When you think of hypnosis, there's a good chance one or all of the following images flood your mind. A quack doctor standing in front of you waving a pendulum that looks like a prop from the set of Austin Powers. A caucasian sorcerer clad in an expensive dashiki wearing a purple turban with a colossal jewel on the front. A woman (always a woman) falling for the power and charms of a male doctor (always a man) who uses hypnotism to take advantage of her because doctors so often have trouble scoring women without tricking them (said no one ever).
But our fresh interest in all things wellness — from Ayurveda to healing crystals to essential oils and medicinal foods — has spurred many of us to open our minds to alternative health solutions for both physical and mental well-being. Sigmund Freud may have famously rejected hypnotism in favor of what we now consider traditional forms of psychoanalysis and free association, but the idea that we can unlock our unconscious minds and find another route to understanding our fears hasn't lost its allure. And hypnotism is experiencing a mini-resurgence of sorts.
Now, let's just get this out of the way, shall we? Hypnosis isn't mind control, and it isn't a tool used to make you do or say things against your will.
"Hypnosis is a deep state of relaxation with an acute focus," says Alexandra Janelli, a certified hypnotherapist and life coach at Theta Spring Hypnosis in New York City. "There are two parts of your mind: The conscious mind and subconscious mind. Hypnosis works with the subconscious."
She continues, "If you have a fear of dogs, this association is stored here in the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind has no logic, deductive reasoning or willpower. It's purely reactive. What hypnosis does is it helps quiet down the conscious mind, which is where the logic, reason, deductive reasoning does live, and goes into the subconscious mind to implant hypnotic suggestions for creating new associations that can better serve you. Should these suggestions be accepted, then a new behavior can be enacted in your life."
Hypnotherapy sometimes delves into your past, but is really about the now, Janelli says. She says hypnotherapy can be a good adjunct to help you get past certain blockades, but like every wellness and health avenue, it has its limitations, namely this one: Most hypnotherapists are not trained psychologists or therapists. And there are even times when Janelli says she will recognize a client's need to talk to a traditional therapist about issues that she feels cannot be resolved solely with hypnosis.
Hypnosis can be used to treat so many fears and anxieties — I'm talking everything from depression and post-trauma anxiety to sleep disorders and even addiction to cigarettes and other vices. I kind of felt like a kid in a candy store, assuming instead of selling Jolly Ranchers and chocolate bars, all the shelves in the store displayed many absurd phobias.
I started with my insane fear of bugs.
A good hypnotherapist should dedicate a chunk of time (more than an hour in my case) to simply talking to a patient and getting an understanding of her anxieties while learning a bit about her life. As someone who has seen, on and off, traditional therapists since age 21, I feel better equipped to tell therapists what they want to hear than most people. I touched upon the usual — control issues that stem from my parents' separation, food issues, anxiety over my own mortality, blah, blah, blah. At a certain point in therapy, you begin to bore yourself to death.
But, from the get-go, Janelli cut through the now-tell-me-what-happened-when-you-were-5 mumbo jumbo and hit the nail right on the head. She asked me a few questions about my past experiences with bugs and honed in on one specific example of how, on my first night sleeping alone in a new apartment years back — an experience that I wasn't confident I could handle at the time — I spotted a huge cockroach casually sauntering across the hardwood floor. It triggered in me a feeling I've experienced many times since: safety is nothing more than an illusion. And anything from the outside world — be it a burglar who would laugh at my front-door lock or an army of bugs that outnumber me — can hijack my comfort zone.
Twenty minutes before the end of our session, Janelli made good on her promise to hypnotize me. Now that I had learned slightly more about my phobia, hypnosis could possibly open up my subconscious and provide even more insight needed to change how I viewed bugs.
I sat in a large, comfy chair with a foot rest. Janelli turned on a white noise machine and instructed me to focus my eyes on one corner of the room. She spoke in a low monotone voice and simply instructed me to focus on various feelings in my body. After a few minutes, it started to feel as though my arms and legs were little more than dead weight. I didn't want to sleep, but I was completely relaxed in a way I could only achieve with a glass or two of wine.
Because you go through the hypnotic state when you go to sleep and wake up, hypnosis is a natural state that everyone is capable of achieving, Janelli told me. However, if a user does not want to be hypnotized they cannot be. You are always in control at all times and you would never do anything you wouldn’t want to do. "If you didn’t want to be in the hypnotic state, a user will just open their eyes," Janelli says.
The feeling of being hypnotized truly is like crossing over into a realm that is neither a sleep nor waking state. It's the best day of meditation you've never experienced but have read about in books. While my body felt like it was being pulled down under the ocean, my mind was 100 percent lucid and capable of envisioning, without effort, all of the images Janelli was attempting to create for me to induce relaxation.
And then, before I knew it, Janelli was pulling me out of my light hypnotic state by simply talking me back into a fully awake state.
Did hypnosis cure my fear of bugs? No, at least not yet. The same way it can take years of traditional therapy to help with a problem or anxiety, you can't expect miracles from hypnosis. And it's isn't cheap. Most insurance companies won't cover the cost of hypnotherapy, and depending on where you live, one session can cost around $200.
Unfortunately, there is still a lack of education about hypnosis, Janelli says, which will only make it more difficult for patients interested in this option to seek it and cover the cost of therapy.
"There is a lot of skepticism around hypnosis for a variety of reasons," Janelli says. "However, I have worked with many doctors (medical, psychological, etc.) who have seen great benefits from our work together. Part of my job is to always teach people about what it is and what it is not — debunking the myths to bring it to the forefront of alternative treatments. While it's not a cure-all, it is certainly a powerful tool that can aid in someone's process."
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