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What would you most like to change about yourself? Reading through the list of issues that hypnotherapy claims to help is like scanning through a menu, although instead of deliberating between salmon and sea bass, you are choosing a new, better, happier you. You can work on anxiety, public speaking, giving up smoking, weight loss, phobias, confidence, and a range of other conditions. Unless you’ve got the ego of Morrissey, chances are you’ll find something about yourself that you’d like to improve.
I go in with some healthy scepticism but an open mind. As an enthusiastic reader of Freud and Jung I know better than to underestimate the power of the subconscious mind; on the other hand, I am naturally suspicious of ‘alternative’ medicine. Hypnotherapy is an attractive idea – the results are ostensibly instantaneous and permanent – but it does have a whiff of the ‘too good to be true’.
Nevertheless, the technique has been recognised by some respectable sources. A New Scientist article suggested that it is the most effective way to quit smoking, and a recent report suggested that the NHS should offer hypnosis as a standard treatment to relieve pain and stress-related conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Chloe Brotheridge, a fully qualified hypnotherapist registered with the National Council for Hypnotherapy, tells me that this is because “it’s very good for regulating breath and adapting to dietary changes. It’s also recommended by the British Medical Journal for pain and various disorders like stress” – although, to be fair, this prestigious endorsement dates back to 1892. There is also the obligatory Hollywood factor, with fans that include Matt Damon, Ellen Degeneres and Tiger Woods.
When I arrive, the ‘Easy Way to Change’ clinic is a mix of hippie and antiseptic: there is a dream-catcher in the entrance, and the air smells clean and fresh, like chlorine. The walls are painted a pure white and covered in retro prints of London. I am greeted by Chloe: blonde, pretty, and with an aura of serenity about her that is encouraging. She also offers lifestyle and diet advice on Twitter and Facebook, with recent posts about kale and green smoothies.
I am ushered into a warm, cosy room with a couch and soft lighting. We start with half an hour of questioning about what I feel the issue is and what I would like to change. This is comprehensive and probing, but never intrusive. I choose to focus on decreased stress and increased confidence: you can never have too much of either. Then I lie back in a plush recliner that turns out to be an incredible ‘zero-gravity chair’, which brings my legs up to the same level as my head.
During the hypnosis, all you do is breathe, relax, and listen: there is no need to talk or respond. Chloe tells me to take deep breaths and relax my body, starting from my feet and working up to my head, much like the final relaxation in yoga. What happens after this varies from person to person, depending on whether they are better at imagining things visually, using words, or some other way. You experience a pleasant feeling that is simultaneously light and heavy: you could theoretically move, but it is such a warm, fuzzy sensation that you would be foolish to do so. I feel my breathing slow down and become more regular. I’m not sure I would call it a trance – your mind is still fully awake and conscious – but definitely a state of deep relaxation.
At the start I find myself thinking ‘I’m doing this wrong, this isn’t going to work on me,’ but Chloe pre-empts this objection by telling me it’s OK to let my mind wander: my subconscious, she says, will pick up her words anyway. This is reassuring, and gradually I stop worrying and just enjoy the sensation. Chloe’s voice, reassuring and soothing, guides me through a series of visualisations and a variation of key phrases and words. This is effective, Chloe later tells me, because “hypnosis deals with the subconscious part of the mind, at a deeper level, the things you can’t consciously control. The subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between a really vividly imagined experience and something that’s really happened.” Throughout, you are tranquil: your legs feel like they are resting on air, and your body tingles with pleasure and relaxation.
After about 45 minutes, I am asked to slowly come back. At the end I feel physically and mentally relaxed, but also full of energy, excited to see whether I can detect a difference. I go for two sessions to consolidate the effect. The second time I find it easier to unwind and enter the ‘zone’, and just allow myself to enjoy the experience. Patients usually go for 3-6 treatments, compared to 15-30 for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and 90+ in psychoanalysis. The treatment is said to be permanent, and the lasting effects are meant to be fully noticeable a week or two after the first session. After the hypnosis you can still remember everything that was said, and at various points in the next few days the key words come back to me subconsciously. Clients can also be taught to self-hypnotise, so they can continue their treatment at home.
Of course, there are limitations: the patient has to want to change as well, sometimes it doesn’t work, and serious cases such as clinical depression need more specialist treatment. It also works more on certain people than on others, as someone who is extremely sceptical about hypnotherapy is less likely to draw benefits from it. “Everyone is different, and everyone changes at different rates, but for most people and most issues, people get good results,” says Chloe. “But it’s not a magic wand, unfortunately, and you can’t make someone change if they don’t have the commitment or motivation themselves. I wouldn’t say I have a 100% rate – and if anyone says they do, they’re lying.”
After the two sessions, I can’t say I notice a huge difference in myself: my personality hasn’t been radically overhauled, and I am still very much ‘me’. But I do find myself feeling a little bit calmer, more confident, and am finding it easier to concentrate on whatever I am doing. How far is it just a placebo? I can’t tell. Let’s be totally clear: I’m not a doctor, I didn’t do any large-scale empirical testing, and I’m only going on my own experience. It could all just be in my head, but even if it is, I’m feeling fairly serene and it’s a good sensation. In the end, I would recommend it to a friend – if just to experience how pleasant the ‘trance‘ feeling is – provided they go to it with an open mind and realistic expectations.
If you’d like to contact Chloe Brotheridge, visit her website: