Quit smoking. Weight loss. Anxieties. Phobias. Anger management. For all kinds of reasons, people are turning to hypnosis as some sort of a ‘magical’ cure in which it is perceived that the hypnotists waves a magic wand, more like a pendulum, and speak some incantations and the person comes out of hypnosis having quit smoking, hate cream cakes, love exercise, calm and placid and so on. Does hypnosis really work?
If you are asking the question “does hypnosis work”, strictly speaking, you are asking the wrong question, because it is not the hypnosis that “works” but the person’s response to hypnosis that does.
The most commonly cited definition of hypnosis is that offered by the American Psychological Association’s hypnosis division: “Hypnosis is a procedure during which a health professional or researcher suggests that a client, patient or subject experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or behaviour”. Notice that hypnosis involves both the role of the hypnotist and the role of the subject’s experience.
Hypnosis itself does not do anything, in the same way that talking with your best friend about your problems, in and of itself, changes nothing, unless you accept your friend’s suggestions and then do something about it. How well you respond to suggestions, whether your friend’s or the therapist’s, partly depends on your relationship with him/her, how the suggestions are put to you, how you interpret those suggestions, whether they sit well with you internally, and so on. There is, of course, a significant difference between the hypnotically experienced suggestions and those your best friend gives. If you think of the trance state as separate from suggestions, then the overlap of trance and suggestions best describes the most common form of hypnotic suggestions.
In hypnosis, the conscious mind is somewhat “suspended” in a state of relaxation (mostly but not necessarily) in much the same way as when you’re deep in a daydream and quite forget that your friend is talking to you. That “daydream” is a kind of self-hypnosis. Imagine then that instead of you guiding your mind to your daydream, a therapist is doing it. That is your hypnotic experience. Whether the hypnotic experience is successful or not depends not only on what experiences your therapist is guiding you into but also on your own responses to those suggested experiences. Some people are decidedly more hypnotizable than others, but because the hypnotic state is a naturally occurring state, all people can be “hypnotized”. It is important to know that the mere mechanism of performing hypnosis changes nothing. The change occurs when you experience realities that are helpful to you. In group hypnosis, the same therapist is giving the same suggestions to everyone, yet some will respond well, others will not. It is your inner subjective experience that determines the outcomes. In that sense, the power lies in you, not the hypnotist.
Hypnosis is a state of being as well as a process. As a state, hypnosis is neither good nor bad, neither effective nor ineffective, but can be enjoyable or neutral. As a process, on the other hand, it can be good or bad, effective or not effective, and enjoyable or not enjoyable, depending on how skilful the therapist is which partly determines how you respond to the suggestions. Rapport, skilful and appropriate suggestions that neither overshoots nor understate your realities, and your own responsiveness all contribute to effective outcomes.
Can the state become a process without a hypnotist? And can the process of hypnosis be performed without the state of being hypnotized? Just to confuse you further, the answer is yes to both questions! The fact that self-hypnosis is possible and that hypnosis can be performed without the person being ‘induced’ into a hypnotic state  does confound our understanding of hypnosis. There are many theories and not one of them explains everything in the domain of hypnosis. However, there is a general consensus that hypnosis, to one degree or another, helps people dissociate from certain unhelpful experiences, thoughts, feelings, sensations and so on and associate with more helpful ones. It helps amplify people’s hidden abilities. It can also magnify their capacity to reduce unhelpful subjective experiences (such as pain and trauma). It can empower people to discover and develop strengths in themselves they didn’t know they had.
The best way to look at hypnosis is that it is simply a vehicle for change. Just like in a real vehicle, to get from A and B, you first have to climb into it (book and attend the appointment). And that presupposes that you feel the vehicle is safe enough (confidence in and rapport with therapist). You then have to ask the driver (if you are not the driver) to drive you to B (give permission to perform hypnosis). If you want to drive (self-hypnosis), you will need to take some driving lessons (learning self-hypnosis) but you may not know the route, in which case, you would have to look it up on a map (decide how you want to change and what your goals are). If you are not the driver, you’d make sure the driver knows the best route to get there (find a competent therapist you connect with). Then you have to trust him/her (a level of faith). And depending on your level of trust in the driver and how you feel about his driving (congruence, rapport), you either relax and enjoy your journey (enjoyable session), or you grab your seat and cringe at every corner (feeling unhypnotized, bad experience). As you can see, how hypnosis can help you depends a lot more than just the process of hypnosis.
Just like there are different cars and drivers, there also are different forms of hypnotic suggestions as well as different styles used by therapists. These forms and styles of hypnosis are not static in their structure, nor are they linear. Rather, they form matrices of the hypnotic experience. Roughly speaking, they fall into four categories. Using your best friend as an example of influence, let us explore these categories as if he/she is talking to you:
1 Direct vs Indirect suggestions: “Do this.” vs. “You can do this.”
2 Positive vs Negative suggestions: “Do this.” vs “Don’t do that.”
3 Content vs Process suggestions: “Remember how happy you were when you were on your honeymoon” vs “Let your mind wander to a time in the past when you felt so happy.”
4 Authoritarian vs Permissive styles: “Do this.” vs “You may want to do this.”
As you can see, suggestions can be a matrix from all these categories. A good hypnotherapist uses all of these forms and styles of suggestions depending on client needs, although direct and authoritative suggestions are usually used sparingly and only in the right contexts. All suggestions should be client-generated and not therapist-generated. Beware of any therapist that uses a “script” for hypnosis. You are unique, and no script can address your life’s issues! Also beware of therapists who jump into hypnosis without sufficient pre-hypnosis interviewing. It takes time for the therapist to gain an understanding of your problems and goals and for rapport to be established.
Interestingly, psychotherapy research suggests that therapists’ clinical experience, qualification, professional membership and the like do not necessarily predict successful outcomes! That said, and all things being equal, therapists that have knowledge and understanding of other psychotherapies and who are flexible enough to use different disciplines in different contexts, may offer you a more holistic approach to your problems. In my opinion, hypnosis is best conducted in a larger context of psychotherapy, rather than as a stand-alone therapy.
How to find the right therapist? Inquiring of the therapist’s way of working and having a general feel about the person’s professionalism and integrity, and checking with your instinctive sense of connection (or lack of it) will help you find the right therapist. Certainly, anyone that promises you a quick fix without any effort on your part, may ultimately cost you more time, money and suffering down the track.
So, in conclusion, does hypnosis work? Yes. And, no. As we have seen, it is not the process of hypnosis that causes people to change but the subjective experience you will have that does. Successful outcome is a function of your relationship with the therapist, your trust and rapport with him/her, his/her skills and experience in the hypnotic process and above all, his/her ability to work flexibly with you, possibly including other psychotherapies as needed. In the end, hypnosis is not just an art, nor is it just science. It is both.
I hope this article has been helpful to you. Please leave a feedback or comment, as it is only through continual dialogue and engagement with clients and potential clients that I can grow, both as a person and as a therapist. Thank you.
 Yapko, M. d. (2003). Trancework. New York: Routledge. p.4
 Kirsch, I ., & Lynn, S. J. (1998). Dissociation theories of hypnosis. Psychological Bulletin, ISSN 0033-2909, 01/1998, Volume 123, Issue 1, pp. 100 – 115
 Bickman, L. (1999). Practice makes perfect and other myths about mental health services. American Psychologist . Vol 54 (11) Nov 1999 pp. 965-978.