Hypnotism puts you into a state of “focused concentration,” during which you’re vaguely aware of your surroundings — you just don’t care about them. There are different stages of hypnosis, some deeper than others. But when you’re in any of them, your imagination is open to suggestion.

The suggestions made to you while you’re hypnotized are part of hypnotherapy. This term, sometimes used interchangeably with hypnotism, simply describes the stuff that is suggested to you while you’re hypnotized to help make you better after the session is over. Often the suggestions are images — picturing your arm going numb, picturing yourself relaxed — rather than orders to “stop hurting.”

Over the years, hypnotism has had a rather seedy reputation. This bad rep can be traced back to the late 18th century, when Franz Mesmer, the guy who introduced hypnotism into medicine, got himself kicked out of France for his fraudulent healing practices. Hypnosis was soon discovered to have genuine healing potential, but it was exploited by enough crackpots and vaudeville magicians to stay associated with superstition and evil for a long time.

Today, though, hypnosis is about as mainstream as an alternative therapy can get. It has been recognized as a valid medical therapy since 1955 in Great Britain and since 1958 in the United States. Many mainstream doctors (particularly anesthesiologists and surgeons) are trained in hypnotherapy, as are a good number of dentists, psychotherapists, and nurses.

So why is hypnosis still considered alternative? Partly because it doesn’t work for everyone. But largely because no one really can explain how it works. Experts even debate whether hypnosis produces an altered state of consciousness at all. Right now, investigators are scrambling to get some of these answers, and already a few theories are floating around. But for now the whole business is still pretty much a mystery.

Even so, many mainstream health practitioners are willing to accept (and use) hypnotherapy because it happens to help their patients. They rest their case on many solid studies that show what hypnotherapy can do — even if researchers don’t yet understand how.

Good candidates for hypnosis

If you’re trying to lose weight, stop smoking, control substance abuse, or overcome a phobia, hypnosis may be worth a try. And if you’re unhappy with your current treatment for warts or other skin conditions, asthma, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraines, or other forms of pain, discuss the possibility of hypnotherapy with your M.D.

Hypnosis can work for almost anyone, though some people have an easier time than others. If you’re lucky, you’ll be one of the few people (about 5 to 10 percent of the population) who is highly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. Some of these folks reputedly can be hypnotized (with no other anesthesia) before surgery and feel no pain. But even if you’re not in this group, chances are high that hypnosis can help you: About 60 to 79 percent of people are moderately susceptible, and the remaining 25 to 30 percent are minimally susceptible.

Children and young adults are often good candidates for hypnosis, perhaps because they’re so open to suggestion and have active imaginations.

If you don’t trust your therapist, or don’t believe that hypnotism can work for you, it probably won’t. Hypnotism can only work if you’re willing for it to work and you have a clear idea about what you want it to do for you.

Possible harmful effects

Hypnosis can be dangerous if you’re suffering from a serious psychiatric condition (particularly psychosis, organic psychiatric conditions, or antisocial personality disorder). These people should consult with a psychiatrist familiar with hypnosis before trying it.

Self-Hypnosis Methods

Many people believe that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis — that is, by trusting in the hypnotist you essentially brainwash yourself. So even if you go to a hypnotherapist, you can’t regard her as anything more than a facilitator who helps you hypnotize yourself.

But according to a formal school of hypnosis, you can put your mind into a high state of concentration without a facilitator. Most people have found themselves in this place naturally — by daydreaming, losing themselves in a novel, or spacing out as they drive. The idea is to get yourself into an altered state during which your whole attention is focused in a single place.

Can these altered states affect your behavior in any way? Well, experiencing these altered states probably can’t cure your stage fright or stop your smoking as effectively as formal sessions with a hypnotherapist might. But you can certainly try self-hypnosis to work toward these kinds of goals — as well as to relax and/or distract your mind from pain or cravings.

If you want to use self-hypnosis most effectively, you’re best off starting with directions from a trained therapist — who will help you make sure that you’re doing it right. You’ll discover how to relax yourself (whether that means swinging a pendant in front of your eyes or meditating) and use your thoughts to contact your unconscious mind. When your unconscious takes over and tells your body what to do (such as lifting an arm), you’re in an hypnotic state and ready to respond to suggestion.

Watch out for books and audiotapes promising to target your subliminal mind to help you stop smoking, improve your personality, or whatever — especially if they promise to make these changes overnight. Effective hypnosis of any sort often needs to be tailored to your particular mind (by a teacher or yourself) and almost always requires weeks or months of practice.

Finding a Hypnotherapist

Use our Therapist Directory to find an experienced hypnotherapist in your community.

If your hypnotherapist also happens to be a licensed health care professional, you may be able to get reimbursement from your health insurer. Using a licensed health care practitioner is a good idea anyway. Because no states license hypnotherapists per se, this license — plus certification by the American Board of Hypnosis or the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners — is a good clue to competence.

A good therapist will:

  • Explain the different stages of consciousness to you
  • Assure you that hypnosis won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do
  • Review your past experience with hypnotism and answer your questions
  • Often offer to do a demonstration on someone else
  • Never promise to perform miracles