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How Hypnosis Works (Plus: A Psychiatrist Looks at the Evidence)

by Scott Haltzman, M.D.

Q. I hear advertisements on the radio for hypnosis sessions to help you quit smoking. Does this really work?

hypnosisA. When I was a child, my family would go up to the Concord, a now-defunct resort in the Catskills. There, they had nightly entertainment for the guests. I’m sure great acts like Rodney Dangerfield and Buddy Hackett made appearances, but the person I remember was the hypnotist.

The tuxedo-clad performer invited two dozen volunteers on the stage. Once he found those who were most suggestible, he put them into deep trances by counting to 10, then had them act as if they were chickens, or as if everyone in the audience were naked. It was so funny that I remember it to this day.

Sometimes, the image of the stage performer is so strong in my mind, or the minds of my patients, that it’s hard to imagine the use of hypnosis for legitimate medical reasons. But hypnosis can be a helpful tool and in some cases should be considered as a real treatment option.


The practice of hypnosis seems mysterious, but it’s based on some basic principles. When your mind is extremely relaxed, you are more suggestible and have a heightened imagination.

One example of an everyday trance might be a trip to the movies to see The Lord of the Rings. When the lights dim and the movie begins, you allow yourself to be absorbed in the moment and are open to seeing, thinking and feeling things you’d never accept in the real world.

This state of relaxation isn’t anything like the “deep sleep” stage-hypnotists talk about but more like a heightened ability to accept things into your brain—perhaps because you put your anxieties aside.

Trained professionals can induce this trance state in many people. Studies show it can help reduce pain sensation (by having your mind redefine the hurt), and anxiety symptoms associated with phobias, such as fears of elevators and flying.



There is still debate over whether hypnosis can help you quit smoking or lose weight. Sometimes people seek these types of treatment when they feel really ready, and the power of suggestion is enough to catapult them to success. But most doctors feel that it's not sufficient to rely on hypnosis. Finding ways to change negative health behaviors for the better involves understanding the triggers that make you do those bad habits and replacing hurtful activities with helpful ones.

Board-certified psychiatrist
SCOTT HALTZMAN, M.D., is the author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men, a professor at Brown University and medical director of NRI Community Services, a behavioral-health provider in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

Last updated and/or approved: April 2010. Original article appeared in summer 2007 former print magazine. Bio current as of summer 2007. This article is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.


Comments (3)add comment
Nice Article!
written by Tim Ferenchick MD , June 12, 2011

As a physician who helps a lot of smokers quit, I've found that many of them have been helped by hypnosis. It seems to work best, however, when combined with education, medications, and traditional techniques for controlling cravings.

It should be noted that hypnosis cannot help someone who does not want to quit.


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Re: Hypnosis, Smoking and Life Insurance
written by Leigh Ann , March 08, 2011

That's fantastic, Leonard. Congratulations. Thanks for sharing.

Leigh Ann Otte
Managing Editor,

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Hypnosis, Smoking and Life Insurance
written by Leonard Robbins , March 05, 2011

I am a success story when it comes to hypnosis and cigarette cessation. I stopped over 30 years ago because my hypnotist "replaced" desire with a sense of power over my craving. Now in my 60's and thinking of myself as mortal, I encourage everyone to give this great tool a try.

P.S. Did I mention my insurance premuims are one-third of smokers?

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