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How does self-hypnosis work?

How does self-hypnosis work

Self-hypnosis can have a vast range of applications. It is commonly used to work with conditions such as anxiety, obesity, stress, chronic pain, skin disorders and sleep disorders, as well as alleviating symptoms and boosting health and well-being. It can be used in a focused way, such as managing a specific response to a challenging situation, or more broadly to enhance emotional regulation and boost ego strength and the ability to cope. Also, as demonstrated by using self-hypnosis for childbirth, many different self-hypnosis approaches can be utilised together for one end goal, such as bringing together hypnotic anaesthesia (to numb pain), sensation management (to change how a contraction is experienced), together with time distortion (to slow down comfortable time, and speed up uncomfortable time) as well as promoting enhanced healing (after giving birth). Many athletes and performers also use self-hypnosis for mental rehearsal too (more about that in a later blog).

It could be said that we all use self-hypnosis every day. Each time our mind drifts, or we imagine being in another situation, when we mentally rehearse telling ourselves that we can, or can’t do something (with ‘can’t’ being the most usual), we are dissociating from our present reality and giving ourselves suggestions, either directly or indirectly. This ‘self-suggestion’ is incredibly powerful in its influence of our emotions, thoughts and actions.

Some would say that each time we engage in day-dreaming we are using a form of self-hypnosis. This makes sense if you think of daydreaming as a form of consciousness, where attention becomes more focused towards our internal personal experience and away from focusing on external activities. Indeed, daydreaming is a normal, common activity. A large-scale study of 5,000 people, in 2010, indicated that most people recognise that they daydream. What may be surprising is that it can account for up to 50% of our waking time. This can be thinking about past events, future events, even ‘what if’ type events that may never happen. However, an unfocused wandering mind can be an indication of an unhappy mind.

When someone is in a situation or experience that is unpleasant, or even simply boring, then it is natural for the mind to drift to something more pleasant. There is even a perception that time engaged in boring tasks passes quicker when the mind is engaged elsewhere. When that drifting mind creates a negative mindset though, it can set up a dissatisfaction with our present life, focusing more on what we don’t have, rather than making the most of our present experience. For example, many people who have gambled, even simply with Lotto ticket, may have imagined what life would be like with millions in the bank. For most, it will be just a momentary exploration, quickly letting that thought go. For others who engage with it for longer, it can build and build, creating a highly negative perception of their present circumstances in comparison to the imaginary one. There is also the unhelpful effect of negatively-focused rumination. Have you ever thought about an upcoming meeting and considered all the things that could go wrong? This can have a super negative impact on our performance, as we will then go into that meeting expecting the worst. We have, in effect, used self-hypnosis to mentally rehearse a whole bunch of ways that we could screw things up!

However, some researchers suggest daydreaming can also have a beneficial role in creative problem solving and future thinking. Have you ever needed to make a decision on something and allowed your mind to mull it over and explore a range of possibilities whilst doing something repetitive, such as the ironing, or walking? Sometimes, it really can help to just ‘take some time away from the issue’ in order to gain a little perspective on it, and to give yourself time to objectively consider various aspects of the decision with less pressure.

Given all this information, it is reasonable to suggest that day-dreaming is a common human phenomenon. So how can we deliberately make greater use of our ability to let our mind wander? Self-hypnosis, sometimes called ‘auto-hypnosis’, can be thought of as a type of intentional, focused, purposeful day-dreaming.

Self-hypnosis, fundamentally, is giving suggestions to yourself whilst in hypnosis. The art (and science) is learning how to formulate those suggestions so that you get the most benefit from them. We often include sensory imagery to help come away from the present experience and focus better on the imaginal reality. To enhance the ‘reality’ of the situation you are experiencing in self-hypnosis it is best to engage all of the senses as completely as possible. It is thought that it is difficult for the mind to tell the difference between something vividly imagined and something in our reality. It can be helpful to imagine seeing (‘Visual’), hearing (‘Auditory’), feeling/sensing (‘Kinaesthetic’), smelling (‘Olfactory’) and tasting (‘Gustatory’) all that it is possible to experience in that imagined situation. This range of senses (‘representational systems’) is commonly referred to as ‘VAKOG’. In self-hypnosis you can use your sensory imagination to experience and make changes to still and moving mental images, sensations and overall experiences.

The breadth of aspects of our imagined experiences that can be altered doesn’t stop with our senses. We can work to reduce unpleasant emotions, such as sadness, and increase pleasant emotions such as happiness. In addition, we can make effective changes to our attitudes, beliefs, desires, habits, opinions and intellectual perspectives. As well as working with our senses, emotions and thoughts, we can make physical changes too. Self-hypnosis can be used to change or develop behaviours, gestures, actions and functional/organic processes.



You may already be using directed self-talk in the form of affirmations and mantras. These are nothing new. In fact, a popular affirmation even today is, “Every day in every way I am getting better and better”. This dates back to the 1920’s and Emile Coué, a prominent French psychologist and author of “Self-mastery through conscious autosuggestion”. Coué considered repetition essential for effective self-suggestion. It is also important to focus on one goal at a time and to keep the suggestion positive, hence “better and better”, rather than “less and less in pain”.

For some, self-suggestion is sufficient to help them move more successfully towards their goal. For others, they may benefit from using directed self-talk within the self-hypnosis process.


Factors needed for self-hypnosis

Both hypnosis and self-hypnosis have such a broad range of applications and effects, that the key factors needed for self-hypnosis to happen can vary considerably. However, there are some core elements that tend to be consistently necessary. These include:

  1. Intention – a deliberate objective to go into self-hypnosis.
  2. Motivation – a need to want to engage in self-hypnosis.
  3. Concentration – the ability to focus the mind.
  4. Direction – a defined goal or purpose (this might simply be ‘relaxation’).


Self-hypnosis supports hypnotherapy

Self-hypnosis can be a fantastic tool to support the hypnotherapy process. For example, imagine that you want to become more confident socially. Rather than have a single hypnotherapy session once a week for a few weeks, and only focus on your development for that one hour a week, a daily (or even twice daily) self-hypnosis session will reinforce all the positive gains during your therapy session and help you get even greater benefit during your next hypnotherapy session as well. Also, engaging in self-hypnosis can dramatically reduce the number of paid hypnotherapy sessions you might need, thereby saving you money as well as shortening the time required in order to reach your goal. The more experienced you become at going into and working within hypnosis (and self-hypnosis), the better you will become at optimising the work undertaken.


Self-hypnosis for standalone self-care

If you have a significant issue to work through, then it may be more helpful to start the change process with an experienced hypnotherapist and then continue the work on your own, in self-hypnosis. However, if you are working on something that you feel you have the knowledge and skills to address directly, based on your understanding of self-hypnosis approaches, then you may simply get started on your own. It can be good to have clear goals about what you want to achieve within your self-hypnosis sessions. If you are unsure on how to develop effective goals, seek some training first, such as our goal setting for hypnotherapists training course. Also, make sure that you understand the process of effective self-suggestion. This is covered in a number of our books and online courses including Rory’s Beginner’s Guide to Hypnotherapy book and our Hypnotherapy 101 online training course. Both the book and the online course give you a range of approaches for directed self-care. Remember, you are going to focus on what you want to achieve (your goal), rather than focusing on ‘reducing the problem’. For example, if you considered that you were feeling anxious about an upcoming dentist’s visit, by working to be ‘less anxious’ during the visit, you are holding on to some of that anxiety. If instead, you thought about how you wanted to be feeling (e.g. calm or confident), then you are focusing your mind productively on the desired outcome. Solution focused self-hypnosis work is generally much more effective than taking a ‘problem focused’ approach.


How to do self-hypnosis

Have we sold the concept of self-hypnosis to you yet? If so, you may now be wondering how exactly to do it. Well, there are four common approaches to performing self-hypnosis and it can be helpful to initially explore different methods to find the way that works best for you.

The first route is perhaps one you have already tried. This is the use of hypnosis recordings. Technically this is an ‘in between’ approach, as it’s not proper self-hypnosis (where you do the hypnosis process yourself), however it’s also not necessarily a proper hypnotherapy session either, as you are in control of how much you engage, and whether you follow the process much more than you would be in a bespoke session with a hypnotherapist, and also, the session isn’t designed for you specifically, so can often be a little too ‘generic’ to be really effective.

Many years ago, you may have had to go out and purchase a pre-recorded self-hypnosis tape or cassette (remember those?) and then use a separate cassette player to listen to it. Today, it is much easier to purchase a hypnosis MP3 online and within moments be listening to it on your phone, tablet or PC. As well as that, there are many MP3s that you can listen to for free on YouTube and other such sites. However, do bear in mind that anyone can record and sell/upload an MP3, regardless of their knowledge, skills and experience. This means that there are some MP3s out there that are less than helpful. Do your research and check that the person who has created the MP3 is appropriately qualified as a hypnotist/hypnotherapist. Also, be selective in your choice of MP3 and select something as closely focused as possible towards what you want to achieve. So, if you are wanting to alleviate performance anxiety, choose an MP3 for that, rather than a broader ‘anxiety MP3’. These MP3s can be a good way to initially become comfortable with the concept and mechanics of going into hypnosis without being present with a hypnotherapist directing you.

The second route is to learn how to do self-hypnosis for yourself, with a good self-hypnosis course. There are many different ways you can enter self-hypnosis, many of which may include use of imagery, such as imagining walking along a country path, up a mountain, or down a set of stairs. This gives you a destination to travel towards. It might seem that this is appears very visual, yet most people, even those who’s imagination is less visual, can get a ‘sense’ of an experience, or even imagine what it would be like to visualise it.

You may find that you will spend some time practicing how to go into and out of self-hypnosis, as well as simply enjoying being in the hypnotic state. For some, this time in self-hypnosis can be used to rest and relax, for others, it can be a time to recharge and become reinvigorated, using focused suggestions. When you are comfortable with the process, you can then start to add in specific techniques and approaches for habit change (behavioural hypnotherapy), addressing limiting beliefs (cognitive hypnotherapy), gaining insight (analytical hypnotherapy) and using resources from your past (regression hypnotherapy).

The third route becomes possible when you have an understanding of the self-hypnosis process and how to give yourself suggestions. So, if you prefer to listen to a recording rather than talk to yourself, you can create your own hypnosis MP3s. This means that you can tailor is to really closely reflect your needs at the time. You will most likely find that you will re-record the MP3 on a regular basis, as your needs will change as you move towards your goal. The disadvantages of this route are that you will need to record an MP3 and if, at any point what you want to focus on changes, you will need to record another MP3. In addition, you will need some kit, such as a phone and possibly earbuds. However, this can help reduce any distractions from the noises around you. This approach is great for people who prefer to listen in order to remain focused and on track, however it also tends to require a slightly deeper knowledge of hypnotherapy on the whole.

The final route, again for when you become experienced at going into and out of self-hypnosis is the rapid route. This involves using a trigger (such as a finger click or cue word) to rapidly go back into self-hypnosis. You can also have a trigger or cue word to rapidly re-alert (awaken from hypnosis). This approach is great when you have limited time and just perhaps want to give yourself some positive suggestions before an event (e.g. getting dental work) or performance (e.g. presentation at a meeting).

So, there are many options for learning and applying self-hypnosis, whether you’re looking to use it as a standalone approach, or as part of a broader therapy intervention. A great place to start is learning self-hypnosis in order to simply experience it, before progressing on to working on your therapy goals. If you’d like to learn more about self-hypnosis, check out our Learn Self-Hypnosis online course, which gives you everything that you need to know in order to start improving your own life with self-hypnosis (as well as how to teach self-hypnosis to your therapy clients, if that’s something that you’d like to offer).

Learn More About Self-Hypnosis


We hope that this blog that answered the question ‘how does self-hypnosis work?’ has been useful for you. If you have any questions about this topic or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!

– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks
(HypnoTC Director)

Dr Kate Beaven-Marks HypnoTC the Hypnotherapy Training Company

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