Does the idea of hypnosis bring to mind a well-dressed gentleman swinging a pocket watch, commanding you to bark like a dog when he claps his hands?

You’re not alone in that. Many people see hypnosis as nothing more than a performance or stage trick. How can it work, if it’s not possible to control someone’s mind?

It’s true: Mind control doesn’t lie within the realm of possibility, but true hypnosis doesn’t involve any type of control. It’s simply a method for putting you in a relaxed state of consciousness, similar to a meditative state or trance, where you focus your attention internally.

This state of extreme relaxation can, however, make you more receptive to certain suggestions. When used by a trained professional, hypnosis can have many therapeutic benefits, including reduced pain and anxiety.

Hypnotherapy, or the use of hypnosis in therapy, can also help bring about behavioral change for some people. Scientific research looking at hypnotherapy for alcohol use disorder is still limited, but it may be worth a try.

If you want to cut back on alcohol use or quit entirely, you’ve probably explored some potential strategies: cold turkey, Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups, therapy, self-help strategies, even hypnosis.

Here’s what the research says.

Evidence

A recent study looking at hypnotherapy for alcohol use disorder compared this treatment to motivational interviewing, a widely accepted treatment for substance use disorder.

This study involved 31 adults in an inpatient treatment program for alcohol use disorder. They were randomly assigned to two different groups. All attended group counseling and activities, but they also received 1 hour of individual therapy each week.

One group received motivational interview therapy, or treatment as usual. The other group received hypnotherapy instead.

Hypnotherapy, as used in this study, involved asking each participant to visualize themselves mastering urges to drink alcohol in various ways, such as:

  • remaining calm in a situation when stress might trigger an urge to drink
  • passing up a drink at a social event
  • choosing not to enter a liquor store

When following up on the study a year later, researchers found evidence to suggest the following:

  • All participants who responded to the follow-up reported a significant decrease in alcohol use.
  • Participants in the hypnotherapy group reported slightly less emotional distress.
  • Nine participants in the hypnotherapy group reported complete abstinence, as opposed to seven participants in the motivational interview group.

While this small study has a few limitations, including the fact that the two therapies only formed part of a broader treatment approach, the results do suggest hypnotherapy could have some benefit, though it may not have much more benefit than other types of therapy.

Potential explanations

Hypnotherapy’s benefits could relate to its potential for reducing certain mental health symptoms.

Scientific evidence offers more support for hypnotherapy’s benefits in the relief of anxiety, depression, and stress, though research here also remains fairly limited.

If you use alcohol to manage some of these issues, then, hypnotherapy might be particularly helpful.

It’s also been suggested that hypnotherapy may help promote behavioral change. Since modifying drinking habits would count as a type of behavioral change, this could support the use of hypnotherapy for quitting drinking.

Further research, including larger randomized trials, may offer more support for hypnotherapy’s use in treating alcohol use disorder. Future studies might also shed more light on how long these benefits last.

The process of hypnotherapy is fairly straightforward.

Here’s what you can expect when trying hypnotherapy for alcohol use:

  1. You’ll discuss goals with your hypnotherapist. Do you want to drink less overall? Avoid binge drinking? Stop drinking entirely? They’ll also ask about your typical habits around alcohol use.
  2. Your hypnotherapist will talk you through the process and make sure you feel comfortable.
  3. When you’re ready, your therapist helps you enter a relaxed state, generally by helping you visualize soothing, peaceful images.
  4. Your hypnotherapist may ask you to close your eyes or focus on something visually, such as a candle flame.
  5. Once you feel fully relaxed, they help you visualize specific scenarios involving alcohol, like a time when you chose not to drink and felt good about it. Then, you imagine a situation, such as a stressful fight with your partner, and suggest potential coping methods that don’t involve alcohol.
  6. Your therapist may also ask you to imagine and describe yourself in the future once you’ve successfully addressed your alcohol use.
  7. Once your hypnotherapist guides you through these suggestions and visualization exercises, they will speak calmly to help bring you out of the hypnotic state.

When you leave the hypnotic state, you’ll likely feel calm and peaceful. You’ll also remember what happened, including those visualizations of yourself achieving goals related to alcohol use.

This may be what makes hypnosis effective. Visualization tricks your brain, in a way. Imagining yourself doing something makes it easier to believe you’ve already done it. This increases your confidence.

In short, if you believe you can stop drinking, you have a higher chance of success.

Not everyone has access to a hypnotherapist, or therapy in general. If you can’t or don’t want to try professional hypnotherapy, you might wonder whether you can attempt it on your own.

You certainly have plenty of options, ranging from YouTube videos to apps that guide you through the process of self-hypnosis. But do these actually work?

Research from 2013 suggests that, while apps could possibly help you hypnotize yourself, most of them don’t rely on scientific evidence, and few have been checked by a medical or mental health professional for quality. So, sure, they could help, but they might not do much either.

Other approaches to self-hypnosis may have more benefits, though.

Research from 2004 suggests self-hypnosis audiotapes designed to boost feelings of self-esteem and serenity as well as reduce anger and anxiety may help people maintain sobriety.

More recent research from 2019 suggests that self-hypnosis tools have more effect if you’ve already participated in hypnotherapy with a trained professional.

DIY tips

If you want to try self-hypnosis, keep these pointers in mind:

  • Look for resources, whether that’s an app, YouTube video, or audiobook, created by (or with input from) mental health professionals.
  • Consider doing a session or two with a hypnotherapist first.
  • Ask your healthcare provider if they can recommend any self-hypnosis guides.
Healthline

When attempting to address alcohol use, it’s best to seek support from a trained professional.

Generally speaking, the most effective treatment plans take a comprehensive approach to care. Whether you try inpatient or outpatient treatment, your plan might involve some combination of the following:

  • group therapy
  • individual counseling
  • family counseling
  • 12-step programs or other support groups
  • medication

If you feel ready for treatment, your healthcare provider can help connect you with resources in your area.

You can also start your search with free support from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or through therapist directories such as Psychology Today.

Some therapists who provide addiction recovery support will also offer hypnotherapy. If you can’t find a hypnotherapist who specializes in addiction treatment, just let any hypnotherapists you’re considering know your desired therapy outcomes.

Research on hypnosis as part of therapy, particularly in treating alcohol use disorder, is still in the early stages. But there’s no evidence to suggest it can cause harm when provided by a trained hypnotherapist.

Hypnosis may not work for everyone, so if you don’t find it helpful, don’t worry. Not every treatment works for everyone, and you have plenty of other options.


Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.