How to Use Hypnosis for Pain and Anxiety

As in, it's not as outlandish as it sounds.

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Nov 14 2018, 5:00pm

Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty Images

The idea of hypnosis in healthcare might seem strange or even scary, especially if your first exposure was watching Jafar hypnotize the Sultan in Aladdin, or laughing at your high school classmates during a stage show. In movies, hypnosis is often portrayed as a form of mind control, but when administered by a qualified healthcare professional, it can be helpful for treating a number of conditions. Here’s what the research says about its potential benefits.

What is hypnosis?

According to the American Psychological Association, “hypnosis is a procedure during which a health professional or researcher suggests while treating someone, that he or she experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or behavior.”

Clinical hypnosis puts you into a state of absorption and concentration that’s not unlike what you experience when you get lost in a book, movie, or exercise, says Carol Ginandes, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University and practicing psychologist. “We naturally go in and out of that state probably several times a day while we’re awake, whenever we become absorbed in something we’re doing,” she says.

The goal of clinical hypnosis is to help you learn how to access that natural hypnotic state at will and focus it, Ginandes says. Being hypnotized can help address psychological problems such as generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, panic attacks, body image issues in cancer survivors, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more. It can also help people with insomnia fall asleep faster, make it easier to quit smoking, and aid weight loss. Hypnosis can even help people relieve pain, deal with skin disorders, and experience fewer migraines.

One thing hypnosis is definitely not: a substitute for medical treatment. “If someone has a medical condition, I wouldn’t recommend that they treat it with hypnosis first,” Ginandes says. “They [should] get diagnosed by a physician and find out what treatments are relevant. Hypnosis is a wonderful adjunctive treatment to use in addition to whatever care and expertise is available.”


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How do I find a hypnotherapist?

Look carefully for someone with the right credentials. In the US, there is no standard legislation pertaining to the practice of clinical hypnosis, so virtually anyone can take a course and advertise hypnotherapy services, Ginandes says. Before someone helps you explore your mind, make sure they're a licensed healthcare provider.

You can find a certified professional through the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. You’ll want someone with a license in a clinical field—a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, or licensed social worker with advanced training in clinical hypnosis, Ginandes says. If you have a problem during your session, such as accessing traumatic memories, you want to be with someone who is qualified to help you cope.

In other words, you don’t want to go to a hypnotist; you want to go to a healthcare provider who uses hypnosis as one of the many tools in his or her toolbox, says Mark P. Jensen, professor and vice chair for research in the department of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Washington. “People who use hypnosis clinically should use it to treat something they are already licensed to treat,” he says.

A qualified hypnotherapist will be able to adjust the session to meet your needs. For example, while treating trauma patients such as combat veterans and rape survivors, Bruce Eads, a social worker based in North Carolina, noticed that some patients responded better to treatment with their eyes open.

Trauma can be rooted in a loss of control, and hypnosis can help people maintain that sense of control. “Part of the resolution is regaining [a sense of] your emotions, yourself, your choices,” Eads says. His research suggests that this eyes-open technique, known as “alert hypnosis,” can be an effective aid. Here are a few other ways that hypnosis, done correctly, could help you.

What Conditions Can Hypnosis Help Treat?

Hypnosis could help people with IBS.
Hypnosis can help people deal with the bloating and misery of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), research suggests. IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, meaning that it’s not explained by a structural or biochemical abnormality, but instead by dysfunction between the gut and brain, says Olafur S. Palsson, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“In [people] with IBS, the brain often fails to dampen uncomfortable sensations from the intestines, and sends signals inappropriately that disturb their functioning and contribute to producing diarrhea or constipation,” Palsson says. Hypnosis might help the brain correct this inappropriate sensitivity and restore healthier, more comfortable bowel function by allowing people to pay less attention to sensations in the gut, he adds.

Hypnosis could help ease chronic pain.
“A big part of how we [experience pain] is based on what the brain is doing with that information,” Jensen says. When a body part is injured or inflamed, your brain takes input from the body and creates pain as a warning signal—or it doesn’t. Put simply, hypnosis can help refocus the brain on more pleasurable sensations, Jensen says. For example, he might invite a patient to remember a time when they were happy and ask them to re-experience that joy. Or he might ask them to imagine a powerful analgesic making the painful area more comfortable.

Hypnosis could make your skin look and feel better.
For acne, rosacea, or eczema, your first line of defense is probably a skin cream or other topical product, but hypnosis could also help. These skin problems are caused at least in part by inflammation, says Philip Shenefelt, a professor of dermatology at the University of South Florida. “If a person is tense and upset, [those feelings] can aggravate skin conditions via an inflammatory reaction,” he says. Hypnosis may help soothe inflammation by calming your autonomic nervous system, which can have a delicate interplay with your skin, he adds.

Hypnosis could make surgery less unpleasant.
Hypnosis has been shown to reduce anxiety as well as dependence on medication in patients undergoing surgery, says Jessie Kittle, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University. “In procedures where the patient is awake—like biopsies—hypnosis can decrease procedure time, owing to a decrease in pauses to deal with discomfort or opioid side effects such as low blood pressure,” she says. Hypnosis can also be used during the pre-op period to help people deal with the fear of surgery or pain, and help prepare patients for post-op discomfort, nausea, and anxiety, she says.

What else should I know before I try hypnosis?

Research suggests that hypnosis may be more effective in some people than others, but there’s no reliable way to predict if it’ll work for you. “A childhood history of imaginative involvement may be one factor,” says John F. Kihlstrom, a professor emeritus in the department of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. It helps to start with realistic expectations: Sometimes people have a misconception that hypnosis is an instant fix, Ginandes says. “It’s not a magic wand.” Hypnosis requires collaboration with your therapist; it’s not something they “do” to you, but that you learn with their help over time, Ginandes says. “Be prepared to work with [them] to get the benefits.”

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