Hypnotherapy is a psychological treatment that uses hypnosis to treat health conditions, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Hypnotherapy usually begins with a review of your medical history and discussion of the condition you wish to treat with the hypnotherapist (there are no current standard guidelines for licensing for hypnotherapists in the United States). From there, you’ll be guided through hypnosis, in which the hypnotherapist will use a series of mental imagery and suggestions intended to help you change behavior and potentially relieve symptoms, according to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
But what is hypnosis? “It’s a heightened state of focus and focused attention,” says Samantha Shaw, a Minneapolis-based hypnotherapist and certified health coach who has a reputation with the National Association of Hypnotists and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. During hypnosis, your attention usually turns inward — to feelings, thoughts, and images, according to a 2019 editorial in the journal. Palliative care: research and treatment.
The idea behind hypnotherapy is that it can be used to reprogram the unconscious or primitive parts of the brain that work to avoid pain and seek pleasure. These parts are known as the brains of reptiles (lizards) and mammals. The older “lizard” brain provides basic survival motives, while the newer “mammalian” brain improves our emotions and memory, according to the American Museum of Natural History. You can also think of these areas as more emotional and creative areas that communicate with symbols and images. These areas tend to take over when we get anxious and imagine worst-case scenarios.
According to the aforementioned editorial, the primate brain — also known as the conscious mind — tends to be more dominant during our daily lives. This part communicates verbally and is more rational and rational than the brains of reptiles and mammals. But it was also the last part of our brain to develop, and it can take a backseat in our thinking when we’re feeling stressed. “It’s the little brother of the reptilian and mammalian brain, and while this younger brother is intelligent, it’s outpaced by the larger brothers who have been around longer,” Xu says.
Therefore, hypnosis may help you relax, activating the initial parts of the brain that tend to cause problems, according to the editorial above. The hypnotherapist then supposedly uses images and words that resonate with the unconscious brain, which may help direct these emotion-driven areas toward new ways of thinking that support the outcome you are trying to achieve.
Is hypnotherapy the same thing as hypnosis?
The terms hypnotherapy and hypnosis are often used interchangeably, but they are not quite the same thing.
Hypnotherapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses hypnosis to treat a health problem. But hypnosis in itself is not a cure – it is a daily waking state that we often fall into without even trying. For example: “We’re in highway hypnosis; this is a normal waking state where you’re driving down the highway, and all of a sudden you get to your destination, and you can’t remember how you got there,” Shaw says.
Artists and musicians also achieve a hypnotic state, “where the hours go by and then they look up from their project and think, ‘Where has the time gone?’ “
While hypnosis in and of itself is not a therapy, it can be used as a mechanism for delivering therapy, according to the aforementioned editorial.