How Does Hypnotherapy Work?

By Susanna Sweeney, MSC, MBACP, CHT

This article on your question: “How Does Hypnotherapy Work?” will look at the therapeutic use of the brain state of hypnosis in hypnotherapy, a form of therapy designed to work with the subconscious mind.

how does hypnotherapy workHow does hypnotherapy work? Quote by Milton Erickson

The Origins of Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy has been around for some two hundred years, since its unintended inception by Franz Anton Mesmer (1734- 1815). From the very start, mesmerism or magnetism (as hypnotherapy was called then) had a track record of providing cures for many conditions that conventional medicine had no cure for.

For this reason, mesmerism carved out a niche for itself, was popular with the masses across class boundaries both in Europe and America, but was looked down upon and rejected by the medical orthodoxy of the day, until its breakthrough came at the end of the 19th century, thanks to the influence of Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), the most popular medical doctor of his time who took to experimenting with hypnotherapy.

Only since Charcot’s time, researching how hypnosis works and how it can be used clinically became acceptable.

Another famous champion of hypnotherapy was Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) who showed that the existence of the unconscious mind is a normal, natural fact for a healthy human being- it is not pathology. For about ten years, Freud enthusiastically used hypnotherapy to treat depression, neuroses and what we today would call post traumatic stress.

Also a somewhat sensationalist introduction to the topic, I have also written an article about ten amazing facts that speak to the power of hypnosis, which is a bit of light reading, yet bound to leave an impression and stay in your mind.

Mesmerism or magnetism was very different from modern hypnotherapy. Back in the day, practitioners based their procedures mostly on guess work. Many practices that were in use would today be classified as faith healing.

These practices included techniques such as tying ropes to a tree believed to have been ‘magnetized’ and inviting patients looking for healing to hold the end of a rope to the afflicted body part to be healed. Mind you, many people did get healed using those techniques (and there are many hundreds of reports to this effect). However, practitioners did not really understand why healing occurred.

(However, in defense of mesmerism/ magnetism- it has to be said that conventional medicine didn’t exactly use scientifically proven practices either at the time. Many patients of medical doctors died from practices such as bloodletting, severe purging and so on.)

Today, however, based on the work of famous hypnotists of the last century such as Milton Hyland Erickson (1901-1980) and Dave Elman (1900-1967), hypnotherapy practitioners use much more refined and targeted techniques.

how does hypnotherapy workHow does hypnotherapy work?

How Does Hypnotherapy Work Today?

Today, there are many different hypnotherapy and hypnosis schools. All use slightly different techniques as to how to achieve hypnosis trance, and as to how to improve the patient’s issues.

The basic premise however that underlies all work with hypnotherapy is the idea that changes in your life are much easier achieved by working directly with your subconscious mind, because the conscious mind has many defense tactics in place that make change difficult. (read more on this in my article on suggestion hypnosis.)

Therefore, hypnotherapists use techniques that allow them to access your subconscious mind- always with your consensual agreement.

Hypnotherapy Inductions

Every hypnotherapy session will start with what is called an ‘induction’. The aim of an induction is to bring you into a hypnotic trance state.

A hypnotist who trained in a hypnosis school informed by Erickson’s work is likely to perform an induction that feels very much like they are simply having a conversation with you, yet before you know it, your eye lids will close and you become very relaxed.

A hypnotist who trained in a school informed by Dave Elman’s work will use a set induction protocol which will be much the same every time you attend. It gets you to open and close your eyes several times in the process of relaxing your body.

Many induction protocols also include instructions for relaxing your mind. Here, the hypnotist could talk you through different tasks they want you to perform in your mind such as counting or reciting the alphabet, they may even ask you to do several things at the same time.

This may become very confusing for you to do, and that is the point of these protocols. The idea is to confuse your mind so that the internal censors of the conscious mind will quieten down.

Personally I don’t believe that there is one superior induction method. The only real difference I can see between methods lies in personal preference. Some methods might work better for you personally than others, and there may be a point in experimenting with different approaches.

More importantly though, I believe that how well you can let go will largely depend on your rapport with the hypnotist. I have put together two article on how to find a good quit smoking hypnotist and how to find a good weight loss hypnotist to help you find the right practitioner for you. There are some more tips on this in my article on regression hypnosis for you- if your issue requires regression work.

how does hypnotherapy workHow does hypnotherapy work?

How Does Hypnotherapy Work Best?

One of the things that should happen during the induction is that your ‘internal censors’ calm down.

What I call the ‘internal censors’ is the critical facility of your conscious mind which, other times, constantly passes judgement about everything you experience, and about everything you do. It questions and judges- all day long.

Does this seem familiar? I bet.

How will you know the censors are active? Good question.

This activity of the internal censors will likely manifest as merciless criticism, both of yourself and anyone else involved with the activity. If your censors are still active at this point in the session, you may experience critical thoughts about the hypnotherapist, such as: “This is only mumbo-jumbo. I wonder what he is going to say next. He keeps repeating the same thing. This is not going to work for me.”

If this is the case, you now know what you are dealing with. This is not really you. This is your defense system, designed to keep the status quo. Do whatever you can to let go as best as you can. Holding on to this critical stance will undermine your session and limit the success you can expect from it. Or, you could end up judging hypnotherapy like Alan Carr judged hypnosis for smoking cessation here...

Adopting an attitude that this session is for you, for your future, to improve your quality of life, and that you want this change and are open to it- and embracing the work- that is how hypnotherapy can work best for you.

Read more about what the evolutionary function of these censors is and how they work exactly in my article on suggestion hypnosis.

How Does Hypnotherapy Work to Achieve Change?

We talked about how the induction will bring you into a trance state.  I have written about hypnosis and self hypnosis trance in detail here. You can dip into this article to find out more about what to expect when you are in this state.

For the purposes of this article, one of the most important points to make about trance is that for most work you are likely to do on yourself, a light to medium depth of trance is sufficient.

The most important signs of hypnotic trance that you are likely to notice are deep relaxation, ideally so much so that you could not be bothered to move a limb. You can also expect your mind to calm down. We talked about your ‘internal censors’ quieting down.

Furthermore, you might notice less of what is going on around you. At this stage, you are likely to be focused on just a couple of things, such as the hypnotist’s voice and the issue you want to change.

Now, the real work can begin.

Essentially, there are two distinctly different ways of working in hypnotherapy. The first one is through suggestion hypnosis, the second one through regression hypnosis.

How Does Hypnotherapy Work Through Suggestion?

Suggestion hypnosis takes advantage of one particular quality of the hypnotic trance state- that hypnotic trance renders you very impressionable and suggestible.

Depending on the issue you want to change in your life, the practitioner will use a suitable issue based suggestion protocol or script, which contains a long series of suggestions for you to internalize during the session.

What does that look like in practice?

Let’s pick the example that you want to quit smoking with hypnosis.

  • Here, the hypnotist will use a script that is designed to bring about a feeling of disgust so that smoking is no longer desirable for you, and feelings of pride and relief associated with quitting.  

  • In relation to your beliefs about smoking- where you may have viewed smoking as useful for controlling weight, the script will suggest strongly and in many different ways, using metaphors and repetition, that smoking is bad for your body and your health and that you need and want your body to survive.

  • Post hypnotic suggestions will focus on desirable future behaviors such as never putting  another cigarette in your mouth.

One of the major keys to success when working with suggestion is in repetition. With stop smoking hypnosis, for example, we know that a program of hypnosis that consists of several sessions will be more successful than a one session program (1).

How Does Hypnotherapy Work Through Regression?

With regression hypnosis, again, there are many different approaches, and depending on their training, practitioners will work in different ways.

My favorite way of working with regression, the way that- as a psychotherapist- makes the most sense to me, is to find the sources of the issue that is bothering the client, to locate crucial memories that have led to the client feeling the way they do, making sure there is an emotional connection to them- and then to re-examine them from an adult's point of view.

The way I see what happens there is that hypnosis helps to overcome whatever blocks occurred in the brain that prevented the client getting there naturally by themselves. Such blocks can be minor or major traumas.

In my article "What Is Hypnosis?" I have written about how the hypnotic state has been found to facilitate communication between the conscious and subconscious minds and that is what we see in action in a regression session. The slightly altered hypnotic state helps to easily reorganize the memories under the umbrella of self compassion and self forgiveness.

Reorganizing memory and inducing self compassion can bring about enormous change, turning the client’s world into an enjoyable place once more where it was dominated by pain beforehand.

So what do I mean by ‘sources of the issue’ and 'major or minor trauma'? Good question.

In my experience, the sources of an issue, more often than not, can be found in very early childhood.

For example, an issue of depression in a grown up may have started with an experience of being bullied in school, and preceded by being neglected  at a young age. An issue of anxiety may have started with critical parents where a child could never physiologically relax from a very young age. Read another example here of how anxiety can arise in my article on "Hypnosis Therapy for Anxiety".

You can see easily though how problems can arise later in life when these children grow up continuing to feel bad about themselves and never get a chance to reclaim their self worth and belief in themselves.

And this is what life regression hypnosis is designed to change.

In my experience, life regression hypnosis is extremely effective, even with short stints of work. In psychotherapy, you may spend two to five years with someone with weekly sessions, working hard to turn things around. In life regression work, with the defenses of the conscious mind out of the way, this work can happen easily and playfully over a short space of time.

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Regression Hypnosis

Regression Hypnosis can help you to clear blocks relating to the past which are causing you trouble now. Find out how it works, how it compares to coaching and psychotherapy and see if it is suitable for you.

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This article fills you in on how you can get the very best from regression hypnosis and is a must read if you are thinking of embarking on hypnotherapy treatment for a complex personal issue.

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I hope my article "How Does Hypnotherapy work?" has helped you to understand hypnotherapy a little bit better.

Do follow up the links on this page. You will find more valuable information there, and, you never know, you might feel encouraged to try hypnotherapy for change after all.



(1)    Holroyd, J., 1980. Hypnosis treatment for smoking: An evaluative review. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 28(4), pp.341-357.

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