What is hypnosis

21/09/2014 18:36

What is hypnosis?

This article aims to provide overview of various aspects of hypnosis and role of relaxation in hypnotherapy. Firstly I will describe  biological aspects of hypnosis, to explain what is happening at the level of body during hypnosis. Then I will describe psychological aspects of hypnosis such as how it works and what are the principles of therapy. I aim to describe a personal experience and limitations for therapy which I perceive as personal aspects. And finally I will describe adverse aspects of therapy in the views of what can go wrong.


Biological aspects

"Words can form suggestions, and suggestions can have very, very strong effects on neurological activity," declared Amir Raz in his paper from 2005. He showed in his experiment that hypnosis significantly improved performance in a mental challenge and also that the brain reacted according to the suggestion (in this case it was a decreased activity with increased selectivity to mental task).

Barling and Raine (2005) published a paper where they found increased IgA after hypnotic suggestions (imunoglobulins, main type of antibodies in most of the bodily fluids). This suggests a link between improvement of psychological condition and influencing the immunity system. Similar findings were made on patients with depression, where it was found that low mood enhances immunity responses resulting in an increased inflammatory reaction (immunity system must be in balance to react appropriately).

Hypnotic state is something that everybody is familiar with. When people do something they know very well, for example walking or driving a car, they switch mentally to an „autopilot“and get into a light state of hypnosis.

The brain has four main wave. Each wave has its frequency and is measurable by EEG (electro encephalo gram). Beta waves are present while the person is alert, alpha waves are slower and appear when people close eyes or relax, hence it enables an access to visualization and creativity. Theta waves are linked with deep relaxation such as in hypnosis or meditation. In this state it is also much easier to access memories, which is happening normaly when we are waking up or falling asleep. Delta waves are among these four types the slowest and occur in sleep.

Hypnotic state slows down the brain activity and enables the client to recall more things and on a deeper level.


Psychological aspects

Many people ask how the hypnosis work and what exactly is happening during the therapy.

It involves an induction to a trence – like state but when in hypnosis, client has an increased awareness and high concentration on hypnotist’s voice. In practice it means that therapist leads the client to relax his muscles, whole body and mind, directing his concentration.

Through this state the therapist can lead the client through his unsatisfactory thoughts and ‘program’ him with suggestions replacing original thoughts with more useful way of thinking. Similar approach is used in positive psychology or the popular new age approaches (for examples a book “The Secret” or “Heal Your Life” by Louise L Hay) where repeating positive affirmations and meditating about positive changes, feeling the changes as it already happened brings these things into one’ life. The main difference is that the hypnotherapist is trained to identify the harmful programs and in a deep relaxation when client is susceptible to the suggestions he ‘plants’ new ideas which stays in client’s subconscious mind and affect his life.


Personal aspects

Who can be hypnotised? Does the client need special skills / sensitivity?

According to some authors only 20% of the population can be easily hypnotised. Others claim that virtually everyone can be hypnotised. It is clear that people don’t show the same sensitivity to hypnosis and even in an individual the depth of hypnosis change throughout the sessions.

The success of hypnotherapy is influenced by the client’s will to work on a subject and ability to follow commands. For example if Mr ABC comes for smoking cessation but on the very day he had a bad argument with his wife which he constantly thinks of, it would be more challenging to hypnotise him as his concentration is somewhere else.


What is the personal experience of hypnosis?


Everyone knows the feeling of deep relaxation and mind ‘wandering around’ when answers come much easier than when they are in a rush having to do five things at the same time. According to some authors children under the age of seven are often in a state similar to hypnosis when they are very susceptible to any ‘suggestions’ (meaning statements or comments) from their parents. This would also explain why during psychotherapy (not only hypnosis) we can find harmful thoughts about one’s self dated in early childhood. Despite the fact that they are not true client’s mind ‘uses’ them uncritically with a adverse effect on his life.


As explained above client despite the picture from media does not lose control in hypnosis. In fact no matter how deep they go in hypnosis or however passive they may appear to be, they remain in full control over the situation. In fact most people don’t believe they have been hypnotized. They say they enjoyed the experience immensely but their expectations were much different. Client may remain conscious of where he is and what he is doing but generally feel too relaxed and comfortable to want to think about it.



Statements from online discussions and forums:


“Close your eyes and relax...relax...relax. In effect, go with the flow. The deeper, the better. I was assured that hypnosis was a safe and effective way of achieving my goals. By communicating with the subject's subconscious, therapist knows that he can help to unlock the potential of the mind.”


“It’s like sleeping and dreaming”


“All the time, you are in control. You remain aware of who you are, where you are and what you are doing. He merely guides you through a very interesting journey of the subconscious mind.”



“You can't cover things up or be hypnotised to forget about things. What you need to do is find a therapist and work through your childhood trauma.”


Adverse aspects

Hypnosis is one of the tools psychotherapist can use. His knowledge of psychology and how mind works should go beyond simple hypnosis. It was suggested that if a person cannot treat a problem with non – hypnotic techniques, he should not treat it with hypnosis (Crasilneck & Halls). Hypnosis can be, under certain circumstances, harmful to the client and also the therapist.


MacHovec (1988) published a research paper Hypnosis Complication: Risks and Prevention where he listed almost fifty complications associated with hypnosis. He created five categories:

1.     The psychotic symptoms are acute panic attacks

This relates back to the comment that certain medical / psychiatric conditions should contra – indicate hypnosis and acute psychosis / panic attack definitely belong there.

2.     Depression with the possibility of suicidal behaviour

Similarly to the first one, also severe depression is a psychiatric condition which requires medication and attenuation of symptoms at first. Suicidal behaviour is taken as a sign of severity of depression and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Apart from that therapy if not aimed on the main problem can reveal further issues and make the client feel worse. There was a case described by Kleinhauz and Beren (...) of a woman who successfully stopped smoking and became extremely agitated and depressed and experienced suicidal thoughts.

3.     Symptom substitution

By unblocking one symptom, another can appear. For example patient stops smoking (hypnosis was successful) but gets very depressed. Smoking was related to a problem which wasn’t solved by simple ‘reprograming’ of the smoking.

4.     Symptom resulting from inadvertent suggestions

Suggestion has to be made carefully as the mind takes it literally. So phrases such as “you feel nicely sedated every time you come for dental treatment” might make the person feel nicely relaxed already at the moment he GOES to the dentist which can be dangerous. Changing the suggestion to “you feel nicely sedated the moment you sit in the dental chair” is more precise and would encompass the right timing of the feeling.

5.     Masking physical pathology

Client comes with a headache with a new onset. He takes it as a migraine of unknown origin because the whole family suffers from it. In fact this client can have some pathology in the brain and undergoing hypnosis wouldn’t help to resolve the symptoms. It could potentially even harm the client as it may delay the treatment or medical investigations.


Going through these categories it is possible to summarise the way to prevent them:

a.     Therapists should be aware of serious psychiatric conditions which should be treated medically at first instance. According to some writers hypnosis can be beneficial in these patients

b.     There should be a communication between therapist and client should some ‘weird’ feelings appear after the therapy.

c.     Therapist must chose suggestions carefully and should have a good knowledge of human mind. Problems should be explored in depth rather than just ‘change’ the thoughts by abrupt suggestions. It is greatly important to make an assessment prior to any hypnotic control.

d.     Any physical problem before being declared as ‘psychosomatic’ should be cleared by GP / doctor. Alternatively hypnosis can be used to relieve symptoms while having further medical investigations (for example headache which is being investigated).


Another possible adverse aspect of hypnosis, in fact of any treatment, are unrealistic expectations. Clients are influenced from media or friends who went for hypnotherapy hence mostly come to the therapist with certain expectations. It is very advisable to clear up the expectations straight from the beginning and set up and achievable goal.


Relaxation and its role in hypnosis

Therapist is trained to induce the relaxation state in the client by leading him with his voice. One of the possible approaches is starting with focusing client’s mind on „here and now“, for example by an introduction:

„You hear every sound in the room, ticking the clock, your own breath…“

This diverts client’s attention to the therapist’s voice and what is happening here and now. As a second step we use progressive muscle relaxation when client relaxes consciously muscles and releases the tension. Therapist’s voice goes soother and slower in correlation with the depth of relaxation.

Some therapists lead the client to some place in his mind where he feels safe and relaxed. The aim is physically and mentally relaxed person with an access to the less conscious parts of mind. It is like silencing general thinking so the less loud thoughts can be heard.

After the hypnosis it is very important to lead the client back step by step to a normal conscious state. Therapist makes the client aware of surroundings, facilitates his re – orientation. Therapist’s voice is getting louder and faster. When the re – orientation is not sufficient, client may feel bit dizzy or tired and it takes some time for him to get back to normal state himself. This can be potentially dangerous when the client drives after the therapy.

Also therapist should be aware of all the suggestions made during the therapy so he can „undo“ potentially dangerous suggestions, such as „you can’t hear any noise except my voice“.

In general hypnosis is mostly described as a very pleasant experience, relaxing and refreshing. From the psychological view it is a short-term therapy with a fast onset of therapeutical effect and with a wide range of treatable problems.





Barling NR, Raine SJ (2005). Some effects of hypnosis on negative affect and immune systém repsonse. Australian Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis Vol 33 (2): 160 - 177

Crasilneck HB, Halls JA(1989 ). Clinical Hypnosis: Prinicples and Applications. Allyn & Bacon: New York


Kleinhauz M, Beran B (1984) Misuse of Hypnosis: A factor in Psychopathology. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis Vol 26 (4): 283 – 290


MacHovec, Frank (1988). Hypnosis Complications, Risk Factors, and Prevention. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 31: 40-49.


Raz, A., Fan, J. & Posner, J. M. I. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci Published online: doi:10.1073/pnas.0503064102 (2005).