What is hypnosis good for?

Marc I. Oster, Psy.D., ABPH

When teaching beginning workshops or courses, or when speaking to the public, or even professional groups, I’m often asked, “Is hypnosis good for (insert your favorite malady)?” For many years my reply would entail a rendering of the various conditions, psychological, medical, dental, and anything in between for which hypnosis is helpful. Sometimes my replies were met with hopeful surprise and sometimes with disappointment.

But first, what is hypnosis? Although the definition of hypnosis varies somewhat depending on a practitioner’s theoretical orientation, the contemporary, research based definition considers hypnosis to involve the ability to focus one’s attention; to be able to do so to the exclusion of other unimportant distractions; and to experience an increase in one’s openness to suggestion. It is the product of a collaborative relationship between the patient, client, or subject and clinician. They do it together, it’s not the clinician doing it to the patient.

Hypnosis Alternative Sleep MedicineNow back to the story.

“I knew someone who used hypnosis to stop smoking. One session, and after 25 years of smoking, they were now a non-smoker.” That’s true, sometimes that’s exactly what happens; and sometimes it doesn’t. Based on similar stories, modern mythology tells us that hypnosis can excise the smoking urge from one’s brain. This is one of those areas that, when I explain the research on smoking cessation, using hypnosis, I initially observe disappointment. Nope, it’s not magic. Generally, hypnosis is about 40% effective. However, when compared to a solo attempt, going cold turkey, which is about 10% effective, hypnosis looks pretty good. Even when compared to formal structured programs, such as the American Cancer Society or Heart Association programs, which come in at about 20-25% effective, hypnosis still looks pretty good. Remember, in behavioral science, or maybe any science, a claim of 90% or more effective is probably, well that’s another article.

Is hypnosis good for pain management, preparation for childbirth, resolving psychological problems, depression, skin disorders, intestinal problems, cancer, anxiety, traumatic stress reactions, stress management, performance enhancement, fear of flying, and so on? Yep, it’s good for all those things and more. But, in more recent years my answer to the question, “Is it good for…?”, has taken on a somewhat different approach. Now I reply, especially when addressing a clinical professional audience, “That depends. What is it you’re looking to accomplish?”

Hypnosis might be useful in any of several areas. It might be used to reduce or eliminate symptoms. Hypnosis might be used to explore or understand one’s history or dynamics. It might be used as a tool to teach self-control or self-regulation. Along that line, hypnosis might be used to enhance or strengthen one’s sense of confidence. I sometimes explain this as hypnosis being like the glue that holds together the various interventions used in the non-hypnotic part of the therapy session. Finally, with any given patient, hypnosis might be used for any one or all of the above purposes.

Therefore, with some problems or complaints, hypnosis is more or less useful than with other problems or complaints. For example, “Is hypnosis useful for weight loss?” That depends on what your goals are. If the goal is to be hypnotized and afterward have no interest in food, abundant interest in exercise, watch the pounds fall away with little concern on your part; then the answer is, “No, not really very useful.” If, on the other hand your answer is to use hypnosis to increase your sense of self-control, explore issues relating to your eating problem, help you to integrate all you’re learning about yourself and your problems with food, then the answer is, “Yes, hypnosis is good for that.”

“Can hypnosis improve one’s focus and concentration?” The answer is clearly “yes”. How about if the problem concentrating and focusing or attending is the result of brain trauma due to a head injury? Then the answer is “probably not, hypnosis might not be too helpful.” However, the great thing about hypnosis is that it is a natural phenomenon. There are no adverse side effects. It is quite safe. If indeed hypnosis couldn’t help in this example, it also wouldn’t hurt to consider trying it, as long as the clinician was reasonable in the expectations suggested to the patient.

So, hypnosis can be helpful for many problems, depending on how one might use it. And, it’s just like chicken soup – it couldn’t hurt.