Hypnosis is not considered just a party trick. Hypnosis has been given many uses in the modern day world, and has quickly become a mainstream alterantive treatment for a variety of different conditions.
Certified hypnotherapists today treat everything from cigarette addiction to skin diseases, as well as soothing patients in preparation for painful medical procedures (including dental work, surgery, and chemotherapy injections). It may also be used for anxiety.
This article will introduce both hypnosis and hypnotherapy for anxiety, discuss what "trance" is, and talk about whether or not hypnotherapy works for anxiety disorders.
Alternative Therapies for Anxiety – What Works?
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Hypnosis and Relaxation: The “Trance” State
One of the challenges with mental health issues is that no single treatment works for everyone. Anxiety and depression, for example, can almost always be treated. But finding that treatment can be a lesson in frustration. The same medications and therapy that work for one person may not work for another.
When other anxiety treatments have failed, or you want to exhaust every option before you consider medications or therapy, it’s not uncommon to seek out alternative treatments. One option that many consider is hypnotherapy. But does hypnosis for anxiety really work?
About Hypnosis and Anxiety
Hypnosis (and its clinical form, hypnotherapy) is just one of many types of treatment options that are considered "alternative medicine." One of the reasons it has this label is because contrary to popular belief there are very few studies that carefully examine whether or not hypnosis works, especially for specific conditions like anxiety. To learn more about your anxiety make sure you take my anxiety test now.
The idea behind hypnosis is that the subconscious mind can be opened if a person is able to find themselves in the right mental state. For hypnosis to work, the hypnotist must first put his or her client into what is called a “trance state.” This is a state of mental and physical relaxation in which the conscious mind is encouraged to rest, while the subconscious mind is kept alert.
The “conscious mind” is what you mainly think of as your mind: the part that thinks about what to say or do next. The “subconscious mind” is the part of the brain that you don't notice and have little cognitive control over: the part that is in charge of the beliefs and emotions connected to what you say and do.
Hypnotherapists use hypnosis to relax your conscious mind so that it can access your conscious mind. Their goal is to change your beliefs and feelings about what you do by changing the way your subconscious mind "thinks."
An effective trance state, or initial state of hypnotic relaxation, has several notable physical results:
- Slowed breathing patterns
- Decreased heart rate
- Muscle relaxation
- Calm, relaxed speaking voice
- Rapid eye movement (REM)
Because the hypnosis takes place in a relaxed atmosphere, many patients enjoy hypnosis almost as a form of relaxation self-treatment. It is also essentially safe, which makes it preferable to medications and other possible treatment option.
How Does Hypnotherapy Work?
Hypnotherapy is exactly what the name implies. It is a form of hypnosis that takes place in a bit more of a therapeutic setting. Real hypnosis is not like what’s seen on TV. No one holds a watch in your face and tells you that you are getting sleepy.
Instead, the hypnotherapist starts by simply talking to you, instructing you on how to relax using a series of techniques that are designed to make the mind and body more comfortable. By talking to you they’ll help you relax each muscle at a time until you feel you are in somewhat of a stress free trance.
Once the person is relaxed, the hypnotherapist then may try to get you to open up about what is causing your anxiety in a way that is difficult without hypnotherapy, or they may use suggestions to relax your subconscious so that you do not experience anxiety in the future. They may also try to reinvigorate your mind and body to help you cope with stress in the future.
Different anxiety hypnotherapists have different strategies, but the idea is the same:
- Put the person in a very relaxed state of mind.
- Help the person's subconscious become conscious and work through their anxiety.
- Wake them up with a plan to address their anxiety.
It often takes more than one session to complete anxiety hypnotherapy. Also, it is not a treatment that is usually completed alone. While some people do opt to receive hypnosis for anxiety as a standalone treatment, many others combine it with other techniques, like cognitive behavioral therapy.
3 Anxiety Problems Hypnosis May Address
In terms of directly addressing your anxiety, there are 3 anxiety-related problems that hypnotism is commonly used to address.
- Physical Tension/Strain Physical pain and tension (often having roots in emotional tension) can be addressed by hypnotism. Addressing and working to alter the beliefs that you have about the triggers for your anxiety can help reduce the frequency and/or intensity of the physically straining symptoms of anxiety such as a rapid heart rate, rapid breathing and shaking. In addition, it can ease feelings of discomfort and strain by implanting the suggestion that you feel more physically comfortable than you actually do.
- Emotional Strain/Moodiness Along with causing physical strain, constant or frequent anxiety can also put you in a strained emotional state. The bodily energy required by the physical symptoms of anxiety, in combination with the persistent feelings of discontentment and worry, can make you feel drained and/or on edge. Hypnotism’s general purpose is to put people in a more positive frame of mind, altering unnecessary negative beliefs and implanting more helpful ones. In addressing this symptom, a hypnotist may focus on implanting the belief that you feel happy, content, and confident in your ability to address and resolve the causes of your anxiety.
- Sleeping Problems Many people with anxiety also have difficulty sleeping well. Getting to sleep in an anxious state and sleeping deeply when nightmares and muscle tension are keeping you awake can be nearly impossible. Hypnotists assist with sleep deprivation by implanting the suggestion that you have gotten plenty of restful sleep recently. Alternatively, or in addition, they can help you to alter your anxious thought patterns so that they do not spiral out of control and keep you awake (as well as causing the panic attacks that can result in muscle tension).
- Phobic Reactions Going to a hypnotist for help in conquering a phobia (for example, a fear of social situations or crowded rooms) can be far preferable to regularly taking medication in order to remain calm during everyday activities (if, of course, you find that hypnotism works for you). A hypnotist will attempt to replace your unhealthy or illogical beliefs about the object of your phobia with more logically sound and useful beliefs.
Both mild cases of anxiety and clinically diagnosed disorders may result in these effects with hypnotherapy. If you have experienced any of the above, finding out whether hypnotism works for you may help you to conquer these difficulties and hopefully eliminate them altogether.
Therapy vs. Hypnosis
Cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT) is closely related to hypnosis in that it is based on the idea that some problems are not easily addressed through rational thought, and should instead be addressed through training the person to practice healthier thought patterns and to let go of harmful beliefs.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is used by most therapists who work with patients experiencing anxiety and depression. Unlike hypnosis, it does not require a trance state, but like hypnosis, it openly addresses your emotional and mental patterns and beliefs in order to influence your behavior.
If you have been diagnosed with anxiety and feel that therapy has improved your condition, hypnotism is more likely to work for you simply because it operates on similar (and therefore familiar) principles that your mind is already open to.
Hypnosis for Anxiety – Does It Work?
Some specialists believe that hypnotherapy can be used for almost any condition or behavior. But there are only a few conditions where hypnosis is commonly accepted. These include:
- Quitting Smoking
- Childbirth Preparation
- Anxiety and Stress
Indeed, hypnosis is now regularly used for different forms of anxiety, most notably general anxiety, panic attacks and PTSD.
But of course, there are many forms of therapy that are used for anxiety. The question is whether or not hypnotherapy for anxiety works. Unfortunately, the answer to that is not clear.
The evidence is mixed, and unfortunately, like most forms of alternative therapy, there simply have not been many reputable studies that have looked at hypnotherapy, how it’s performed, and how to make sure that it provides any benefits.
There is some evidence that hypnotherapy works for those that already have a higher level of suggestibility. It appears that men and women that have already shown in life that they believe in and are responsive to alternative therapies may be more likely to be suggestible, which in turn makes it more likely that hypnotherapy will work for them.
That makes it a complicated treatment to recommend. It may work, but the evidence is lacking.
Hypnotherapy as a Relaxation Method
It may still be worth trying hypnotherapy, especially if other methods for curing anxiety have failed. But you may need to retrain how you think of hypnotherapy. Rather than consider it a treatment for anxiety, it may be better to think of it as a relaxation strategy – a chance to better understand how to relax the body, open up yourself and your mind, and see some relief from anxiety issues.
If you consider hypnotherapy in the mindset of relaxation training, rather than its own anxiety treatment, then you may find it useful. And indeed, some of the theories behind hypnotherapy, such as NLP (neurolinguistics programming) may have very real benefits, especially for self-treatment of anxiety and stress.
If you’re hoping that hypnotherapy is going to cure your anxiety all on its own, it is still a good idea to seek out other options as well, and not be discouraged if it doesn’t work. But if you are simply giving it a try, it has been recommended to you by others, or you have exhausted many other options and are looking to try something new, it may be worth a shot.
In the interim, if you haven’t yet, make sure you take our free 7 minute anxiety test. This test will score your anxiety severity, compare your anxiety to others, help you learn more about your symptoms, and ultimately provide some additional treatment recommendations beyond hypnotherapy.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jun 22, 2018.