Is Hypnosis Safe?

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It focuses the mind, but is hypnosis safe?. Rafael Elias / Getty Images

Is Hypnosis Safe?

Clinical hypnosis or hypnotherapy is one of the most well-established psychological treatments available.  Yet it continues to have a reputation that is tarnished by myths and misinformation.  Many people with addictions who could potentially benefit from clinical hypnosis are put off out of fear that hypnosis is dangerous.

Safety of the Process of Hypnosis

The process of hypnosis itself is not harmful.

  Research that was conducted to identify psychological problems developing as a result of undergoing hypnosis comparing people who were hypnotized with a control group who sat in a room by themselves for the same period of time found that, contrary to expectations, the group who were hypnotized found it a rewarding experience that they wanted to repeat, and actually had a greater than expected reduction in behavior problems, with fewer of them needing to seek medical attention for problems such as insomnia. 

The risks that are inherent in undergoing hypnosis apply equally to other helping techniques, and include following poor advice, taking on misinformation, believing grandiose promises and being disappointed with the result, receiving a misdiagnosis, or receiving an intervention from someone incompetent, which would be a waste of your time and effort.  As with any therapist, a hypnotherapist who uses a coercive, intimidating, demeaning, or stigmatizing approach can potentially create an adverse reaction in the client.

The best ways to minimize these risks are to ensure your hypnotherapist is appropriately trained, avoid engaging in hypnotherapy with anyone who makes any promises that seem too good to be true, and consider whether the hypnotherapist's attitudes and values are consistent with your own -- or those you would like to have.

Influence of the Hypnotherapist

Clinical hypnosis is a powerful took that can help people to change unhelpful beliefs and discontinue harmful behaviors, which are both hallmarks of addiction.  A hypnotherapist working in the context of addiction treatment shares this goal with the client.  So while it is potentially possible for a hypnotherapist to negatively influence a client under hypnosis, the risk of this occurring within an addiction treatment session is extremely low, particularly if the hypnotherapist is a licensed professional.

Build a Trusting Relationship

Developing a relationship of trust, and a set of mutually agreed upon goals further assists in establishing safety in the treatment process.  While trust can be challenging for many people with addictions, particularly those with a history of abuse, it is the basis of all psychological treatments, not just hypnosis.  As it can take time for trust to be established, it is important that hypnosis is not seen as a quick fix or a miracle cure.

The greatest risk of attempting hypnosis if you have not adequately established a trusting relationship is not that you will experience any particular harm, but simply that the hypnosis will not be very effective.  Lack of trust in the hypnotist is most likely to result in you resisting the suggestions of the hypnotist, and not going into a hypnotic trance, which negates the whole purpose of having hypnosis.  Unfortunately, there isn't really a way you can become hypnotized without engaging in the process, and you can't expect a hypnotist to simply implant new beliefs and behavioral patterns without you being open to them -- to expect a hypnotherapist you do not trust to "fix" your addiction is setting them and you up for failure.

Risk of Mental Illness

Given the prevalence of preexisting mental health problems among people seeking hypnosis, it is perhaps surprising that there have been so few reports of mental illness being triggered by hypnosis.  Experts report that they have never observed psychosis occurring as a result of hypnosis itself, despite treating thousands of people with the technique. 

There are, however, some decades-old historical reports of patients who have become psychotic after they have been hypnotized, although there has been no established causation or clinical details about the hypnotherapists' expectancies about hypnosis or symptom removal.  It is generally understood that any overlap between hypnosis and mental illness is coincidental.  However, if you are fearful that hypnosis will cause mental illness in yourself, it probably isn't your best choice of treatment.

Sources

Faw, V., Sellers, D. J., and Wilcox, W.W. Psychopathological effects of hypnosis. International Journal of Experimental Hypnosis, 16 (1), 26-37. 1968.

Spiegel, H. and Spiegel, D. Trance and Treatment: Clinical Uses of Hypnosis. (Second edition). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2004.

Yapko, M. D. Essentials of Hypnosis. New York: Brunner / Mazel Publishers. 1995.

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