When was the last time you saw someone get hypnotized?
Maybe it was at the Renaissance Faire, or at a school assembly. Or you watched someone get hypnotized in a movie. The hypnosis scene in “Get Out” is particularly scary - but is it possible? If you really get up on stage, will you end up in “The Sunken Place?”
The answer to the question “Is hypnosis real?” is more complicated than you might think. And while you can go to a hypnotist today, you might not get the experience that you’re expecting. Let’s break down the science and the definition of today’s hypnosis.
History of Hypnosis in Psychology
Hypnosis is most likely to be “legitimate” when it’s practiced by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. Since hypnosis and psychology are closely linked, let’s talk about the history of hypnosis as it’s been used in modern psychology.
Sigmund Freud is a big name in psychology for many reasons. He is known as the father of psychoanalysis, he helped to develop today’s talk therapy, and he is wildly controversial. Early in his work, he also used hypnosis on his patients.
Freud learned about hypnosis while observing Josef Breuer. Breur used hypnosis to encourage patients to “open up” and talk freely about trauma and memories that may have impacted their current mental illnesses. Freud saw it as a potential way to unlock the unconscious and see what was really troubling a patient. Quickly, Freud adjusted his preferences and began using free association and dream interpretation instead of hypnosis. He felt that he couldn’t get enough out of hypnosis and that he didn’t get as much “access” to the unconscious as he originally thought.
Freud’s tie to hypnosis is just one of the reasons that the practice is not so popular nowadays. But as Freud shifted gears and other forms of talk therapy succeeded him, some psychologists still quietly developed hypnotherapy as a way to address a patient’s pain, anxiety, and other conditions.
What Is Hypnosis?
If you were to set up an appointment with a therapist who is trained in hypnotherapy, here’s how it would go down.
You wouldn’t be asked to sit on a stage and cluck like a chicken in front of an audience.
The therapist would not wave a pocket watch in front of you until you got “very sleepy.”
You wouldn’t “wake up” and forget everything that happened.
In fact, hypnotherapy works a lot like a guided meditation or mindfulness practice. Here’s what happens.
The therapist will first lead you into a trance-like state through a series of verbal cues. This cues may include visualization practices or instructions intended to help you relax. If you have ever practiced yoga nidra, you might find this first stage of hypnotherapy to be familiar. It’s also known as the “induction” stage.
Once you have reached this state of relaxation, the therapist will move into the “suggestion” stage. Again, visualization and guided imagery is often used during this phase. Like in Get Out, you may be asked to put yourself in a memory as if it were currently happening. What occurs during the “suggestion” stage will vary based on your situation and goals for the practice. Due to your heightened state of awareness or focus, any suggestions that are made are more likely to “stick.”
Why Try Hypnosis?
Not everyone gets hypnotherapy for the same reason. And studies show that hypnotherapy can have a long list of benefits. Hypnotherapy may benefit you if you:
- Are trying to quit smoking
- Would like to reduce pain from labor and delivering a baby
- Suffer from insomnia
- Would like to treat symptoms of anxiety, depression, or PTSD
People use hypnotherapy for a longer list of conditions and symptoms. These are just a handful of the most-studied conditions linked to hypnotherapy. If you have chronic pain, for example, you may want to try hypnosis and see how it affects your symptoms.
So you could easily say that hypnosis does “work.” But that doesn’t mean that you can hop on stage at the Renaissance Faire and expect the hypnotist to cure your depression.
In most studies, the results suggest that hypnosis could help to treat symptoms in addition to other methods. Calling in a hypnotist to help you deliver your baby instead of going to a hospital is not going to guarantee that you’ll give birth pain-free. Hypnotherapy can help - but you’ll still want to consider getting an epidural or use other types of standard pain medication.
If you’re looking for someone to guide you through hypnotherapy, look for a therapist first. It’s not always easy to find a therapist who is also trained in hypnosis. But this approach is much more likely to help you than to reach out to someone who is only trained in hypnosis. Hypnotherapy is not likely to be the only solution to your concerns. A licensed psychiatrist or therapist can help you integrate hypnotherapy into a longer treatment plan that addresses your concerns with a more holistic approach.
Another approach is to seek out a therapist or healthcare professional first (if you’re looking to reduce delivery pain, for example, you should reach out to an OBGYN) and get their recommendations on hypnotherapy and a professional who can help you out.
What About Self-Hypnosis?
We started this video talking about Freud, but I want to mention one more name in the world of hypnosis. His name was Emile Coué, and his focus was on self-hypnosis, or “conscious autosuggestion.” Coué observed that his patients were more likely to heal or manage their symptoms if they repeated suggestions or affirmations to themselves while undergoing treatment. This practice is still in use today. You can reach out to a professional to walk you through self-hypnosis. But it’s really quite simple. By combining focus, heightened awareness, and affirmations that lead you to where you want to go, you can manage symptoms or even reduce pain.
Again, this is best done with the help of a licensed professional who is trained in both hypnosis and psychology or more traditional forms of therapy. But don’t shy away from the idea of using hypnosis to heal, just because the term is also used to put on fancy shows onstage.