What Is Hypnosis?

Serious, focused male

Hypnosis is a very complex mental state that, for a variety of reasons, can be hard to explain concisely.

If we had to tag hypnosis using a single word, it would be “focus.”

In the broadest terms, hypnosis is a state of human consciousness that includes highly focused attention and reduced peripheral input during which people may also experience an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion.

Put another way, hypnosis is a state of awareness where you’re both focused and relaxed at the same time.

A metaphor we often use is that hypnosis is similar to the feeling of being engrossed in a movie or a daydream. You’re less aware of the peripheral activity that may be around you, yet you’re completely focused in a different kind of way. When people are engaged by a daydream or a movie, an imaginary world seems to be “real,” in the sense that it fully engages your emotions.

Some researchers categorize these dream states as forms of self-hypnosis. Milton Erickson, the late hypnosis expert who greatly expanded the field in the 20th century, believed that people hypnotize themselves on a daily basis.

The difference with intentional, or guided, hypnosis is that practitioners bring on the desired dream state by using strategically designed relaxation and focusing exercises. This intentional form of hypnosis is believed to be deeper than what we experience in a daydream, and it’s often compared to the relaxed mental state we experience between wakefulness and sleep.

The way hypnosis actually works is still the subject of debate among a variety of researchers. What we do know, however, and what you should know, is that hypnosis works. In this state of focused relaxation, you’re more open to suggestions, visualizations and affirmations that can help establish new beliefs, which is a powerful and sometimes life-changing experience.

Forming new thought patterns in the subconscious mind can be the foundation for creating new, positive and most importantly lasting changes in your life. To understand how, let’s review some of the practical applications of hypnosis, and the real-world effects it can have on your life.

therapist taking woman into state of hypnosis

What Are the Practical Applications of Hypnosis?

Since 1949, hypnosis has most commonly been used as a supplemental approach to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a psychological intervention that focuses on the development of personal coping strategies and changing unhelpful patterns in thoughts and beliefs.

With its focus on updating the unconscious mind with new and more helpful information, it’s clear how powerful hypnosis can be as a tool for personal growth. Specifically, hypnosis has been shown to be effective in easing behavior disorders, such as anxiety, depression, phobias and eating disorders.

Yet psychological therapy is far from the only application for hypnosis. And it’s important to note that while hypnosis is a safe tool to make positive changes in your life, the process is not therapeutic in and of itself.

Key inscribed with the word "fearless"There are literally hundreds of scientific studies by institutions like the Stanford University School of Medicine that have tested the effectiveness of hypnosis and proven its effects on conditions like weight management, insomnia and smoking cessation. This practice has been employed in a wide variety of fields, including self-improvement, forensics, sports, education, physical therapy and rehabilitation.

So how does hypnosis work?

You can think of it this way: your subconscious mind speaks a different language than your conscious mind. During hypnosis, a trained therapist speaks directly to the subconscious in a language that it understands. By using patterns, association and metaphors, you can update the unconscious mind with new, more helpful information.

When you are able to change your way of thinking in such a fundamental way, you can essentially change the way you live your life. You can relieve negative emotions and behaviors—such as doubt, anxiety, addiction or depression—often without resorting to medications or other treatments with potentially negative side effects. (Always talk to your doctor before making any changes to your medication regimen.)

What Effects Does Hypnosis Have?

In a conventional hypnotic state, a person accepts the suggestions of the hypnotist as if they were reality. The effects can seem very real; but because hypnosis is a safe space, you are always aware that it’s all imaginary. And because you are aware, hypnotic suggestion can’t force you to do something you don’t want. It’s somewhat like “pretending” as children do, but at a different level of maturity, and with specific results in mind (altering your diet or reducing stress, for example).

blurry male face seen through extended eye glassesIn a hypnotic state, people very often feel uninhibited and relaxed. It’s thought that because you are in such a focused state, it allows you to tune out anxieties and doubts that normally keep your actions in check. Much like watching an absorbing movie, you’re only thinking about this moment in time.

A hypnotized individual may appear to outsiders to only listen to and respond to the communications of the hypnotist. As we mentioned previously, in a hypnotic state, an individual can actually see, feel, smell and otherwise perceive their “reality” in concert with the hypnotist’s suggestions, even though those stimuli are clearly not in the room.

However, the effects of hypnosis are by no means limited to sensory change. Even the way you view memories and yourself may be altered by suggestion. Consequently, the process of altering the subconscious can be extended, post-hypnotically, into your waking life.

The mental experience of hypnosis can vary dramatically from one subject to another. Some hypnotized people report feeling a sense of detachment or extreme relaxation, while others may experience hypnosis as if it happens outside of their conscious volition. Still others may remain fully aware and able to engage while under hypnosis, while still retaining the benefits of altering the subconscious mind.

woman resting among flowers in deep state of thought

Hypnosis Is a Safe and Effective Therapy to Make Positive, Permanent Changes

Having a more thorough, more realistic understanding of what hypnosis is and how it helps can be a handy tool in your emotional toolbox. Hypnosis is an authentic therapeutic tool with a long history backed by research and practice. However, it is important that you engage with an accredited and experienced hypnotist or hypnotherapist so you can trust the guided process and create a structured plan to help you reach your individual goals.

Learn more about hypnosis—how it works, how it can help you, common myths about hypnosis, and more—in the following articles:

Or find out how hypnosis can help achieve specific goals, from weight loss to getting a better night’s sleep.