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The Science of Self Hypnosis

Self-Hypnosis in Therapy

The concept of self-hypnosis has sparked wide-spread interest among medical researchers and psychotherapy practitioners for well over a century. With extensive research, the case for the effectiveness of hypnotherapy in a broad spectrum of medical and non-medical scenarios has only grown stronger.

Besides being used as a powerful tool to treat depression and social anxiety, self-hypnosis is actively being recommended as a means of mitigating pain and fatigue during childbirth, postmenopausal hot flashes, and even radiotherapy. Although there is no single accepted definition of self-hypnosis, it can generally be characterized as a self-induced state of heightened focus that is achieved by autosuggestion.

What is Self-Hypnosis or Autosuggestion?

Medical accounts of hypnotism and self-hypnosis can be traced back to a mid-19th-century Scottish surgeon named James Braid. Braid's astounding experience with self-hypnosis, as detailed in his book Observations on Trance or Human Hybernation, served as the cornerstone for further research throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this book, he vividly describes the pain he felt during a severe attack of rheumatism, and how he completely nullified it using his version of self-hypnosis.

The early observations of Braid and Coue eventually led to the development of autogenic training and other psychological techniques by German psychiatrists Oskar Vogt and Johannes Schultz in 1932. These techniques were used extensively during World War II to treat war neuroses, shell shock, and operational fatigue.

The idea was further developed by French psychologist and pharmacist Emile Coue in the early 20th century, autosuggestion is a psychological technique that allows individuals to change their perception of themselves while also manufacturing new beliefs and habits. This is achieved using a series of repeated visualizations and verbal self-affirmations.

The Two Theories of Hypnosis

As researchers delved deeper into the science of hypnosis, two major theories arose.

The Non-State Theory - This theory suggests that hypnosis does not necessarily result in a new state of consciousness. According to the non-state theory, hypnotized subjects are always fully aware of their condition. Their behavior and the corresponding positive effects of self-hypnosis can almost entirely be attributed to the subject's expectation of the outcome, rather than an actual tangible physiological or mental change. The Non-State Theory does not discredit the effectiveness of hypnotherapy, but it classifies it as another type of placebo effect.

The State Theory - This theory proposes that individuals under some hypnotic influence will enter a completely altered state of consciousness. As demonstrated by Ernest Hilgard's research, critical conscious thoughts that often populate our conscious reality are distorted or snuffed out during hypnosis. For instance, hypnotized research subjects were able to keep their hands dipped in freezing cold water for much longer than non-hypnotized subjects in one of Hilgard's studies. This might indicate that one of their critical conscious responses (in this case, pain or discomfort) was dulled as a consequence of hypnosis.

The Process of Self-hypnosis

Self-hypnosis is often broken down into four major steps.


Regardless of whether the individual is attempting to get rid of a bad habit or simply entering a state of deep relaxation, a preliminary definition of the underlying purpose is a crucial component for a successful self-hypnosis session. Psychotherapists generally advise patients to define their goals in unambiguous and highly positive ways.


Deep breathing has been widely accepted as one of the simplest and most effective ways to achieve a state of relaxation (study). Visualizations that are generally considered soothing, such as a serene beach or a hilltop, are also used to induce a state of calmness.

Some research has shown that these meditation-based techniques for self-hypnosis can structurally alter the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for sensations of stress, anxiety, and fear. Others have attributed it to improved gray-matter density in the left hippocampus and strengthening of the posterior cingulate of the brain.

Focused trance

With recent evidence emerging in support of the State Theory of Hypnosis, a focused trance can be extrapolated as a manifestation of increased theta waves in the brain. Practitioners of self-hypnosis generally report slow rhythmic breathing and a sensation of floating effortlessly. At this stage, an individual begins to assign physical forms to the emotions and goals in their mind. If the aim is to simply enter a state of heightened relaxation, this step marks the final stage of self-hypnosis.

Self Direction

Autosuggestion is introduced in this stage. Individuals will reaffirm positive beliefs, attempt to overcome bad habits, or even forget traumatic incidents through self-suggestion.

Repeated self-hypnosis sessions with similar autosuggestions have been shown to significantly improve the probability of the individual actually achieving their personal development goal. Regardless of whether this is another form of the placebo effect or a genuine psychological shift, the effectiveness of properly framed autosuggestion is well-documented.

Research and Breakthroughs in Therapeutic Self-hypnosis

Dr. David Spiegel's Research on Post-surgical Pain Control - An Early Breakthrough

Dr. Spiegel serves as the associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the highly prestigious Stanford University School of Medicine.

After extensively studying the role of self-hypnosis, he decided to try it on himself. After undergoing stressful shoulder surgery, Dr. Spiegel limited the use of pain medication and managed to deal with post-surgical pain through self-hypnosis.

This inspired a comprehensive study that was later published in a popular scientific journal called 'Cerebral Cortex'. The study found that self-hypnosis caused reduced activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate, a part of the brain that constantly keeps patients aware of chronic pain.

Thus, after self-hypnosis, patients felt more at ease and less aware of their pain. Opioid overdose and addiction still remain a huge concern for individuals taking these medications. Dr. Spiegel's previous research has shown that self-hypnosis and positive reaffirmations can effectively cut opioid usage by half.

Treating Depression, Addiction, and Obesity

The Placebo Studies Program at Harvard Medical School remains one of the most renowned centers for psychological research. Dr. Irving Kirsch, the director of this program, has conducted in-depth research that explores the effectiveness of self-hypnosis. Several close links have been found between depression, obesity, and addiction to certain foods and substances.

In Kirsch's study, individuals receiving only cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) were contrasted with those subjected to both hypnotherapy and CBT. The second group (CBT+hypnotherapy) managed to lose twice the number of pounds as the first group. They were also more consistent in their weight loss over a follow-up period of 18 months.

Another 2006 study on clinical depression also uncovered very promising results after 16 weeks of combined CBT and self-hypnosis treatment.

Addressing Dental Phobias and other Fears and Anxieties

A revolutionary study published in the National Library of Medicine in 2015 explored the changes in various brain regions before and after hypnotherapy. Half of the experimental subjects (treatment group) chosen for the study had a history of dental phobias. After their hypnotherapy session, the participants were significantly less anxious during real dental surgeries and endodontic treatments.

With the help of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), researchers also found that the brain's fear centers were going through noticeable changes during hypnosis. Another recent study has shown that self-hypnosis can be beneficial in treating social anxiety and stage fear as well.

Treating Insomnia in Children

A 2006 study looked into the effectiveness of hypnotherapy in tackling insomnia in children aged between 7 and 17. All the participants of the study were taught self-hypnosis and instructed to use this technique regularly.

The study found that about 90% of the children who previously had issues with delayed sleep onset were able to get to sleep quickly after self-hypnosis. In some of the younger participants who suffered from insomnia as a result of intangible fears, self-hypnosis facilitated recovery by reducing their anxiety.

Self-hypnosis for Pain Management During Childbirth

After it was firmly established that self-hypnosis was an excellent means of managing pain, a 2015 study conducted an extensive randomized control trial that included qualitative interviews with women who had gone through childbirth. These women were trained to perform self-hypnosis and were asked to listen to a complimentary self-hypnosis CD for 32 weeks until the day their child was born.

After going through labor, most women reported a heightened sense of calmness and confidence during the process. It can be concluded, therefore, that self-hypnosis is a powerful tool that can go a long way in ensuring safer and less painful childbirth for women.

Other Applications

Although self-hypnosis has innumerable applications, most of these applications can be classified as pain relief, freedom from fear and anxiety, treatment of clinical depression, or general psychological well-being. Research has shown that self-hypnosis and other forms of hypnotherapy can be used to treat postmenopausal hot flashes, certain side-effects of breast surgery, fatigue in cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy, and adult irritable bowel syndrome.

Closing Notes

Besides being an outstanding technique for personal development, self-hypnosis has proved to be a vital tool in the field of medicine. Surgeons, dentists, and other practitioners are now choosing to learn hypnotherapy as a means of helping their patients cope with stress, anxiety, and fear of medical procedures. With more anecdotes and research-based evidence pouring in about the efficacy of self-hypnosis, the sheer potential of this therapy seems to be truly limitless.


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