Peter M. Barach, Ph.D.

© Copyright 2001 Peter M. Barach, Ph.D.
Not to be reprinted in any form without permission of the author. All rights reserved.

What is hypnosis?

Clinical hypnosis is a procedure during which a health professional or researcher suggests that a patient might experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or behavior. It is not by itself a type of therapy, but only a tool that can assist therapy. These hypnotic suggestions are intended to aid you in making personal changes that will help you with your problem. Some people are very responsive to hypnotic suggestions and others are less responsive.

Myths about hypnosis: Movies and television have given people some mistaken ideas about hypnosis. For example, people in hypnosis do not lose control over their behavior. As a committee of the American Psychological Association wrote, “Hypnosis makes it easier for people to experience suggestions, but it does not force them to have these experiences.” People in hypnosis typically remain aware of who they are and where they are, and unless amnesia has been specifically suggested, they usually remember what happened during hypnosis. Psychologists do not use hypnosis to make people act silly, in the ways that “stage hypnotists” do. Also, it is not possible to get “stuck” in hypnosis.

A myth about hypnosis is the idea that it lets people replay memories from their past like a videotape. Some hypnotized people remember more details about past events than they did before being hypnotized. However, it is possible that some of the newly remembered details are a product of the imagination. Some hypnotized people also remember past events that are unfamiliar to them. It is possible that these newly found memories are accurate, but it also possible that such events are partially or completely the result of the imagination. Because hypnosis can make memories seem so real, people who have recalled material while hypnotized are sometimes more confident than they should be about the accuracy of what they have recalled. Most of the time, neither patient nor the therapist has any way of knowing whether memories (hypnotically recalled or otherwise) are accurate or not. For these reasons, hypnosis is not a useful procedure for a patient to explore childhood memories in order to determine if mistreatment occurred, and your therapist will do his best to avoid giving you suggestions about what you will find if you do explore past memories.

What to expect in hypnosis:

Hypnosis generally starts with an induction procedure. The induction procedure is a set of instructions designed to help you focus your attention. Most induction procedures include suggestions for relaxation with the eyes closed.

Once your attention is focused, your psychologist will give you suggestions that are related to your problem. These suggestions may cause you to experience changes in your sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Sometimes your psychologist will give you suggestions that are intended to continue helping you solve your problem after the hypnosis has ended (post-hypnotic suggestions). In most cases, the psychologist will ask you to tell him what you are experiencing. You are free to speak at any time, to ask questions, or to open your eyes and end the hypnosis procedure. After the hypnosis is over, you and the psychologist will generally discuss your experiences.

Possible risks: There are few risks associated with the use of hypnosis by trained practitioners. In addition to the possibility (see previous page) that some people may remember things that are not factual and may become too confident that they have recalled those things accurately, other possible risks are:

Some people are not very hypnotizable. Most people have an average ability to respond to hypnotic suggestions, which is sufficient for using hypnosis in therapy. However, a small percentage of people show little or no response to hypnotic suggestions. If this occurs, then you and your psychologist will talk about alternative procedures for working on your problem.

Hypnosis is not always effective. As with any health care treatment, no approach works for everyone. If hypnosis does not help you, then you and your psychologist will discuss alternatives.

Hypnosis may get in the way of your being able to testify in court. If you and your therapist use hypnosis to process memories that could be the focus of a lawsuit, you may not be allowed to testify about your memories in court. Numerous courts have held that “hypnotically refreshed testimony” is not admissible. If you are considering a lawsuit, or are likely to be called to testify in a lawsuit, please notify your therapist before any hypnosis is done.


Web links about hypnosis:

Information About Hypnosis (Society of Psychological Hypnosis, American Psychological Association)

Hypnosis for the Seriously Curious (Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis)