Mujer estirada en el sofa con los ojos cerrados y otra sujetando un amuleto delante suyo

Hypnosis: Reality Or Myth? Main Uses And Techniques

Hypnosis is a versatile technique with many uses and clinical applications.

Hypnosis is a technique whereby a person known as a hypnotist induces a series of suggestions in one's self or another person. When used for medical purposes it is known as clinical hypnosis. 

Nowadays, this method has numerous uses, ranging from weight loss, sleep issues, quitting smoking, to managing pain, and others. We will examine the origins of hypnosis, whether or not it represents a real technique, what main types of hypnosis exist and what they are used for. 

How does hypnosis work?

Hypnosis is a tool that helps facilitate various types of therapies and medical or psychological treatments that has been used by many people throughout time. It deals with a specific process where a hypnotist suggests changes in the sensations, perceptions, feelings, thoughts and the behavior of another person. 

These changes are known as suggestions because they are controlled by the hypnotist while the person being hypnotized is in a sleep-like state, which in reality is a state of high concentration characterized by extreme guided attention. (Raz, et al., 2002).

There are three types of suggestions (can be mixed): 

  • Ideomotor suggestions, a thought or mental image, brings about a seemingly "reflexive" or automatic muscular reaction eg.: lifting an arm. 
  • Challenge suggestions, the subject is told he or she will not be able to do some particular thing and then is asked to perform the prohibited behavior. e.g., keeping the arm entirely still. 

  • Cognitive suggestions, experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts or feelings eg.: hallucinations or selective amnesia; or alleviation of pain. 

At a cerebral level,  hypnosis is responsible for producing alpha waves, which places the electrical activity of the brain in between the sleep phase and the waking state. This way we create an altered state of consciousness which reduces the mental response and favors the reactivity of the autonomous system. 

Finally, although we have mentioned that hypnosis is a process induced by a person and received by another, the reality is that any hypnotic activity is a complex mechanism that requires active participation from both people involved. 

This technique has been used for centuries by many different cultures, although in the field of psychology the clinical use of hypnosis can be traced back to the origins of psychoanalysis. 

Hypnotic history: from animal magnetism to psychoanalysis 

The end of the 18th century introduced the development of many different theories and practices that aimed to understand the human psyche better and put an end to specific symptomatology. 

One of the most famous doctors in the field was German Franz Anton Mesmer who applied the postulates of the ether theory (an omnipresent space-filling light substance, precursor to the method of magnetism). Mesmer would then make suggestions to his patients and alleviate some of their symptoms. 

Based on the physicochemical explanation, the doctor called this technique animal magnetism, also known as mesmerism. Years after this, a Scottish doctor, called James Braid, perfected his technique and officially named it hypnosis in 1843. 

Braid's method had a particular component to it: during the hypnotic state, the doctor would instruct the patients to recover from their illnesses. For example, to move his/her arm to someone who was unable to do so, in the absence of a biological cause. (it is worth mentioning that hypnosis was used effectively in the case of psychosomatic illnesses). 

Once returned to the waking state, the patients would notice the disappearance of their symptoms but would have no recollection of doing anything to achieve the recovery. At the same time, neurologist Sigmund Freud was developing his clinical model: psychoanalysis.  

Initially,  Freud tried to practice hypnosis in his office, but after being faced with constant failures in his role of a hypnotist, he terminated this activity. Being deterred by poor results and especially frustrated by the patient's lack of free will he devised a different technique: free association. 

This represented the instauration of the main pillars of psychoanalysis and the development of essential techniques such as free association and transference.

Reality or myth?

For a long period, hypnosis was described as a trance-like state induced by a hypnotist to another person and ever since its emersion as a clinical tool, people have strived to come up with theories that help us understand it better. 

Among the most popular theories, we have role theory, the cognitive-behavioral theory, the neo-dissociation theory, Spano's multifactorial model, Kirsch's response expectancy theory, and Lynn's integrative model. 

Generally speaking, all of these theories have one premise in common. They suggest that more than being just a trance-like state in which the patient remains passively submerged, hypnosis offers a stage for multiple roles and intentions to play out while maintaining an active position for the hypnotized person. 

Therefore,  it is vital that the participant is fully aware of what the hypnotic process entails. It is equally important to be mindful of self-perceptions, imaginative abilities, and situational requests. 

Simply put, the attitude, response expectancy, and motivation of the person being hypnotized are vital for the success of the hypnosis. 

We can safely say that while there are many myths surrounding hypnotherapy (think of the image of a hypnotist swaying a pocket watch), it is, in fact,  a real phenomenon, with social and psychological factors supporting it, as we've just discovered. 

This, however, does not mean that hypnosis is a natural process or that anyone can benefit from it under any circumstances. We will continue to present the primary uses and traits of the most critical hypnotic techniques. 

Five uses of clinical hypnosis 

The term clinical hypnosis refers to a process whose aims are medical, i.e.; it has a fundamentally therapeutic value. This is why in certain contexts it is known as hypnotherapy

Considering the increasing relevance attributed to psychology in the last decades, there have been voices claiming that clinical hypnosis acts as a complementary tool for treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic and medical therapies.

It has been used primarily in pain management and anxiety reduction, but for other ailments as well (which may or may not be supported by conclusive scientific proof) such as treating insomnia, losing weight, and quitting smoking. 

1. Weight loss

Hypnosis used for weight loss is considered to be a potentially effective treatment, but only when it is used as an adjunctive technique in prolonged cognitive-behavioral therapy. 

Several studies have concluded that a combination of these techniques increases the chances of a speedy weight loss — the main reason being self-motivation which plays a vital role in the discipline of following all the intended recommendations for losing the unnecessary weight.  

Nevertheless, scientists suggest the necessity of further studies to determine the effectiveness of hypnosis used in this case. 

2. Sleep disorders

The effects of hypnosis in the case of insomnia treatment have been researched slightly less than other of its uses. Generally, it is considered a potentially useful technique when complemented by other psychological and pharmaceutical therapies. 

Hypnosis may not cure insomnia, but it does improve sleep quality  and quantity when accompanied by other intervention techniques. The relaxing effect of hypnosis can be compared to that of mindfulness and yoga. 

This observation is also important because aside from being an isolated symptom, insomnia is a symptom of many pathologies, both medical as well as psychological. 

3. Anxiety treatment

Another area where the effects of hypnosis have been studied is that of anxiety reduction. It has been observed that with the help of hypnotic suggestions patients have made progress in the treatment of anxiety, but only when hypnosis was used alongside cognitive-behavioral therapies, in particular.  

Hypnosis can help reduce anxiety quicker, and if the patient is responsive to this technique then it is considered that hypnosis favors a better adherence to the treatment. These results have been observed using in-vivo exposure via hypnosis. 

4. Quitting smoking

Hypnosis used for quitting smoking is also considered to be a potentially effective remedy, and in a general sense, it's better to have some form of treatment than no treatment at all. This, however, does not mean to say that hypnosis is more effective than other techniques. 

Moreover, its benefits have been measured based on surveys where participants rated periods of abstinence, which offers essential information but it's not conclusive to support the reduction of tobacco dependency.    

Hypnosis, therefore, is a valuable technique when used as an adjuvant therapy together with a biochemical treatment meant to favor abstinence.  

5. Anesthesia via hypnotherapy - pain management

In this case, hypnosis is intended to induce a state of hypnotic anesthesia; it uses suggestions meant to alleviate pain. Hypnotherapy used for pain management is especially useful in cases of intense pain. 

It can have the same effectiveness as other cognitive-behavioral processes. Less fruitful in the case of chronic pain, but some successful cases have been recorded. 

From a neurophysical standpoint, hypnotic suggestions facilitate the control of the autonomic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that controls and regulates breathing, the heartbeat, digestive processes) as well as of how we perceive pain on an emotional level. 

How hypnosis works - General stages

Hypnosis, according to Andrew Mc Cormick, is usually performed in five main steps: preparation, induction, deepening, utilization, and termination. (McCormick, et al., 2015). 

On the other hand,  González Ordi (2001) tells us that the hypnotic process has the following stages: 

  • Pre inductive, establishing the objectives and the hypnotic steps, building rapport, clarifying any fears or misconceptions of hypnosis. 

  • Hypnotic induction occurs, identifying the variables that are needed from the subject to increase his receptiveness to the hypnosis. 

  • Administration of specific suggestions, cognitive, subjective, or psychophysical responses are modified in this stage, 

  • Posthypnotic stage relating to assimilation, maintaining and generalizing the responses generated during the hypnosis. 

Undergoing any similar techniques requires specific professional training  and should not be performed without thorough knowledge about the mechanism and consequences of hypnosis. 

Main techniques

All of the states mentioned above are performed with little difference from each other depending on the hypnosis technique used. 

Three of the main hypnotic techniques are Ericksonian hypnosis, regressive hypnosis, and self-hypnosis.

Ericksonian hypnosis

Named after American psychologist and hypnotherapist Milton H. Erickson, the Ericksonian technique stands out because it induces a hypnotic trance whereby the participant remains in a state of alert. 

Given these variables,  the trance is defined as an alternative state where the right hemisphere is predominantly active, which favors introspection, the perception of body sensations, as well as time-space awareness. 

This is one of the most popular hypnotic techniques around the world due to its effectiveness as a complementary treatment in pain management therapy, muscle and bone pathologies, and psychological distress among many others. 

Regressive hypnosis 

Regressive hypnosis is one of the most controversial hypnotic techniques in the scientific world. In general terms, this method advocates inducing suggestions with the specific goal of reconstructing memories. This is where it gets its name of regressive hypnosis. 

This is the exact reason for its controversial nature, seeing how instead of tapping into real memories of past times, on many occasions the memories were based on present observations, which resulted in false memories. 


Considering we are dealing with a therapeutical technique, hypnosis tends to be performed by a professional. It can, however, be practiced autonomously after receiving adequate training. 

In reality,  some people regard all hypnosis as self-hypnosis, seeing how anyone free of fears and willing to cooperate can be hypnotized. 

The difference is that in the case of self-hypnosis, the suggestions are self-induced and the process requires incredible self-control and a good command of relaxation techniques, as well as in-depth knowledge of suggestion techniques that are capable of generating alternative states of consciousness. 


Capafons, A. y Mazzoni, G. (2005). ¿Es lo peligroso de la hipnosis el hipnoterapeuta?: Hipnosis y falsos recuerdos. Papeles del Psicólogo, 89: 27-38.

González-Ordi, H. (2005). El empleo de las técnicas de sugestión e hipnosis en el control y reducción del dolor: implicaciones para la psicooncología. Psicooncología, 2(1): 117-130.

Fernández García, R., Secades Villa, R., Terrados Cepeda, N., García Cueto, e. y García Montes, J.M. (2004). Efecto de la hipnosis y la terapia de aceptación y compromiso (ACT) en la mejora de la fuerza física en piragüistas. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 4(3): 481-493.

Jay Lynn, S. & Kirsch, I. (2005). Social cognitive theories of hypnosis, 25(89): 9-15.

McCormick, A. (2015). The powerful you, 120-123.

Mendoza, M. E. y Capafons, A. (2009). Eficacia de la hipnosis clínica: resumen de su evidencia empírica. Papeles del psicólogo, 30(2): 98-116.

Montgomery, G.H y Schnur, J.B. (2005). Eficacia y aplicación de la hipnosis clínica. Papeles del psicólogo, 25(89): 3-8.

Raz, A., Shapiro, T., Fan, J., & Posner, M. I. (2002). Hypnotic suggestion and the modulation of Stroop interference. Archives of General Psychiatry, 59(12), 1155-1161.

Robles, T. (2007). Concierto para cuatro cerebros en psicoterapia. Alom Editores: México.

Ruiz Iglesias, H. (2010). Guía práctica de hipnosis. Nowtilus: España.