If you don’t know much about hypnosis or hypnotherapy, you may think it’s just for circus sideshows or the kind of black magic by which Count Dracula controlled those who threatened his “undeadness.” In reality, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that supports hypnosis as a tool for relieving a host of conditions, including chronic anxiety.

Hypnotherapy for anxiety is a type “complementary” or “alternative medicine” treatment that places an individual in a deep state of relaxation, allowing the subconscious mind to be more receptive to ideas and suggestions. You’ve surely experienced the feeling. Being in a hypnotic state is not unlike daydreaming, where the focus on your immediate surroundings gives way to people or places from the past or fantasies about the future. And just like when you’re daydreaming, undergoing hypnotherapy will not make you lose control — you won’t start barking like a dog or ripping off your clothes and running out into the street.

A New Way to Perceive Things

Hypnosis, while not a substitute for traditional forms of treatment like talk therapy or medication, can help as an adjunct treatment by enabling individuals to perceive things differently. It is often used to relieve anxiety related to medical procedures, like surgery or MRI scans.  At Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, researchers found that patients who were taught self-hypnosis before undergoing surgery were far less anxious following the operation as compared to a control group. They also used less pain medication.

“Hypnosis is the oldest Western form of psychotherapy, but it’s been tarred with the brush of dangling watches and purple capes,” said David Spiegel, MD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in a statement. “In fact, it’s a very powerful means of changing the way we use our minds to control perception and our bodies.”

The Basics of Hypnotherapy

If you have an overactive mind, hypnotherapy for anxiety will drop you into a pleasant state of relaxation. Here’s how it works.

The therapist will guide you to this calm yet fully aware “trance state.” You may be asked to visualize beautiful, serene or safe scenes. The idea is to relax you enough to reach your subconscious thoughts and change the negative ones at their origin. In this state, you’re also more open to positive suggestions and new ideas from the hypnotherapist like, “you’re in control of your thoughts,” “you are content and confident in your ability to overcome your anxiety,” or “you won’t waste any more time feeling anxious.” By changing the subconscious mind, you can change your conscious reactions and behaviors going forward.

The therapist may also use guided imagery to help disarm your anxiety. One young woman whose anxiety caused her stomach pain was asked to imagine a “protection skirt” that would serve as a shield from the pain. The woman, who keeps a recording of the hypnosis session on her phone, said she’s still learning to keep her anxiety at bay, but if the stomach issues return, “I know how to deal with it,” she says. In many cases, hypnotherapists will train their patients in self-hypnosis to use when such anxious feelings crop up.

Each hypnotherapy session lasts about an hour, and many people begin to see results in just a couple of sessions. Usually no more than 10 sessions are necessary. It’s important to note that not everyone responds to hypnosis, so if you’re not feeling any change after two or three sessions, you may want to move on to other approaches. It’s also important that you work with an experienced professional. Hypnotherapists are typically medical doctors, nurses or social workers who have received training in hypnotherapy. To find a hypnotherapist near you, the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists is a good place to start your search. You may also wish to ask your family doctor for a referral.

Think of hypnosis as “a state of inner absorption, concentration and focused attention,” says the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. It’s like using a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun. When the mind is concentrated and focused, we are able to use it to great effect.


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