The lake stretches before me as I hover above a half-moon sliver of beach. A warm breeze rustles the boughs of soaring pines hugging the shoreline. On the horizon, the rays of the setting sun spin threads of copper and gold across an expanse of sky, the colors reflecting in the rippled surface of the lake. A feeling of tranquil alertness envelops me. It’s almost magical, this sense that all is right with the world. Except there is no magic—and no lake or sunlight or sandy beach. I’m not floating. I’m lolling in a cushy faux-leather chair, soft music pouring into my ears through bulky headphones as I listen to a woman’s soothing voice telling me to imagine the lake and golden light.
I’ve been hypnotized. My mind is completely relaxed, free from normal anxiety and worry. I have “gone under,” a phrase most people use when referring to the trancelike state of hypnosis. When I awaken an hour later, I’ll feel like I’ve had a three-hour nap and shed 10 pounds of stress in the process. Releasing myself from anxiety and quashing a habit of gobbling sugar to deal with it was the point of undergoing hypnotherapy. Others who seek out hypnotherapy—the real thing, not the hokey hypnosis seen on television and in stage acts where hypnotized audience members cluck or moo or crow on cue—are looking for help to stop smoking, lose weight, overcome test anxiety or to simply find relief from some ongoing stressor in their lives.
With hypnosis, you reach an intensely focused but disassociated state of mind where consciousness steps aside and yields the floor to the subconscious, says Becky Whetstone, a Little Rock marriage-and-family counselor who uses hypnosis to complement traditional “talking” therapy. Once the subconscious has been tapped into, it’s possible to address it directly—“Hey there, subconscious. You want to eat more healthy foods”—and change the way you think and feel.
Think of it in computer terms, as a way of rewriting our mental and emotional “hard drives,” says Penny Rea, a certified hypnotherapist in Little Rock. Over the years, we’ve programmed our brains for certain behaviors—perhaps smoking a cigarette while drinking coffee, eating cookies when feeling sad or nail-biting when nervous. “By using hypnosis, we can go into that computer file, hit the delete button and rewrite the hard drive to replace the negative thought with a positive one,” Rea says.
Hypnosis is a process of guided imagery and progressive relaxation, Rea and Whetstone say. A hypnotherapist may tell you to visualize something like a lake at sunset to ease you into a restful state of mind. Then the therapist will talk you through a systematic head-to-toe loosening of muscles until you feel like your body has melted into a puddle of repose. At any time, you’re able to wake up and leave. “Hypnosis is all about free will,” Rea says.
Any talk of conscious and subconscious states of mind has the potential to sound a little new-agey and out there, but science has shown that hypnosis can be a powerful tool for healing. Medical research at Harvard University and the University of Washington at Seattle suggests that hypnosis reduces pain and speeds healing. Hypnosis can even spirit away warts, according to a Tulane University study of patients whose warts wouldn’t respond to any other treatment. Researchers believe changes in brain-wave patterns may be the key to this. When you’re awake, you’re cruising on beta waves that keep you alert and focused. When you’re relaxed, your mind shifts to the more gentle alpha waves that allow us to daydream. When hypnotized, you’re more deeply relaxed and riding theta waves—the same ones present during the dream cycle of sleep—into a meditative state. You may feel like you’re floating, yet be fully aware that you’re not.
A fully hypnotized state—one in which an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine would reveal a rise in theta waves—bears the potential to leave you feeling liberated from physical aches and pains and unbound by worry and distress. Your mind drifts as the therapist speaks softly to your subconscious about the changes you want to make, perhaps asking you to imagine gazing into a mirror to see yourself as you want to be. You’re open to the suggestion of possibilities that you might have found challenging before. “For hypnosis to work, you have to want it to work,” Whetstone says. “You have to believe.”
I believed. After I left my imaginary lake and opened my eyes, the world seemed brighter. Since then, I’ve been lighter of spirit and able to handle stress without reaching for cookies and ice cream. Anxiety is no longer a default state of being.
“Every time you go into a relaxed state of hypnosis, you’re resetting the connections in your brain,” says Whetstone. “And that’s nourishing for your mind, body and spirit.”