Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

Self Help Patrol: Hypnotherapy

I didn’t think hypnosis could help me stop procrastinating. I was pleasantly surprised

There’s almost nothing I won’t do to avoid grading papers. Time in the classroom with my students is a font of Dead Poets Society–style inspiration and joy, but the grading… my god, the grading. Imagine walking a narrow, shadowy path on either side of which are craggy cliffs, but when you look closely it turns out the cliffs are made of stacks of student essays, and the only way to get past them to the glowing light called Winter Break is to read Every. Single. One. I know: I’m screaming, too, usually while running in the opposite direction.

Enter the hypnotherapist. Hypnotherapy websites promise the practice can help you resolve your issues with smoking, perfectionism, extra weight, low self-esteem, stress, grief and a host of other things, including procrastination. The idea is that through a series of verbal cues, the hypnotherapist eases the patient’s mind into a semiconscious and much more impressionable state, during which the therapist can implant suggestions that the patient’s mind interprets as its own thoughts and instructions. These implanted ideas can then lead to changed behavior. And really, is there a better way for me to put off grading papers than seeking treatment for my procrastination problem? I submit that there is not.

Goal

I have 100 papers and 50 finals to grade before my winter break can really begin. The winter break part should be inducement enough, and yet I find myself doing literally anything but grading (hello, beautifully organized closet). I’ve got to find a way to get through this work before the rest of December slips through my fingers. If putting my highly suggestible subconscious mind in the hands of a total stranger can help me, I’m willing to give it a shot.

Method

Hypnotherapy sessions are usually somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes. The first part involves an interview where you explore your issue in detail, giving the hypnotherapist the tools and language they’ll use to pull together your script. The second part is the hypnosis itself: a kind of guided meditation during which the hypnotherapist puts you into a trance state and then talks you through the new ideas your subconscious mind is supposed to absorb. Afterward, you’re typically given a recording of your session so you can keep treating yourself at home for as long as necessary.

Treatment

Last week I went to an unassuming office in Santa Monica, where I met my gentle and surprisingly young hypnotherapist. I sat in a recliner that felt like a cloud while he asked me a series of questions about myself, my history and my manifold problems with procrastination. We talked about my professional goals and what inspires me to do the work I do. He asked what causes me stress, what kind of physical object my stress would be, and how I would get rid of it. He also asked what my relationship to grading would be like in my ideal world. There were a lot of questions like this, questions that asked me to look at the hard parts of my job and life in a new light.

Then came the hypnosis. I put the recliner most of the way back, and the hypnotherapist gave me a heavy blanket. He then proceeded to talk me through a relaxation process that involved choosing two points on the ceiling and shifting my eyes between them, which felt more like a technique to get my brain focused on a task than an activity that was important for its own sake. But it helped. Before I knew it we were counting down the steps on a dark staircase and I was… well, I guess I was hypnotized.

During the hypnosis, I was deeply aware of the weight of the blanket on me and the heaviness of my limbs, neither of which was unpleasant. I could hear street traffic, including the sirens of an ambulance that went by, and I could hear my phone buzzing away in my purse (my professor friends commiserating about end-of-semester woes in a big group text, it turns out), but I didn’t care about any of that. I didn’t care about the hypnotherapist either, though I could hear him, too, if I focused on his voice — but mostly I didn’t. I just let my mind wander in a half-waking, half-dozing state, not entirely sure what was real or not and not much interested in the distinction. And when I was brought out of hypnosis after about 20 minutes, I wasn’t groggy at all. Quite the opposite, in fact: I felt that kind of quiet alertness that comes with being fully rested.

Results

I had to sign a form promising I wouldn’t listen to the recording while driving, and it’s a good thing, too. I have no idea what the recording even says, because I can’t stay awake long enough to find out. I never get past the part where the most beautiful color I can think of is swirling up through my feet and ankles, helping me to relax. I drop like a stone into deep sleep, and I don’t wake up in the middle of the night like I usually do. If nothing else, I’m getting the best sleep I’ve had in years.

As far as the grading itself, since that night I’ve been making steady progress — much more than in the weeks prior. But the biggest change is in the way I think about it. I don’t have the same rock-in-my-stomach dread about it that I did before. I do it, and it’s not torture, and when I meet my goals I stop working for the night without feeling guilty.

Whether this is a result of all the reframing I did with the therapist before the hypnosis started or of the hypnotic suggestion itself, I can’t say. What I do know is that unlike my previous experiences with cognitive behavioral therapy, I don’t have to make a conscious effort to see those mountains of essays in this new light. I just suddenly seem to have a weirdly healthy approach to the whole thing. It’s hard to believe I’m saying this, but I think it worked? I think it worked.

Conclusions

Skeptics have doubted hypnotherapy since it was first popularized in the 18th century (no less illustrious personages than Benjamin Franklin and King Louis XVI were key players in the earliest known investigation in the 1780s). In the 20th century, hucksters swinging gold watches and making unsuspecting dupes bark like dogs for Las Vegas audiences became the stuff of legend.

These images dominate popular understandings of hypnosis, and I certainly had them in mind when I walked into that office. But when I did a little digging later, I found out that clinical hypnosis has had the imprimatur of major medical institutions like the American Psychological Association for nearly six decades. Though they later rescinded their backing, the American Medical Association’s 1958 endorsement of hypnotherapy paved the way for the thousands of studies that have been conducted since, affirming its applications for “phobias, addictions, and chronic pain.” While hypnosis is no magic cure-all, it turns out that its shady reputation is at least to some degree undeserved.

You certainly have to buy in for hypnotherapy to work. I’m a skeptic from way back and I like my brain to be in charge, but I decided that I was going to see what happened without trying to think my way through it. I wanted to give this a fair shot, and I was pretty pleased with the results, enough that I’ve been talking it up — but only to the select group of people I trust not to look at me like my head’s just floated away or accuse me of being controlled by Satan. Whatever cultural stigma remains around it clearly affects me enough that I’ve been hesitant to broadcast it (uh, except here). Hypnotherapy probably isn’t for everyone, but it was, surprisingly, for me, and maybe it’s for you, too? Don’t worry — if I see you in the waiting room, I won’t tell.