“Is hypnosis safe?” Hypnosis is safer than most things. Drugs carry the risk of side effects, surgery carries the risk of complications and infection, while hypnosis doesn’t.
The most common issue with hypnosis is when the hypnotist goes solely for the symptom itself. Sometimes the symptom is just a nuisance and it will go away forever if the unconscious mind is asked to do this in a way it understands. Sometimes the symptom serves a purpose, and removing it can cause trouble.
For example, what happens when a smoker who has forgotten how to relax without lighting up goes to see a bad hypnotist? His real problem is that his unconscious mind has built up a false belief that “relaxation is impossible without smoking.” The smoker likely doesn’t realize this consciously. He needs to replace this belief with something more helpful: that’s the key to solving his problem. But a bad hypnotist will ignore the belief and work only on the smoking itself. In this situation, three outcomes are possible:
- He starts smoking again. This is the most likely result.
- He finds an alternative way of relaxing. Since the selection of a new means of relaxation is probably made by the same process that previously decided that “smoking is good,” the new method may just as bad. People who gain weight after quitting probably fall into this category.
- He’ll be a non-smoker who is constantly stressed out.
No one needs to suffer from these outcomes. A good hypnotist works to help you correct these limiting beliefs so that your inner conflicts are resolved and your life runs along more comfortably than before. It can take a few sessions to take care of all of them, but your unconscious mind already knows what its own limiting beliefs are, and in hypnosis it can tell us what they are, so it’s mostly a matter of knowing the right way to ask. If something you don’t like crops up after a session, that just means that the unconscious mind has told us about a previously unsuspected issue, and we’ll deal with it in the next session. Very soon, we’ll take care of the very last one, and then it’s clear sledding all the way.
Another way people get into trouble is by thinking “I’ll behave better if I make myself feel worse than I already do.” Hey, if feeling bad were the road to success, we’d all be billionaires by now! And this approach can have strange side effects. A client went to a hypnotist and said that he wanted to stop smoking, and he really hated the taste of cod liver oil, so he wanted cigarettes to taste like cod liver oil. At his next appointment, he proudly stated that he hadn’t smoked at all since the last session, then he took a bottle of cod liver oil out of his pocket and took a swig. Uh-oh…
What about false memories? Hypnosis gained a bad reputation for implanting false memories even, though most of the notorious false-memory cases came from mental-health professionals who didn’t use hypnosis. It’s easy to confuse people about what happened and what didn’t just by asking leading questions (which is why it’s against the rules for lawyers to ask witnesses leading questions). Properly trained hypnotherapists do their work without asking leading questions. The human brain never really forgets anything of importance anyway, and in hypnosis the unconscious mind will tell us what happened (if it feels like it), so why bother guessing in the first place? It serves no purpose.
A good hypnotist can undo any of this (dehypnotize). Hypnosis is a powerful tool, and if used sloppily it can cause collateral damage. Fortunately, any such problems are easily reversed by any hypnotist who really knows his business. People need to understand this: hypnosis is not supposed to involve painful trade-offs, but helps you find ways of going forward that both work better and feel better that before.