I have something to get off my chest that’s been eating at me for years. Back in 2019, I was seeking a quick fix to an imminent mental health crisis.
Generally, a trained therapist or healthcare professional puts you in a trance-like state, and uses words and imagery to help you overcome stress, anxiety, or an unwanted behavior, like smoking.
I really wanted it to work. The therapist, Tiffany (not her real name), bless her heart, was trying so hard. She had mostly five-star reviews on Yelp, with people saying she had transformed their lives.
I really didn’t want to let her down, and I didn’t want to be the one who couldn’t be transformed. I also didn’t want to live in a reality where I paid $300 per session — a total of $900! — for nothing.
So, I lied. I pretended to be hypnotized while lying on Tiffany’s musty couch in her rambling apartment/office. I made up the details of a past-life regression during the third of a series that was supposed to be five hypnotherapy sessions.
I never went back, but the lies didn’t stop there. In an attempt to will my own healing into existence, I acted as if the treatment was successful; I told almost everyone in my life about it. I posted about it on Instagram, mentioned it at parties, and talked about it at work.
Many folks I have met in years since have heard me rattle on about my hypnosis experience and how meeting my inner child and confronting myself in a previous life was instrumental in my journey to overcome relationship trauma.
In this four-year trance of lies, I spent a lot of time thinking about hypnotherapy. I wondered if there was something wrong with me, that I just can’t be hypnotized. Or is the whole field one big scam?
Or maybe I just didn’t meet the right person, and someday, another hypnotherapist — the one — will finally come along and take me on a healing journey into the promised land. I say this because, in confronting my web of deception, I had to come to terms with another hard truth. My trauma remains unhealed.
I decided to dig deeper, to talk to people who had actually benefited from hypnotherapy as well as experts in the field. Is hypnotherapy real? Who is mostly likely to benefit? And what went wrong with my sessions?
Here’s what I found out about hypnotherapy, and why it didn't work for me. (And what to know if you are thinking about trying hypnosis as part of therapy.)
How it all went down
My story begins just over a year after my divorce. I had numbed myself into a state of just-fineness — threw myself into work, surrounded myself with friends, and spent time outside with my dog, all the things that people tell you that you’re supposed to do in order to forget your ex. Staying in constant motion was a coping mechanism I used to avoid confronting my trauma and mourning the loss of something I had thought was forever. You wouldn’t know from looking at my smiling face, but inside, I was an emotional time bomb awaiting detonation.
It was the worst possible time to meet the newest man of my dreams. But then, there he was, standing right in front of me. The next thing I knew, we were a thing, and this new vulnerability brought intense anxiety. I needed to address my issues around intimacy and abandonment — and fast.
That’s where Tiffany comes in. She was a hypnotherapist with reviews that were so promising. Some folks said she helped them to lose weight or advance in their careers. I zeroed in particularly on the people who said Tiffany helped liberate them from pain in the aftermath of past toxic relationships, to make room for a future something good.
Me next, I thought to myself. Tiffany said her process was gradual, and that patients commit to five two-hour sessions for $300 each. By session three, I was supposed to undergo a past-life regression. Using hypnosis as an entry point, we would uncover lost memories and work through trauma acquired from past lives.
While I do not necessarily subscribe to a belief system that includes reincarnation, desperate times will have you surrendering to pretty much whatever. So, with the encouraging words of Yelp reviewers whispering in my mind’s ear, I agreed without hesitation.
In our first session, Tiffany seemed impatient as I talked about my feelings. Before I was even halfway done, she cut me off and said all my issues stem back to my narcissistic parents. Then, she asked me to lie down on her couch and put on glasses that flash red LED lights in different rhythms. Tiffany said they do something to help the process, but she couldn’t quite explain what.
As I lay there, she played some ethereal music and spoke to me gently, guiding me on a personalized, restful meditation and visualization exercise. I listened to her, but at some point, my mind wandered — Was this really worth $300? Is that stank I smell coming from the couch I was lying on? Was that dust I felt against my skin? Why is her couch so dirty? I have paid to have my couch cleaned before. It was less than $300. I could only hope she’d use my $300 to clean this thing.
When it was over, Tiffany sent me home with a recording and asked me to listen to it at the beginning and end of each day. I did my best to commit to the process. For a full month, I woke up and went to sleep every day to that spacey music and Tiffany’s voice telling me to visualize the inner sanctum of my mind, to imagine telling my solar plexus to stop repetitive thoughts and limiting beliefs.
In our second session, Tiffany said she was taking me to meet my inner child. She asked me to imagine an early and painful childhood memory. I feigned a trance state, speaking in a slow monotone voice as I recalled my childhood. She asked me to imagine providing comfort to my younger self, assuring him that everything would be okay. When I opened my eyes, Tiffany congratulated me on a successful session. I left with blurry vision, which I attributed to my eyelids’ sustained exposure to bright flashing lights. I also left with guilt for having misled Tiffany into thinking it was working. I quietly wondered if I was beyond repair.
In our third session, she attempted what is called a past-life regression. With the music going and with her soft voice, Tiffany asked me to clear my mind and visualize myself going back through time. Then, she asked me to tell her what time period I was imagining. I struggled to answer before saying it was “olden times.” Then, Tiffany asked me what my name was, and I stammered once again. She added that my name might not be English, that it could even be just a sound. I went with that and quickly said my name was “Shuh.” She asked me to describe myself and my situation, and I told her that the olden-times version of me named Shuh was running a boarding house for orphans.
When I opened my eyes, I acted astonished to have had this vision. Tiffany proclaimed that my past self has always been about taking care of others when I needed to be taking care of myself more. I gave her a hug and I thanked her for this fabulous life-altering breakthrough.
But as I said, I was faking it. The dirty truth was, I just wanted to get my face off that couch.
Driving home from the session, I resigned to the fact that I must be unhypnotizable. A few weeks later, Tiffany reached out to schedule a fourth session, but I responded telling her that I felt as though I didn’t need it. “You did it! I’m healed. Thank you so much,” I wrote to her.
Was I just one of those hypnosis-resistant people?
Four years later, in the process of writing this article, I reached out to Tiffany to finally come clean and to ask for an interview, but she seems to have left me on read. So instead I swerved to ask an expert what went wrong — if maybe hypnosis just doesn’t work on me.
It turns out it’s true that some people cannot be hypnotized, although almost anyone can to some degree, said Stanford researcher David Spiegel, who is the president of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis.
Spiegel has spent much of his career studying the differences in brain waves of people who are highly hypnotizable against those who are not. Children between the ages of 6 and 11, he says, are almost all hypnotizable.
“It’s a time when you privilege feeling over logic and evaluation, and kids at that age are deeply into whatever it is they are doing. Work and play are all the same thing,” Spiegel told Buzzfeed News. “In adolescence, our prefrontal cortex continues to grow, and we learn to value reason more. And as that happens, some people lose what’s been called belief in imagination.”
“They become people who are very cognitively oriented, who want to read and think and analyze before they let themselves feel. People who retain their hypnotizability tend to privilege feeling,” he said. “I saw a guy the other day who is extremely hypnotizable, and he just believed whatever people said. He had trouble trusting his own evaluation of things. That’s the thing about highly hypnotizable people. They will tend to believe and take on other points of view.”
Researchers have a number of methods referred to as scales for determining how primed someone might be for hypnosis. The two most referenced of these hypnotic susceptibility scales are named after Stanford and Harvard universities.
They each take about an hour to complete and include a range of different tests relating to things like eye closure and hand movements.
I was never tested on any of these scales, but I did have a friend assess me with a simpler method known as the Spiegel Eye-roll Test, which was actually first developed by the late Herbert Spiegel, a psychiatrist credited for popularizing hypnosis as therapy and David Spiegel’s father. In the eye-roll test, individuals are first asked to look up at the ceiling, and then, to close their eyes. If the practitioner sees sclera, or the white part of the eyes, then the patient is supposed to be at least moderately hypnotizable. If the eyes roll back down and only the iris is visible, then the patient is supposedly not hypnotizable.
“The eye roll test is a good initial hint, but we’ve developed a test in which that is the first part called the hypnotic induction profile. It takes five minutes, and I do it on every patient I see,” Spiegel said. “The eye roll is just an estimate, whereas the test is an actual measure.”
Spiegel has integrated the methodology of his eye roll test and hypnotic induction profile into a self-hypnosis app called Reveri. On the app, his voice guides users through one or more interactive programs designed to help them with specific goals, including sleep improvement, stress relief, focus enhancement, pain management, and addressing issues with intake of food, alcohol, and tobacco. It’s very simple, and each section takes about 10 minutes.
I tried the eye-roll test three times, and all three times, my friend saw sclera, suggesting I might be at least moderately hypnotizable. I also tried the Reveri app, and while I’m not sure I was able to actually hypnotize myself, I definitely felt something, and I enjoyed my experience. After all this, I started to wonder if I wasn’t the only one faking it. Maybe Tiffany was faking it, too.
Was I the problem, or was Tiffany?
In search of answers, I reached out to another expert. David R. Patterson is a professor at the University of Washington and a clinical psychologist who often utilizes hypnosis, particularly for helping patients to manage pain. He has conducted numerous NIH-funded studies on the subject. When I described my hypnotherapy experience to Patterson, he offered an unequivocal response.
“Firstly, I really struggle with the term hypnotherapy. What I use is hypnosis,” he said. “There are a lot of people who take these weekend courses and get a ‘doctorate’ in hypnotherapy and hang up a shingle. And you really can’t regulate what they’re doing, because they don’t have a healthcare license.”
I told Patterson about faking my regression back to olden times and feigning seeing myself as the orphan-collecting Shuh. He stopped me mid-sentence.
“I would consider past-life regression to be way on the end of quackery, just wacky shit,” he said. “There’s some people who do hypnosis without licenses, and some of them get good results occasionally, but this is the type of stuff that just makes me cringe.”
And when I told him about Tiffany’s LED glasses, he laughed.
“I don’t know what the hell that’s about. Those are just bells and whistles,” he said.
One of Patterson’s more recent studies involved virtual reality hypnosis. Patients who had previously suffered physical trauma were put into immersive VR environments in an attempt to see if that technology could be an enhancement for pain management hypnosis.
“I didn’t have a lot of success, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I don’t know of any kind of accessory or toy that really increases response to hypnotizability.”
Hypnotherapy works for some people
I know that hypnotherapy definitely works for some people and can help people stop smoking, lose weight, and sleep better.
On that note, I spoke with a friend of mine, Edwin, who once suffered from chronic insomnia. No matter what he did, he couldn’t keep from staying up till 4 or 5 in the morning — until he tried hypnosis.
Edwin’s hypnotherapist recommendation came from a certain Oscar-winning actor (Edwin is a makeup artist for celebrities), whose name he asked I not reveal.
“I have become so fucking Hollywood with this shit, but it really works,” he said.
The therapist met with Edwin virtually, assessed his problem, and then recorded him a personalized guided meditation. Then, he asked Edwin to play the meditation every day for two weeks.
“He said if it didn’t work or if I was still having trouble, then feel free to reach out again,” Edwin said.
On the recording, the therapist addressed Edwin by name and asked him to engage in certain breathing techniques.
“At one point, he’s counting down, and as the numbers go down, it sounds like his voice is becoming more distant. I feel like psychologically what happens there is, mentally I’m trying to chase the voice, you know?” Edwin said.
At a certain point, he can’t remember what’s in the recording “because I’m always dead asleep by then,” he said.
Edwin has never needed to seek the therapist's assistance again. His problem was solved in just one session at a cost of $350.
If Edwin felt it worked, then who’s to say it didn’t? Nevertheless, I decided to run the details by Patterson and get his perspective.
“That’s not actually much different than what I might do if I had a patient who couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I’ll make them a tape. I just go through their body and do progressive relaxation, and have them go to some good imagery. And almost anyone can do that, but it’s not necessarily hypnosis. When you take people through progressive relaxation, sometimes they’re hypnotized, but it’s very difficult to tell who’s actually hypnotized. For instance, your practitioner thought you were, but you were just simulating.”
How to find a hypnosis expert
Beyond finally coming clean and getting this off my chest, I hope this article will provide others with at least some basic frameworks for how to steer clear of handing over hundreds of your own dollars to someone who can’t really help you.
Patterson recommends that individuals seek out providers who are actually licensed, most of whom would not likely refer to themselves as “hypnotherapists.”
“I would go to a healthcare professional who treats the problem that you are experiencing, who also does hypnosis,” he said.
For his own patients seeking to use hypnosis for pain management, the practice is generally only about 30% of a more comprehensive treatment.
“Hypnosis is rarely the silver bullet,” he said. “There’s a big placebo effect, and people really talk up their successes and their five-star reviews. That’s the problem, I think, using hypnosis as a hammer to hit every nail. An untrained therapist will say hypnosis is a shortcut, and that’s really not how it works.”
To assess a provider’s legitimacy, Patterson recommended examining the focal point of their treatment.
“With the hypnotherapist, everything is about hypnosis. But with a good therapist, everything is about therapy, and then, you can bring hypnosis in when someone is experiencing a block or to strengthen their treatment.”
So, once again, to everyone I lied to, I am so sorry. I can only hope that this dive into what is and is not legitimate hypnosis will serve as at least some form of penance. And though I have bruised my own trustworthiness, there is still hope for you to have your own success like Edwin. Just make sure you find the right person to do it. ●