Hypnosis Not a Cure-All for Extinguishing the Smoking Habit

From the WebMD Archives

June 2, 2000 -- It worked for a friend, so Debbie from Virginia tried hypnosis to break her 25-year addiction to cigarettes. It didn't work. "I have been hypnotized four times, and it didn't do a thing for me," she tells WebMD. "I'd wake up ready to smoke."

Hypnotism is one of the most hyped methods of smoking cessation with lifetime guarantees and promises of little effort necessary on the part of the smoker. While hypnotism does work for some people, too often the results don't equal expectations or the promises.

Hypnosis is a state of mind during which a person's consciousness is altered and distractions blocked. It resembles sleep, but people under hypnosis are still able to concentrate intently on a memory, a particular sensation, or any other issue. The hypnotized person is alert, yet relaxed, and this relaxed state increases the ability to respond to suggestion.

According to the Boston University Medical Center, hypnotists try to change subconscious beliefs and attitudes that may be standing in a smoker's way to quitting through suggestion. Posthypnotic suggestions are those that are carried out by the person when he or she comes out of the hypnotic state. Hypnotism will not work if the person does not want to be hypnotized.

Some people expect too much from hypnosis and in that way set themselves up for failure," Irving Kirsch, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, tells WebMD. "Although positive expectations can help, it also is important to understand that hypnosis won't do the job for you. You have to be motivated to quit smoking, and you have to work on ways effectively resisting the temptation to relapse."

A new study appearing in the May edition of the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis concluded that smokers who underwent hypnosis fared better in terms of abstaining from smoking than did smokers who attempted to quit on their own, but was not necessarily better than other treatments.

In the study, researchers Joseph Green, PhD, of Ohio State University and Steven Jay Lynn, PhD, of the State University of New York at Binghamton, looked at the results of about 60 smoking and hypnosis studies conducted over the past 30 years. Success rates varied from zero to a high of 87%. However, Green tells WebMD these figures can be misleading since periods without smoking differed for each study; in some cases there were no groups used for comparison, and methods and subjects were different.

Green believes at best, people trying to quit only have about a 50-50 chance through hypnosis. "Most licensed mental health professionals recognize that smoking is a very difficult habit to overcome," Green tells WebMD, "and that even with the best treatment approach, the chances of failure ... are greater than the chances of success."

Another study also shows just how varying success rates can be. According to the Boston University Medical Center's Community Outreach Health Information System, success rates vary widely with hypnosis. Their research shows single individual sessions have success rates of 0 to 68%. Group hypnosis has been reported to have quit rates of 8 to 88%.

Still, the American Cancer Society does promote hypnosis as one of many techniques for quitting smoking. Its research found hypnosis has helped some smokers stay off tobacco for six months or longer, and the success rate for hypnosis in smoking cessation is about equal to that of other methods used today.

For Debbie -- who declined to give her last name or city -- it has a zero success rate. She first tried it with a therapist in Virginia Beach who used a two-session program. Debbie says the first night she was hypnotized to get rid of stress, and the next morning, the focus was on smoking. "Supposedly when you went to bed that night in the morning, you would have no desire to smoke," Debbie says. "I woke up in the middle of the night with a sick child and she said that's why it didn't work."

The hypnotist did offer a guarantee. If it didn't work, a third evening visit was given for free. "I woke up and within the hour was smoking cigarettes. The $300 I paid her was also up in smoke." Debbie said she knew she was hypnotized because the hypnotist made an audiotape of what was said.

The next time she tried, it was in a large group with a licensed hypnotist. "That didn't work for me or anyone else that I know of."

Gary J. Wood, PhD, tells WebMD expectations by patients and the general public are often unrealistic. "Some patients believe that hypnosis will make them quit when they really don't want to quit yet. Patients need to be truly self-motivated to really want to quit." Wood is assistant professor in the Schools of Dentistry and Social Work at the University of Southern California.

Green, who is an associate professor of psychology, says one of the key problems in determining the effectiveness of hypnosis as a smoking cessation treatment is a lack of a standard way to conduct hypnosis. Across the studies, hypnosis treatments varied in the types of questions that were asked, the number of treatments each subject underwent, and the addition of other treatments.

"Individuals seeking smoking cessation through the use of hypnosis should temper their expectations with the knowledge that for most people, changing a habit, particularly a long-term habit like smoking, requires a lot of effort," Green tells WebMD.

It's not always the patient?s fault. Wood says some practitioners are too enthusiastic in promoting the positive outcomes and stature of hypnosis for quitting smoking. "In my view, there is a need for greater standards and controls. Unfortunately, this varies by state," he adds.

Many states allow (and sometimes even certify) the practice of hypnosis by what are termed "lay hypnotists." These may be individuals that have attended hypnosis training programs but who have no formal education and training in either medicine, dentistry, psychology, social work, marriage and family counseling, or nursing. "Without the formal mental health or health training, the ability to recognize when hypnosis [isn't appropriate] is highly questionable, and there is the potential for patient harm," Wood says.

Wood says people should seek out a practitioner that is trained and licensed in one of the health or mental health disciplines and also has taken training in hypnosis. "The practitioner should be qualified to treat the patient with or without hypnosis."

Green isn't against hypnosis as an aid for quitting smoking. He just doesn't see it as an effective cure-all. "Many of my clients value hypnosis as a means to enhance confidence, promote a general sense of well-being, decrease withdrawal urges, and to help them focus their attention on the importance of their commitment to quit smoking."

For Debbie, hypnotism proved to be a major disappointment. "I finally came to the conclusion that there is no easy way to quit."