Does Hypnosis Therapy Work?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Proponents of hypnosis, also called hypnotherapy, claim that it can be used to help with certain issues like pain control, losing weight, and even fear of dental procedures—but does it really work? The answer is a bit more complex than you might think. Forms of hypnosis have been practiced and explored by different people and cultures around the world for millennia. However, from a clinical psychotherapeutic perspective supported by the American Psychological Association, some would say that it teeters on the edge of pseudoscience. In this article, we’ll discuss the potential uses of, and existing evidence for, the effectiveness of hypnosis.

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The Concept Of Hypnosis

In its most literal sense, hypnosis aims to put a person into a temporary trance, or heightened state, where outside input can be ignored or blocked. The individual can then focus on internal issues, or any thoughts or tasks that may be suggested by the practitioner. This input called hypnotic suggestion, can be very influential when delivered by a trained hypnotherapist, helping individuals tackle various mental health conditions or personal challenges.

This practice, known as clinical hypnosis, is sometimes used as an aid to psychotherapy because it can involve entering a state where the individual may more easily explore painful feelings, thoughts, or memories that may be hidden from their conscious mind. In terms of psychotherapy treatment goals, hypnosis is sometimes seen as a special entrance into the subconscious. It also seems to sometimes enable people to perceive aspects of their lives differently, including focused attention to block awareness of pain.

In the world of psychotherapy, hypnosis itself isn’t considered to be a viable treatment method. However, hypnosis treatment may, in some cases, support the effective delivery of certain other treatments, such as complementary and integrative health approaches, that are more robustly backed by scientific evidence.

When used today, hypnotherapy is typically performed with one of two approaches in mind:

  • Suggestion therapy, where the person can respond to suggestions given by the healthcare provider, is often used in alternative medicine. Proponents claim that it can help people quit smoking, shift bad habits like nail-biting, and even practice mind body medicine by training their perceptions and sensations to remain aware and unaffected by pain. However, it is important to note that some experts find this approach to be problematic in a clinical setting.
  • Patient analysis, a practice in clinical and experimental hypnosis, utilizes the deep sleep-like state to explore the psychological root of disorders, symptoms, or even trauma that may be hidden within the unconscious memory. Once the trauma is revealed, trained therapists can address it using other treatments in psychotherapy.

While hypnosis works for some individuals, more research is needed to determine its true effectiveness, hypnotherapy may sometimes be considered a supplemental treatment in integrative health for conditions such as:

  • Anxiety, phobias, and fears
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Sleep issues or disorders
  • PTSD and comorbid anxiety
  • Loss and grief
  • Quitting smoking
  • Pain relief related to other medical issues, such as radiation treatment, dental procedures, irritable bowel syndrome, and skin conditions

Does Hypnosis Work?

While hypnosis has been around for a long time, the question of whether it works or is all just the placebo effect remains. Currently, hypnosis is a form of psychological therapy with some research backing its effectiveness for a few specific purposes. The goal of hypnotherapy—which, again, means using hypnosis as a therapeutic tool—can be to induce a state of intense focus or concentration, similar to what you might expect from a very deep meditation. Neurologically speaking, your brain waves in this state may look somewhat similar to those that are experienced while you’re sleeping. However, during hypnotherapy you are likely to be awake and conscious the entire time.

According to a position statement from the American Psychiatric Association, the idea behind hypnosis is that by heightening their state of consciousness, a person may be more open to receiving suggestions that they might disregard in a more natural state of mind. When this happens, the therapist can give advice and make suggestions in hopes of “planting the seeds” of behavior changes so that they may subsequently “take root” and flourish on their own. 

For instance, a 1979 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine found that participants who practiced self-hypnosis (through a combination of visualization and self-talk) were able to sleep significantly longer than those who didn’t. Additionally, they took less time to fall asleep and woke up fewer times during the night. The researchers concluded that self-hypnosis helped these participants feel calm and reduce stress, which allowed them to experience longer, uninterrupted sleep.

Potential Drawbacks Of Hypnosis

Although hypnotherapy is considered to be a safe form of therapy, it might not be for everyone. First, not everybody will be able to enter the trance-like state that’s required to carry out hypnotherapy, even with the help of a qualified professional. Second, there may be other risks associated with this practice—especially when it’s performed by someone other than a trained professional. While rare, potential side effects of hypnosis may include:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Increased anxiety
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness

Additionally, people who experience delusions or hallucinations, psychotic symptoms, or have schizophrenia or a substance use disorder may not be good candidates for hypnotherapy. Always consult your doctor before trying a treatment like hypnosis.

Another of the concerning potential side effects of hypnotherapy for people with certain conditions is that it may create false thoughts and memories, called confabulations. These memories can upset the individual’s understanding of reality and may cause them to lose control of what’s real and what’s not. However, this effect is unlikely when a qualified, licensed mental health professional is administering the treatment or when you practice self hypnosis responsibly under proper guidance.

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What Happens During A Hypnotherapy Session?

When you attend a hypnotherapy session for the first time, the initial step will be to impart your goals for the treatment and any issues you may want to address. For instance, you might talk about stressful past events you want to overcome, physical pain you wish to manage, or other ways that you may desire to improve your overall mental and/or physical well-being.

For the hypnotherapy itself to begin, you’ll likely be asked to sit or recline in a relaxing, comfortable place and try to focus solely on what the therapist is saying or asking. The hypnotherapist will then likely use repetitive verbal cues to guide you into a deep, meditative mental state, avoiding any form of mind control. Once you’ve entered this state, the therapist will typically walk you through some visualizations, make suggestions based on the objectives that you discussed, and describe different strategies to help you modify negative thoughts and behaviors. At the end of the session, they will guide you out of the hypnotized state and you will return to normal consciousness.

Other Forms Of Therapy For Exploring Thoughts And Feelings

If you are interested in learning more about hypnotherapy, locating a licensed provider in your area who has expertise in this field is likely a logical next step. If you’re interested in other ways to explore deep thoughts and feelings with the help of a mental health professional, there are other forms of therapy you might try. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for instance, is considered to be “the gold standard” of psychotherapy and has been shown to be effective in treating a range of conditions from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you’re unsure about which type of therapy might be best for you, meeting with a therapist for an evaluation may give you more insight.

While therapy was traditionally only practiced in in-person settings, the internet has made new formats possible. Online therapy is now a viable option for those who have trouble locating a provider in their area, who can’t commute to an office for sessions, or who simply feel more comfortable receiving treatment from their own home. Research suggests that online and in-person therapy can offer similar benefits for a variety of conditions and situations, so it’s generally up to the individual to choose what works best for them. If you’re interested in trying virtual therapy, a platform like BetterHelp can match you with a licensed provider with whomyou can meet via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing.


The efficacy of experimental hypnosis remains largely up for debate, but some evidence suggests that it could be a helpful supplement to certain types of evidence-based psychotherapy. If you're interested in this or another form of therapy, speaking with a qualified mental health provider about your options may be a helpful next step. It's essential to remain aware of the potential risks and benefits when exploring alternative treatments like hypnotherapy.

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