Hypnosis is powerfully ­effective mind-body medicine. But it’s under­utilized—partly because of confusion about what hypnosis can and can’t do…and because it’s too often misused and abused.

Hundreds of scientific studies show that hypnosis can help with a wide range of physical and emotional issues, including pain, depression, phobias, unwanted habits, performance enhancement and much more. But not everything called “hypnosis” is helpful.

A hypnotic trance is nothing ­extraordinary. In fact, when you’ve been so intensely focused—maybe in a book, a TV program or a craft project—that you’re unaware of your surroundings, you’ve been in a hypnotic trance. If someone asked you for a dollar bill, you would probably hand it over—because the power of suggestion is uniquely effective during a hypnotic trance.

However, since anyone can call himself/herself a hypnotist, you need to know what to look for and what to avoid. Pitfalls to watch for…

• The “hypnotist” is unqualified. There are no state or national certifications nor any formal licensing required to call yourself a hypnotist. “Training” can be a YouTube video or a three-hour course. Instead, look for training from the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis or the Society for Clinical and ­Experimental Hypnosis. Both offer programs and workshops that are open only to health professionals.

Better: In my opinion, word-of-mouth is the only way to find a competent hypnotist. If a friend has used hypnosis and it worked, ask if he would recommend his hypnotist. A good endorsement might be, “I was afraid of flying, and now I can get on a plane with no problem” or “I smoked two packs of cigarettes every day, and now I cannot stand the thought of cigarettes.” If none of your friends have tried hypnosis (or would recommend theirs), ask your doctor or dentist for a ­recommendation.

• Hypnosis masks an underlying health problem that requires medical care. Many people (and unqualified “hypnotists”) believe hypnosis can fix any problem, but it’s important to know when hypnosis should not be the first thing you try. Example: I can easily hypnotize someone with a headache to relieve the pain. But if the cause of the headache is an undiagnosed brain tumor, what the person needs most is a neurologist.

Better: A doctor visit—not hypnosis—should be the first response to a new symptom. Make sure that any underlying medical condition is appropriately addressed first.

• The hypnotic suggestions are inappropriate. Many years ago, asthmatic patients in a hospital in North Wales in the UK were hypnotized to not panic, remain calm and slowly and carefully seek help when having asthma attacks. These turned out to be terrible suggestions. Some of the asthmatics were so calm and deliberate when they had a life-threatening asthma attack that they almost died!

Better: Both hypnotist and client should evaluate the safety of the suggestions that are going to be used and write them down so that there is no ambiguity—before the client is brought to a hypnotic state.

• The hypnotist recommends long-term treatment. Some psychotherapists offer “hypno­therapy” as an adjunct to standard treatment—sometimes for a year or longer—usually as a way to uncover “repressed” material to help achieve psychological health. I don’t endorse this approach.

I believe hypnosis works rapidly and should be used for changing habits and attitudes, not for delving into the unconscious. For instance, a patient undergoing psychotherapy might benefit from one session of hypnosis to deal with a particular issue—such as unhealthy eating habits, fear of public speaking or reluctance to meet a certain person—that is preventing him from moving forward with therapy.

Better: A good hypnotist should need to see you only one or two times. Helpful: Hypnotic suggestions can “wear off.” Ask if you can record the session on your phone to replay later if you need it. Some of my clients play their recording once a week…others never, but like to keep it as a “security blanket.”

• The hypnotist helps you to “recover” a repressed memory. A memory “recovered” during hypnosis, especially a new memory about a past supposedly traumatic event, is almost always a false memory. In fact, there’s a name for this common phenomenon—false memory syndrome. Problem: Such memories are usually “recovered” by a therapist with an agenda, such as proving that you’re a victim of childhood sexual abuse, something that’s too easy for a hypnotist to create and reinforce.

Better: If you don’t remember an event when you’re not in a hypnotic trance, it probably didn’t happen.

• You’re hypnotized on stageand feel anxious afterward. I love stage hypnosis! But I never volunteer to be hypnotized, and I don’t think you should either. A stage hypnotist rapidly induces a hypnotic state and rapidly ends it. If your mental state is at all fragile—if you’re stressed or didn’t sleep well the night before—such rapid transition into and out of a hypnotic state could create a few days of mental imbalance and anxiety.

Better: Enjoy the show, but don’t participate!

HOW I DO HYPNOSIS WITH MY CLIENTS…

I start a session by informally chatting with a client to establish a comfortable rapport.

We then decide together on verbal suggestions—the words I will say, slowly and deliberately, while he/she is in a hypnotic state. Example: For a claustrophobic client scheduled for an MRI, we agreed that I would suggest that the cramped quarters of the MRI machine were a protective womb…and that the loud noise was a lullaby that would put her to sleep.

Finally, I help the client enter a hypnotic state. A typical session takes about one hour, ­although the actual hypnosis portion is usually about 20 minutes. I suggest that my clients record their sessions, but some of my clients prefer instead to return to my office for another session when or if they feel they need reinforcement.