Beginners Guide to Hypnotherapy

Delving into the wonderful world of Hypnosis

In this Beginners Guide to Hypnotherapy, we are going to cover a range of subjects to help you to understand a little more about this wonderfully versatile therapy.

Hypnosis. That one simple word has such a mystique about it. Searching for the term on google results in images of spirals and pocket watches, and if you were to ask the general public what it is, the most common answer you’ll receive is that it is mind control and makes you cluck like a chicken (although mimicking a dolphin is far much more satisfying).

A range of Pocket Watches - Beginners Guide to Hypnosis
Swinging pocket watches are out, scientific understanding is in (Guide to Hypnotherapy)

Hypnosis is quite simply a fascinating subject. Whether you’ve been to a stage hypnosis show, received hypnotherapy, seen it portrayed in films or watched people such as Derren Brown and Paul McKenna use it for entertainment purposes, you’ll no doubt have some misconceptions about what it actually is. With all the misconceptions that are attached to hypnosis and its portrayal in films and the media, it can be hard to believe that hypnosis could be taken seriously as a therapy. Yet scientists and neuroscientists are increasingly praising hypnosis as a highly effective tool for lasting behavioural change.

So just what is hypnosis? What is hypnotherapy? And how can it help make deep and lasting change? In this Beginners Guide to Hypnotherapy, we aim to answer these questions and give an in-depth view of this fascinating subject.

What is Hypnosis?

Hypnosis is a state of relaxation and focused attention that heightens an individual’s suggestibility. The state a person enters when they go into hypnosis is often referred to as a trance. This trance state is something that everyone experiences every day at some point and is often compared to daydreaming. You might also think of the hypnotic trance as what you might experience when you become absorbed in a good film or book, or maybe when you are driving a familiar route and find yourself having reached your destination without any real recollection of the journey.

Everyone experiences hypnosis differently, there is no right or wrong way to experience hypnosis. It is a subjective. As an observer, to look at someone in hypnosis you might say they were asleep. Of course, they are not asleep and are more aware than you may imagine. In hypnosis, the subject is in fact fully conscious but simply focused internally. They are able to hear everything that is being said to them, they are able to talk, respond, open their eyes and most importantly, they are fully in control.

Different Depths of Trance States

The trance state is again a subjective experience. There are some individuals that can go into a very deep trance, whilst others remain in a very light trance. Those that are highly hypnotisable tend to be more receptive to going into a deep trance. However, with practice anyone can get into a medium or deep trance. Hypnosis is essentially a skill. There are three main levels of trance.

Light Trance 

Often referred to as hypnoidal. Those that experience a light trance often comment that they didn’t feel like they were hypnotised or that they didn’t go into hypnosis and this often comes down to expectation. A light trance can be achieved by around 90% of the population and the following are often observed in a subject:

  • Eyes closed
  • Eyes may move rapidly at times (REM, Rapid Eye Movement)
  • Don’t move or very little movement
  • Breathe slowly
  • Swallow more frequently
  • Relaxed Facial Features
  • Eye Catalepsy
Medium Trance

It is estimated that between 70% and 90% of those that can achieve a light trance can learn to achieve a medium trance. Observations of subjects in a medium trance:

  • Head sinks towards chest
  • Sink heavily into the chair
  • Jaw Slackens
  • Arm Catalepsy
  • Skin can become flush or pale
  • Feel Lethargic Afterwards
  • Heaviness in Limbs
  • Sometimes partial loss of sensations
  • Reduced awareness of body
Deep Trance

Often referred to as Somnambulism. Between 10% and 15% of those that can achieve a light trance will be able to achieve a deep trance. Subjects who go into a deep trance can sometimes experience:

  • Amnesia
  • Depersonalisation
  • Hallucinations
  • Full Anaesthesia

The important thing to remember is that the trance state is a relaxed state and perfectly natural. Reading some of the signs of the different levels of trance may make some people fearful of hypnosis. Rest assured no matter what level of trance a subject reaches they always feel relaxed and safe.

The Conscious Critical Faculty

When a subject enters hypnosis, their level of suggestibility increases. This means that when a subject is in a trance, they are much more susceptible and receptive to new ideas and new ways of doing things than they would be when operating at their normal level of consciousness. This brings us onto what is called the Conscious Critical Faculty.

The reason why we conduct hypnosis is to communicate with the unconscious part of the mind. Let’s take an example to illustrate this point. Let us imagine that a suggestion was to be given to a subject that their hand would feel no sensations at all (an anaesthesia effect). To walk up to a subject and tell them that their hand is going to have no sensations at all would most likely leave them with a confused look on their face. Why? Well logically they know that’s not going to happen. The conscious mind is critical and logical.

But, when a subject enters hypnosis, the conscious mind (and therefore critical thought and logic) are bypassed. We call this bypassing the Conscious Critical Faculty (CCF). Once this point has been bypassed, the hypnotherapist or hypnotist has direct linguistic access to the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is creative, non-logical and literal. To tell a subject in hypnosis, whereby the CCF has been bypassed, that same suggestion that was looked at critically by the conscious mind is now taken literally by the unconscious mind. As a result, the subject’s hand feels like it has no sensations at all.

As we penetrate the surface, bypassing the conscious critical faculty, we have direct access to the powerful unconscious mind where changes can be made.

You might think of the Conscious Critical Faculty as a bouncer outside a nightclub. In the normal waking state, the bouncer is on high alert and does not allow anything through into the nightclub (unconscious mind). However, when we are in hypnosis, it’s as if the bouncer steps to one side and allows for new ideas and suggestions to be accepted by the unconscious mind. The bouncer still remains alert however and should a suggestion be given that would endanger the subject in hypnosis or cause them to do something that was against their moral code, then the bouncer would step straight back in and the trance would be broken.

What is Suggestibility?

We have mentioned the word suggestibility several times now and no doubt you have some questions. Suggestibility is quite simply how receptive a subject is to a suggestion. It is estimated that 5% of the population are highly suggestible. This means that they are incredibly receptive to suggestions and will display quite astonishing phenomena when suggestions are given. A further 5% are estimated to be either not very or not at all suggestible. This means that they are simply not receptive to suggestions. The other 90% fall in the middle. They are open and receptive to suggestions, but they may need them to be reinforced several times or need to be hypnotised on more than one occasion to get the same results as someone who is highly suggestible.

Hypnosis and hypnotherapy work on the premise of offering the subject who is in a trance suggestions. These suggestions can be offered in a number of different ways (direct, indirect, authoritarian, permissive, metaphors) and the hypnotherapist will work with the subject to identify which method may work best for them. Human beings are wonderfully complex and all different. What works for one subject may have no benefit at all for another.

There are many suggestibility tests but what they tell us isn’t as black and white as you might think. For example, there is a suggestibility test that is called Magnetic Hands. As you may imagine, this involves getting the subject to place their hands out in front of them, close their eyes and imagine two powerful magnets in the palm of each hand pulling them together. Now those that are highly suggestible will respond straight away and their hands will quickly pull together. Others may see a lot of movement and some may see a little bit of movement. There will be those that experience no movement at all. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t suggestible. It simply means that they don’t respond with movement. Often, subjects who don’t respond at all will state that they felt like their hands had moved and that they were surprised to see they hadn’t. A suggestibility test is simply feedback for the hypnotist/hypnotherapist.

What is Hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy is simple a therapy that uses hypnosis as a tool to aid the therapeutic strategies utilised during a session/s. In a hypnotherapy session, the hypnotherapist will work with the subject to help them overcome the issues that are holding them back. Having explored the issues in detail, the subject will be guided into a hypnotic trance whereby the therapist will communicate with the individual’s unconscious mind offering suggestions, visualisations and making associations. Suggestions work due to the literal nature of the unconscious mind, visualisations work as the unconscious mind is creative, driven by emotion and works on associations.

Neuroscience currently estimates that 95% of all cognitive activity is carried out unconsciously, leaving our conscious awareness to only 5%. The brain is an incredible piece of hardware, the most sophisticated device in the entire universe and capable of so much. As humans, we are essentially on autopilot all the time as our brains work to streamline our life through associations, the selection of behaviours, feelings, thoughts, etc.

So why is hypnotherapy so useful? Well if we were to take an individual who wants to lose weight, for example, the changes that need to be made are at the unconscious level, not the conscious level. You will have heard of and no doubt know someone (maybe even yourself) who has decided to lose weight and maintained good eating habits for a few days. After a few days, the willpower begins to slip away and finally they cave into to their old behaviour. Willpower is a conscious finite resource. With hypnotherapy, the changes are made to the unconscious so that it automatically chooses a new positive and empowering behaviour that is in line with your goal. Therefore willpower isn’t used up and the change in behaviour is natural.

Who can benefit from Hypnotherapy?

So, you might be thinking, would I benefit from hypnotherapy if I am not suggestable or have low suggestibility. For stage shows, the hypnotist is looking for a) the highly suggestible individuals in the crowd and b) those that are extroverts and want to take part. In the context of a stage hypnosis show, low suggestibility individuals would not be picked, nor would those who fit in the middle.

However, for hypnotherapy, the level of suggestibility is not as important a factor. We all experience the trance state each day. Highly suggestible individuals will be the ones that only need a single session to overcome their issue. But hypnotherapy uses hypnosis as part of the therapy. Most of the phenomena that can be experienced in hypnosis, can also be experienced out of hypnosis. Hypnosis simply speeds up the process and makes the changes at a deeper level. If you have the ability to imagine, then you have the ability to make changes.

Applications of Hypnotherapy

As we have established, hypnotherapy works with the unconscious mind which in turn houses all our beliefs, values, behaviours, thoughts, feelings. Hypnotherapy becomes a great therapy option when dealing with anything that we do unconsciously. The applications are far-ranging going from helping an individual stop smoking to helping someone lose weight by changing their eating habits, from breaking the pattern of a phobia to reducing a strong gag reflex. If there is a habit, a behaviour, an addiction, a thought process or even an association that needs changing then hypnotherapy is a great treatment option.

Misconceptions of Hypnosis

Hypnosis has rather unfortunately been misrepresented over the years due to the how it is portrayed in films and the media as well as the popularity of stage hypnosis. In fact, hypnotherapists tend to spend more time explaining what hypnosis isn’t rather than what it is. So, what are some of the common misconceptions about hypnosis?

  • Stage Hypnosis – Most people are introduced to hypnosis through the stage shows. Stage hypnosis utilises hypnotic phenomena for entertainment purposes. During a hypnosis show, the hypnotist will subject the audience to a number of suggestibility tests. Doing so will allow them to pick out not only the highly suggestible members of the audience but also the extroverted members of the audience.
  • Mind Control – In truth all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. A hypnotist or hypnotherapist can say whatever they like to a subject but if that person doesn’t want to go into hypnosis then they won’t. The hypnotherapist merely acts as a guide. They cannot control your mind and they cannot make you do anything you wouldn’t want to do.
  • Silver Bullet – It’s not magic, although it can seem that way for highly hypnotisable individuals. Hypnotherapy is not a miracle cure. However, hypnosis is a great tool for making a quick and lasting change as it works with the part of the mind where change needs to happen. But if a subject doesn’t put the work in or complete any extra reinforcing tasks that are set by a hypnotherapist then all the good work would be for nothing.
  • Sleep – As we mentioned before, hypnosis can look like sleep, but it very much isn’t. The subject in hypnosis is conscious, responsive but simply focused internally.
  • Only unintelligent people can be hypnotised – There simply is no correspondence between suggestibility and intelligence.
  • You can get stuck in hypnosis – It is impossible to get stuck in hypnosis. Let’s take an extreme example if a subject were in hypnosis and the hypnotherapist who was guiding them suddenly had a heart attack, then the subject would naturally awaken after a period of time (and hopefully call for an ambulance)
  • Meditation – Meditation and mindfulness are about quietening the mind and observing thoughts. Hypnosis is about relaxation and making changes through suggestions and visualisations. They have similarities and differences. Both are wonderful tools in their own right.


Hypnosis is a wonderful tool for facilitating deep and lasting change in subjects. As the scientific evidence continues to grow, hopefully, we will see it become adopted into the mainstream. Hypnotherapy is already seen as a management option for IBS by the NHS and hopefully, within time, it will be a go-to for issues such as anxiety, weight loss, insomnia and so many more.

If you are considering hypnosis, please do not be put off by its image and just go for it. Any hypnotherapist would be more than happy to discuss with you how it could help you move forward in your life. For me, it was the therapy I needed when my mental health was at its worst when no other therapy or medication helped. Without it, I would not be here.

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