This article is from the Alternative Medicine Therapies guide.
How hypnosis actually works is debated, but the commonly accepted theory is that the mind has two parts, the conscious and the subconscious. During hypnosis, hypnotherapists help subjects to reach their subconscious mind by entering into a trancelike state.
The hypnotic state is not nearly as mysterious as it sounds. People go into trancelike states all the time. For example, musicians and artists can become so engrossed in their work that they lose track of time. Readers often become totally immersed in the pages of a good novel. Drivers pass their exits on the freeway while daydreaming. These day-to-day experiences are similar to the hypnotic state.
Psychologists and hypnotherapists separate the trancelike state into three distinct stages. The first stage is a superficial trance. Although your eyes may be closed, you are very much aware of your surroundings, and unless instructed to the contrary, you'll remember the entire event. During this superficial stage, you can accept suggestions, such as giving up cigarettes, or eating less. But because the trance is so light, you may not act on the suggestions. For example, people attending group hypnotherapy sessions for smoking cessation are occasionally seen lighting up a cigarette as they leave the building.
The second stage--known as the alpha state--is significantly deeper. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration slow, and the therapist can control your response to pain or allergies, or even alter your immune system. In the alpha stage, instructions to stop smoking can really be effective.
The third stage used mainly by psychiatrists, is deeper still. In this stage, you can be mentally directed back in time, remembering events from your past with extreme clarity. This technique, termed "age regression," can be helpful for revealing painful memories that may be responsible for emotional or physical problems. Numerous studies document how the emotional pain of physical or sexual abuse during childhood can be suppressed by the mind yet manifest itself in a variety of chronic medical conditions.
A few physicians and hypnotherapists believe that the trance depth of the third stage can be so profound that the patient may actually remember events from previous incarnations. Practitioners of this controversial Past Life Therapy believe that physical and emotional problems may have their source in unresolved conflicts from previous lives. More conventional psychiatrists explain the recalled "past life" events as simply a resurfacing of long-forgotten movie plots, TV shows, and stories that people incorporate into their own lives. During hypnosis, they are unable to distinguish between fact and fiction.
Because hypnosis deals with the subconscious, a frequently raised concern is that the therapist can somehow take control. In fact, the hypnotist is really just a facilitator; there can be no hypnosis unless the subject is fully willing to participate. In fact, the goal of hypnosis is for the subject to gain control--over behavior, emotions, or physiological processes. In order for hypnotherapy to be truly successful, the subject must learn to master self-hypnosis in order to employ the technique whenever needed.
After a few training sessions with a hynotherapist you will learn to place yourself in a hypnotic state, implant positive suggestions, and then leave the hypnotic state. Although some people seem to have a greater ability to focus their attention using self-hypnosis than others, most people can markedly increase this ability with practice. Audio and video tapes can also enhance the process.