Text: KRISTY CHOI
“You are getting very, very sleepy”.
So begins the hypnotist of our imagination or our brief, staged encounters. Mesmerized by his swinging pocket watch and the dulcet tones of his evocative orders, we are somehow compelled to lose control and do nightmarish things in front of an audience: dance, imitate a chicken, tell the truth.
Hypnosis is culturally known as a form of entertainment—as in, a magic show. Its lesser-known, more serious sister is hypnotherapy and she has much bigger ambitions than making an audience laugh. It is never interested in making people fall asleep and lose control. In fact, as several hypnotherapists and patients have told me, the end goal is quite the opposite state, that of heightened concentration and activation.
Hypnotherapy involves a different and deeper “magic”: using hypnosis to help people access their subconscious mind to work through frequently deep-seated issues like anxiety, addiction, chronic pain and phobia. Bernhard Tewes, a hypnotherapist I visited in Berlin, can help someone quit smoking in one session. In two, he can jet set someone onto the fast track of weight loss.
How is this possible?
Patrick Molloy, a hypnotherapist in Surrey, England, explains that “our habits are a product of the brain’s lifelong scanning process” and hypnosis “is one way to intervene in this process”. By producing a mental and physical state in which people are more receptive to suggestions, hypnosis is a process of imagining then rewiring new behavior.
There is, of course, nothing actually “magical” about hypnotherapy in the supernatural or otherworldly sense. A well-established clinical practice with a long history of theory, methodology development, and systematic review, hypnotherapy is not promising a miraculous fix for every problem and every person. Therapists and their clients do seem to shirk quickly from the sound of “magic” or “miracle worker.” Patrick Molloy says frankly, “I do not have any special powers.”
Most traditional pharmaceutical products have been tested and produced in randomized, controlled settings to ensure that no matter what happens during consumption it works every time. A pill should work, regardless of whether it is taken unenthusiastically or with complete doubt in its efficacy. Medicine should trump the human will. Hypnotherapy, however, is participatory, and the patient’s belief in the process is actually key to its success.
The world places magic and logic or science in diametric opposition to each other but simultaneously posits medicine as their possible intersection—an area where inexplicable miracles do happen. If hypnotherapy is medicine, then like all other strains of medicine, it is shrouded in mystery and impenetrable hierarchies of expertise. The problem is that often we assume that what we cannot understand quickly is a too-good-to-be-true scam. And with its tall promises, hypnotherapy is easy to bash blindly. But perhaps the question is not, “Why is it so difficult to believe in hypnotherapy?” but rather, “Why is it so difficult to believe in anything that claims extraordinariness?”
What hypnotherapists tell me over and over again is that although hypnotherapy may have extraordinary results, it is, in itself a more ordinary or natural approach to therapy than one might expect.
Deborah Peacock, a hypnotherapy consultant in York, England, asks me, “Why is it that we act scared when we are walking through a dark alley even when no one is there?” Because, she answers her own question, “of the power of our imagination.” The mind-body phenomenon that occurs when we find ourselves sweating and tingling with fear while alone in a dark alley or watching a horror film is the basis of the hypnosis experience. If we feed the human imagination specific stimuli, then the body will respond accordingly.
For Peacock, her body’s response was drastic. Peacock tells me that she herself was never fixated on losing weight. But her friend, who had been failing at different diets for 12 years, wanted to try a five-week hypnotherapy course and asked Peacock to come along to watch and support. Without ever undergoing hypnosis herself and only witnessing and learning secondhand, Peacock completely changed her mindset on food; she has lost four dress sizes and 10 centimeters off her waistline.
If that isn’t magic, then what is?
Through hypnotherapy, Peacock explains, people are able to relearn the feeling of being full and reteach their subconscious that they are not “losing anything” by eating less. Food loses its stigma and power. Peacock says, “there is no longer a concept of ‘restricting’ or ‘treating yourself’…when you learn that eating is a way to get just what you need”. The experience was so life-changing that Peacock decided to get certified as a hypnotherapist consultant. She works today happily at a company called Hypnoslimmer.
The use of hypnotherapy to help people lose significant amounts of weight is particularly widespread. This may be because the world of weight loss has developed so ridiculously into a commercial minefield of false advertisements, ploys, and letdowns. Standards of good health remain nebulous and too often conflated with unachievable standards of physical beauty.
In short, there are two overlapping weight loss narratives that dominate the public conversation. Both perpetuate failure.
First, the purchasable easy fixes. Extreme diet programs, pills, and exercise regimes are neoliberal bait for the body-conscious subject. Their quasi-scientific advertisements speak in the language of miracles — “A Whole New You in Just 10 Days!”— yet the discerning, irreverent consumer knows better than to believe such claims. After all, don’t we assure ourselves that only the very stupid or the very rich could invest in such empty promises? Perhaps. But at the same time, the world of weight loss treatment is a multi-million dollar industry. Clearly, somewhere along the way, even the most sensible have bought in.
Then, there is the workaholic narrative: the person that “deserves” to lose weight because they worked so hard at it. This is the story with the painstaking timeline of self-control and discipline. Losing weight should be challenging and if you fail it is because you did not work hard enough. This way of thinking is akin to the conservative mantra “the poor are poor because they are lazy”.
Hypnotherapy subverts the logic behind both of these narratives: that weight loss can be achieved through conscious choices like purchasing a product or obsessing over a diet. Where does an illness begin? Where does a habit form? Hypnotherapy answers: in the subconscious. Treatment, therefore, should start there too.
Graeme Harvey, a hypnotherapist in Livingston, Scotland, tells me there are four categories of 18 recognized causes of weight issues: compensatory—i.e. lack of sex, environmental—i.e. to repel intimacy, education—i.e. peer pressure, and psychological, of which there are only two examples—glandular malfunction and brain tumors—that require medical intervention. Because the overwhelming majority of causes of weight loss are psychological, hypnosis is a more direct intervention method. “The diet industry will not be pleased about this,” Harvey says. (In a parallel universe, one can imagine the anarcho-communist possibilities of hypnotherapy in dismantling big pharmaceutical companies. But which requires more persuasion: participation in hypnotherapy or participation in the revolution?)
A hypnotherapy method called Hypno Gastric Band is the most explicit challenge to the traditional medicine industry. Gastric band surgery is an invasive and expensive procedure in which an adjustable silicone device is placed around the top portion of the stomach to physically limit food consumption. During gastric band hypnotherapy, the therapist leads the client through the process of imagining the band being fitted inside him. No scalpels necessary. After the hypnotherapy, the client is able to envision the imaginary band restricting his intake, helping him feel full and stop eating.
Can hypnotherapy render weight loss surgeries and products obsolete? Its rapid growth is certainly suggestive of the possibility. But not all hypnotherapists are totally bent on seeing their work go mainstream.
When I sat down with Bernard Tewes in his Berlin practice, I asked him if he would like to see hypnotherapy covered in the future by health insurance. He openly tells me that he is not supportive of such a change because he knows “clients are much more successful when he charges them more.” Moreover, Tewes only likes to pick clients that he believes are already committed to changing themselves. It takes one phone conversation to determine the willpower of a client, Tewes says, and “not everyone is ready.”
Tewes is not alone in these beliefs. If hypnotherapy is a psychological game, then hypnotherapists have created their own fair play rules to maximize success. The constant refrain from all my conversations has been that although hypnosis works, above all, the client must be open and positive. If the hypnosis fails, then the client may be too stagnant, their negativity too forgone. To what extent then, is hypnosis really just another machination of typical stories in the weight loss industry? Is hypnotherapy only an easy-fix when it works and then suddenly inaccessible to lazy clients when it fails?
In an attempt to be the ideal client for my first hypnosis experience, I pushed these thoughts out of my mind while reclining in a gravity chair in Tewes’ safari-zen-style office. As I stared at my feet and tried to relax, Tewes asked me if there was something specific I needed to work through. I said no. (Is that ever really true? Had I already made my first mistake?) Without missing a beat, Tewes then said he would execute a more general line hypnosis that helps clients release negativity and open themselves up.
It is difficult to recall now the details of exactly what happened. I understand better now my earlier conversations with people who could not tell me in step-to-step detail what a hypnotherapy session is like.
I remember Tewes leading me into deeper and deeper states of relaxation with the stately clarity of a Shakespearean actor. In minutes, I became less aware of Tewes speaking; his suggestions slowly merged into my own cycle of thought, as if they were no longer foreign commands but somehow something of my own creation.
The future tense is the linguistic essence of hypnotherapy. “You will wake up tomorrow with unbounded energy; You will not feel afraid; You will feel motivation to get what you need and be who you want to be.” I remember him asking me to locate all of my insecurities on the palm of my hands. Then he told me to very slowly turn my hands outwards and in the process let all my fears and insecurities go from the palms of hands into the void before me. He said reassuringly, “Just let it happen, it will just happen.” And when it did, I felt relief and lightness.
To close the session, Tewes said, “And when I count to three, you will open your eyes and smile.” The corners of my mouth flexed slightly in preparation.
Hypnotherapy can be seen as a lucrative exploitation of the placebo effect, one day to become its own mega-industry. Others see it as an exercise in inevitability, in leading the human subject to its subconscious origins, to what it already knows it has forgotten over time.
It says something about us that we are more likely to call open-heart surgery a miracle than give hypnotherapy unadulterated credit for improving the lives of many people. After all, what works, works. Why something works, however, especially in the business of saving lives, may be dependent on the mystery around how it works. Sometimes mystery causes skepticism, other times it peaks curiosity and inspires belief, and the act of investment is a balancing act between the two impulses. In today’s market, leaps of faith mask themselves in the exchange of money for goods: the question behind any purchase is “I hope this works for me.”
All I know is, when Tewes counted to three, I woke up, looking at my feet again just as I began, but this time, perhaps in defense of magic, I was smiling.