Hypnotherapy as a Treatment for Addiction

Models pose as hypnotherapist and client
Hypnotherapy can help some people overcome addictions. B. BOISSONNET /BSIP / Getty Images

Hypnotherapy is an evidence-based treatment for addiction, which can also be used to treat a variety of other psychological difficulties. Hypnotherapy combines the psychological process of hypnosis with psychotherapy. Hypnotherapy is conducted by a trained therapist, typically a registered psychologist, with a client who is informed about and understands and consents to the process.

Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, known as a trance state, which is deliberately induced by one person—the hypnotist or hypnotherapist—on another individual person or group of people—the hypnotic subject or subjects.

The change in consciousness that occurs under hypnosis is more then just a feeling, it can actually be measured and observed on the EEG readings of the brains of hypnotic subjects.

Self hypnosis is the practice of inducing hypnosis in oneself, and in fact, all hypnosis is a form of self hypnosis. The main distinction between hypnosis and self hypnosis is simply that self hypnosis requires an understanding of how to induce hypnosis in yourself whereas with regular hypnosis, the hypnotic subject can benefit from hypnosis with no prior knowledge.

What Hypnosis Feels Like During Hypnotherapy

In a trance state, a person becomes less aware of what is going on around them, while instead focusing deeply on some aspect of their inner experience. These inner experiences can involve their thoughts, their feelings, their memories, their imagination, and their sensations—especially sensations associated with relaxation.

There are three central aspects of the hypnotic trance. These are absorption, dissociation, and suggestability.

Absorption is a kind of deep mental focus. The person who is being hypnotized becomes deeply absorbed and mentally involved in whatever they are perceiving, imagining or thinking about. They are concentrating very intently, in much the same way you might become absorbed in a book you are reading, or a movie you are watching.

The dissociative aspect of the hypnotic trance means that the person being hypnotized separates out the aspects of the hypnotic experience that they are focusing on from other potential distractions that they would normally be aware of at the same time, to an unusual degree. For example, the hypnotist might suggest that the person being hypnotized lift their arm. The person being hypnotized is, of course, completely in control of what they are doing, however, it might feel to them that their arm was being controlled by some outside force unknown to them.

How Hypnotherapy Helps With Addiction

While in a hypnotic trance, the person being hypnotized, or hypnotic subject, is more open to suggestion by the hypnotist or hypnotherapist than they are in their usual fully alert state. They generally become more passive and compliant with role playing as as directed by the hypnotist or hypnotherapist. Under hypnosis, people can become more imaginative, more open to fantasy, and sometimes, more able to access long-forgotten memories.

This relaxed and suggestible state can help people to get a different perspective on their addictive behaviors. What normally seems impossible—quitting a substance or behavior that is central to one's existence—can seem achievable and desirable.

People undergoing hypnotherapy often get in touch with their feelings of personal mastery and power, and feel able to "unlock" themselves from long term behavior patterns that were previously inflexible and rigid.

There are many myths about hypnosis and hypnotherapy, and many of them raise the issue of whether or not hypnosis is safe. While it is safe to engage in hypnotherapy with a trained hypnotherapist, going into the experience worrying about your safety is not a good mindset for the relaxation that is central to the approach. Therefore, if you feel anxious, worried, or suspicious about hypnosis, hypnotherapy, or your hypnotherapist, it probably is not an approach you would get much benefit from.

In some instances, people are capable of unusual mental and physical feats when they are under the influence of hypnosis. Their feelings and behaviors can also be influenced after they have come out of a hypnotic trance. This is the main reason that hypnosis or hypnotherapy can appeal to people with addictions, as hypnosis can profoundly help people to strengthen their will power and allow them to use their best judgement in overcoming their addictive urges and cravings.

However, those who think that hypnosis is somehow magical, and will erase their addiction in a single session are likely to be disappointed. Hypnotherapy is is a tool to unlock human potential, not a magic formula. Hypnosis can help people to address both their addictions and associated problems, but these issues are complex and challenging both for the client and for the therapist, and hypnotherapy does not work for everyone.

Sources:

Jackson, R. Stress Control Through Self Hypnosis. London: Piatkus Books. 1993

Posadzki, P., Khalil, M., AlBedah, A., Zhabenko, O., & Car, J. Complementary and alternative medicine for addiction: An overview of systematic reviews. Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 21:69–81. 2016.

Waterfield, R. Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis. London: Macmillan. 2002.

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