, studies have demonstrated the successful use of hypnotherapy in both adults and children with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)2 as well as, in the treatment of upper gastrointestinal disorders (e.g. gastric reflux)3. It has shown to decrease hot flashes 4, relieve tinnitus (ringing in the ears)5, improve quality of life for patients with heart failure6, and reduce side-effects of chemo and radiation therapy in cancer patients7. Hypnosis is effective in treating chronic pain conditions 8, such as fibromyalgia, without the adverse side effects of traditional pain medication. Many people wanting to quit smoking 9 or lose weight10 have found hypnosis to be a beneficial tool. Hypnosis has assisted people to overcome fears and anxieties11, to increase their self-confidence/self-efficacy12, and to learn to manage stress13. While this is just a sample of the uses of hypnosis, it is apparent that it can play a major role in health care. Future studies may even uncover applications for further consideration.

What to expect in a hypnosis session:

In the first session, the hypnotist will generally want to know about your past experiences with hypnosis, as well as, any beliefs you have about it. The hypnotic process will be explained to you and any mistaken beliefs or concerns addressed. Once you are both satisfied that you understand the process and have no further questions, the actual hypnosis session will begin.
To start, you will be asked to make yourself comfortable; this may be by just positioning yourself in a chair or by lying back in a recliner, whatever is most comfortable for you. Once you have positioned yourself, the hypnotist will ask you to focus on something, perhaps a spot on the wall or ceiling or simply your breathing. As you focus, it is not uncommon to begin to feel very relaxed. You may wish to close your eyes as you become more and more relaxed. Different people report different experiences. You may feel “awake” and aware of all that is said…not very different from your regular, wakened state. You may feel sleepy, very relaxed, lightheaded, or perhaps as though you are floating. On the other hand, it is not unusual to feel as though your body is heavy. Feelings of peace and calm are often reported…. occasionally, feelings of detachment. Time may seem to slow down…or it could speed up. You may feel warm or…you might experience cold…perhaps a tingling sensation. At times, you may be fully aware of the hypnotist’s voice; a moment later, unmindful of the voice. Or you may experience it as floating in and out of your consciousness. You could remember the whole session, or perhaps, only part of the session. While unlikely, you might even remember none of the session.

The way you experience hypnosis is the right way for you.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel. Each person is unique. And just as two people will not have the exact experience, every hypnosis session is distinct, and your experience may change somewhat with each session. You may even find that your sensations change within the same session. This is perfectly normal.

Moving into the working part of the session….

Once you have entered the relaxed but focused state of hypnosis, the hypnotist will give you the positive suggestions that will assist you in making the changes needed to reach your desired goal. These suggestions are based on your own input. It is not uncommon for the hypnotist to repeat the same suggestion several times and perhaps in several ways. Repetition has been shown to increase effectiveness. This part of the session will last generally 20 to 30 minutes.

Finally, at the end of the session, the therapist will gently guide your back to normal awareness. There are different methods to do this; some hypnotists will count or use some other method to actively bring you out of hypnosis; others will instruct you to come back to total awareness and allow you to proceed at your own pace. Regardless of the method, you will be fully returned to your pre-hypnosis state of awareness. It is common for the hypnotist to take a few minutes at the end of the session to process the experience with you. If subsequent sessions are indicated, you will generally schedule the next appointment at this time.

Practice makes perfect…

In addition to the session, you will be given an audio recording to help you practice your new skills. The audio may be a recording of the session or it may be a separate, and often shorter, hypnosis session. Regardless, it is important that you listen to it several times a week. Success is dependent upon practicing the techniques you have learned.

In closing…..

Hypnosis is a naturally occurring state of consciousness. It can be a very relaxing, yet empowering, experience. Hypnosis allows you to access your own un/subconscious mind. Enlisting this resource assists you to make changes that would be harder to make utilizing only the conscious mind. Just as a good friend can come to your aid and lessen your burden, so too, your unconscious mind can make change easier.


  1. MayoClinic.org
  2. Flik, CE, et al, 2018; Moser, B, et al, 2013; Palsson, OS, et al, 2002; Palsson, OS, 2005; Rutten, JMTM, et al, 2017; Thakur, ER, et al, 2018.
  3. McDonald-Haile, J, et al, 1994; Riehl and Keefer, 2015; Zlotgorski and Anixter, 2011.
  4. Elkins, GR, et al, 2011; Lawton, C, 2009.
  5. Attias, J, et al, 1990.
  6. Kwekkeboom and Brazke, 2016.
  7. Montgomery, GH, et al, 2009; Potie, A, et al, 2016; Richardson, J, et al, 2007.
  8. Baird and Sands, 2004; Castel, A, et al, 2012; Fors, EA, et al, 2002; Jensen, MP, 2009; Tan, G, et al, 2014.
  9. Barber, J, 2001; Carmody, T, et al, 2008; Elkins and Rajab, 2004; Hansan, FM, et al, 2014; Tahiri, M, et al, 2012.
  10. Bo, S, et al, 2018; Kirsh, I, 1996; Steyer and Ables, 2009.
  11. Hammond, DC, 2010; Kanji, N, et al, 2006; Morton, PS, 2003; Sasdat, H, et al, 2006; Snow, A, et al, 2012; Volpe and Nash, 2012.
  12. Barker and Jones, 2013; Holland, B, et al, 2017.
  13. Bouea, A, et al, 2018; Legrand, F, et al, 2017; Payrau, B, et al, 2017; Sachs, B, 1986.