Does Hypnotherapy Work? We look at the Scientific Findings
While some scientists still regard hypnosis with mistrust, it has proven useful in clinical settings and insightful in research into mental processes such as “sensation, perception, learning, memory, and physiology” (Faymonville et al., 2006).
Hypnosis is seen as a heightened state of attention, concentration, and inner absorption, with reduced awareness of external stimuli.
And such immersion is not unique to hypnotic states. Most of us have experienced deep engagement with a task at hand and failed to notice time passing and light fading.
Hypnosis, however, requires three components (Faymonville et al., 2006):
- Absorption – to become fully involved in the imaginative experience
- Dissociation – the separation of behavioral components typically processed together, such as being both an actor and an observer
- Suggestibility – the increased tendency to “comply with hypnotic instructions”
While hypnotherapy appears promising as a treatment for multiple issues that determine physical and psychological health, much of the research seems flawed because of poor trial design. Therefore, further high-quality studies are required to better understand its potential to improve chronic pain, depression, sleep, and eating disorders (Chamine et al., 2018).
So, does hypnotherapy really work?
Yes, science has confirmed that hypnotherapy can change our perception and behavior.
Sense of who we are
A perceptual illusion highlights how our susceptibility to being hypnotized affects our self-perception.
In a famous experiment known as the rubber hand illusion, participants watch a rubber hand being stroked while their own remains hidden. Surprisingly, the individual feels a sense of ownership over the clearly fake hand.
When the experiment was reproduced, it was found that those more easily hypnotized had an increased degree of ownership of the rubber hand and a more modifiable sense of body image (Fiorio, Modenese, & Cesari, 2020).
Validation of hypnotherapy as a treatment
Increasingly, research has shown the critical role that hypnosis can play in treating psychological and physiological problems including the following conditions:
Hypnotized volunteers are up to 50% more capable of handling painful stimuli (Faymonville et al., 2006). Scans reveal that hypnosis can lower activity in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, linking sensory stimuli to emotional and behavioral responses, and switch off pain signals.
Some studies suggest that hypnosis is more effective than standard medical care when used to reduce pain during labor and childbirth (Landolt & Milling, 2011).
Gastrointestinal disorders have a significant impact on the quality of life of children. And despite being recognized as the product of the interaction of mind–brain–gut, standard medical treatments offer little relief.
However, hypnosis, particularly when explained to the patient before treatment to build trust, appears to reduce pain perception successfully (Mahler, 2015).
Hypnosis is also proving successful as a treatment for skin disorders and has been used in dermatology to reduce habits such as scratching while promoting healing.
Without side effects, such treatment, along with meditation and biofeedback, can have positive results where others have failed (Shenefelt, 2017).
Hypnosis is increasingly used as a treatment for depression and is as effective at relieving symptoms of depression as psychological interventions attempting to treat patterns of distorted cognition (Milling, Valentine, McCarley, & LoStimolo, 2018).
Hypnosis appears to help in several ways. By reducing the symptoms, it helps build coping skills, shifts focus from feelings to thoughts, and can help reframe difficult situations.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have shown their worth in therapy, particularly in the successful treatment of phobias. When combined with hypnosis, VR and AR appear to improve the outcome of treatments for stress. They offer an exciting field for research and the potential for new treatment protocols (Zhao, You, Shi, & Gan, 2015).
Hypnosis offers practical and beneficial opportunities for helping patients undergoing treatment for cancer.
When given during the perioperative period, between deciding to have surgery and the procedure itself, hypnotherapy has been shown to reduce pre-op distress, anxiety, and postoperative pain.
Not only is it inexpensive, but it improves patient comfort and reduces recovery time from anesthesia (Potié, Roelants, Pospiech, Momeni, & Watremez, 2016; Faymonville et al., 2006).