In popular culture, hypnosis is a punch line. A kooky doctor swings a pocket watch in front of someone’s face, and their eyes quickly glaze over as they sink into a trance. But in reality, hypnotherapy is poised to become the next wellness trend. And for good reason: Science shows that it has some surprisingly powerful benefits for your health. But what, exactly, is the practice in the first place?
What Hypnotherapy Does
Research provides strong evidence that hypnotherapy can ease anxiety, improve sleep, boost energy, and help people break bad habits like smoking or binge eating. And it has lesser-known health perks too. For instance, the practice can be used to treat irritable bowel syndrome, says Peter Whorwell, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of medicine and gastroenterology at the University of Manchester in England. “Hypnotherapy calms hypersensitivity in the gut and lessens the brain’s reaction to the pain,” he explains. Studies indicate that it eases other kinds of acute and chronic pain as well, like the treatment of burns, headaches, and backaches. (Here's how hypnotherapy works for weight loss.)
How Hypnotherapy Works
“Hypnosis brings you into a state of consciousness in which you’re focusing your attention inward. You become less aware of what’s around you and more open to suggestion,” says Gary Elkins, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Baylor University in Texas and the former president of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.
Think of it like a deep meditation that you’re induced into. “In this state, you experience hypnotic suggestion as though it were occurring in reality,” Elkins says. Translation: If you’re told you’re seeing red, your brain lights up as if you are, even if you’re looking at something gray. That teaches your body and brain to transition into certain states—like relaxation or low anxiety—making it easier for you to replicate them on your own when you’re fully awake.
How to Get Started
Find a licensed hypnotherapist. There are listings on the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists website. The therapists there are mental health and medical professionals who have completed at least 50 hours of classroom instruction on hypnosis. Your goal can guide your selection. If you’re hoping to treat chronic pain, for example, look for a hypnotist who has a medical degree.
Commit to giving it a real try. Many people notice a difference after just one session, though they may need several to cement the effects, and some people are harder to hypnotize than others, although you won’t know until you try it. You can still benefit, but it will take you more sessions than someone who is more responsive.
Do your (hypnotherapy) homework. Between sessions, expect to practice self-hypnosis via apps like Harmony Hypnosis ($8 a month) or by listening to recordings of your previous sessions. (You'll want to try these mental health and therapy apps too.)