Q: Is hypnotherapy effective for generalized anxiety and panic disorders?

A: Hypnosis is not just a parlor trick. When taken seriously, it is an effective relaxation technique. And some people say it helps manage their anxiety.

Here's how it works: You're invited to relax. You focus your attention inward. You use your imagination to alter your perceptions.

The hypnotherapist may make suggestions. But he or she cannot control you. You remain alert and in control of your own thoughts and actions.

The goal of hypnosis is to divert your attention. By turning your thoughts away from what's bothering you, you may find some relief.

Some people are more easily hypnotized than others. This trait is called "hypnotizability." About 10 percent of people are highly hypnotizable. About 10 percent can't be hypnotized at all. The vast majority of adults can enter at least a light hypnotic state.

Psychotherapy and anti-anxiety medications are still the most effective anxiety treatments. But hypnosis is worth trying, especially if you're motivated and reasonably able to be hypnotized.

Hypnosis rarely gets rid of all anxiety symptoms. Sometimes hypnosis can reduce the physical discomfort of anxiety disorders (muscle tension, trembling, unsettled stomach, or rapid breathing). By controlling physical symptoms, you prevent them from making you more anxious.

Panic anxiety symptoms are forceful and concentrated, so they're tough to manage with hypnosis. But hypnosis may help you master your fear of the things that trigger panic.

A hypnotherapist may be a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or psychiatric nurse. Whoever you consult, that person should be licensed in their field.

Also, don't start hypnosis for anxiety unless you've seen someone who's trained to evaluate your anxiety symptoms first. That person should be able to provide or refer you for whatever anxiety treatment you may need.

(Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Mass. He is a Senior Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publications.)

For additional consumer health information, please visit http://www.health.harvard.edu.)