What is hypnosis?

Hypnotherapy is not just relaxation, and it’s more than guided visualisation.

Sometimes the best way to describe what hypnosis is involves talking about what hypnosis is not.

The word “hypnosis” conjures up all kinds of associations, and in entertainment and the media we are often encouraged to believe that one of the following is true:

1. Someone who practices hypnosis has some kind of special power, and to be hypnotized means giving over control to someone else;


2. Hypnosis is just relaxation and guided visualisation, listening to calm music, and is all about your ability to imagine.

Popular though these ideas are, they are misguided simplifications – and inaccurate.

Anyone can learn to hypnotise someone – it’s not about personal power, it’s about knowing how to help an individual narrow their focus of attention.

As for visualisation and imagination…while we all have the ability to imagine and visualize to some extent, these abilities are unrelated to our ability to experience hypnosis. And regarding relaxation- sitting quietly in a darkened room, listening to “plinky-plonky” music and having someone talk you through some guided relaxation is not necessarily going to lead you to a meaningful trance state.

Hypnotherapy is not relaxation therapy. If hypnotherapy required that people be relaxed, then most hypnotherapists would be out of work – the majority of people who walk through our door are experiencing some form of nervousness or stress. Indeed, to suggest to people in acute pain or who experience panic attacks that they should “relax” is highly inappropriate, and also likely to be entirely unsuccessful. It’s a good thing, therefore, that we don’t need to be relaxed to experience trance.

David Waxman, the editor of “Hartland’s Medical & Dental Hypnosis” makes this statement about hypnosis:

“…a willingness to co-operate, confidence and the ability to concentrate are amongst the basic needs for the successful production of hypnosis. As the induction commences and the field of awareness becomes narrowed it is considered that the part of the mind which is known as the unconscious becomes more accessible.” (p37, Waxman and Hartland, 1989)

Hypnosis as a State

It’s helpful to distinguish between the “state” of hypnosis (which involves a change of brain wave function and corresponding physiological phenomena), and “hypnotherapy”, which is the application of hypnosis for therapeutic purposes. We all experience the former in our day-to-day lives (for good examples, Google “highway hypnosis”). The latter involves a formal induction of the state, and usually some direction and suggestion (and maintenance) in the clinical setting.

The word “susceptible” is often associated with hypnosis, but “susceptibility” is arrived at by conscious choice – we experience hypnosis because of a willingness to do so. It does not occur against our will, and it can’t be imposed upon us. A much more relevant word to associate with hypnosis is “receptive”: Someone either is or isn’t receptive to the idea of going into a hypnosis state. Through education and understanding, most people will easily become receptive to going into the hypnosis state.

And furthermore, the hypnosis state provides the opportunity for us to be receptive to change by quietening down our conscious mind.

All hypnosis is self-hypnosis

Being guided into the hypnosis state by another person does not mean that you are under their control. There are all manner of people willing to try and convince you otherwise, but it’s simply not true. What is true is that with practice on your part, and sometimes the help of a skilled professional, you are able to create changes in your thoughts, behaviours, and physical experience that serve your best interests.

The key is, you control the outcome. The outcome is based on your choice, and willingness, and the decisions you make for yourself.

It’s common for people to associate hypnotherapy and quitting smoking, but habit control is just the tip of the iceberg. Hypnosis provides us with the means to influence and change our current and future experiences – physical and emotional.

Waxman, D. and Hartland, J. (1989). Hartland’s medical & dental hypnosis. London: Baillière Tindall.

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