I’m afraid I’m going to fart in front of my therapist.
Specifically, I’m afraid I’m going to fall asleep during therapy, and fart in my sleep (and don’t act like you never fart in your sleep, because you do). For all I know, I already have at some point during the past 10 months I’ve been in hypnotherapy, and my therapist is just too polite to say so. But she has said that it’s fine—natural, even—to fall asleep during our sessions (good, because I definitely have). Apparently, it doesn’t lessen the impact of the therapy.
I started hypnotherapy late last summer as an add-on to the weekly talk therapy I’d started in the spring. Something was falling flat for me in typical therapy; perhaps the persistent need of my then-therapist to pin each and every aspect of my dysfunction on my parents, often drawing correlations that felt inauthentic to me. Or maybe it was just a general sense of being heard, but not listened to—or talking, but not feeling closer to the truth. Having heard encouraging things about hypnotherapy, I added on weekly sessions with Carol Morken, a Chicago-based licensed clinical social worker and certified clinical hypnotist.
I soon found myself connecting more with Carol, ultimately deciding to streamline my therapy (since two sessions a week was both time-consuming and expensive). Carol and I now meet weekly for a combination of talk therapy and hypnosis to address my dysthymia (chronic depression)—which in recent years has developed a not-so-healthy side of anxiety (yay!)
I know what you’re envisioning: some party trick where I’m entranced by a pocket watch and start clucking like a chicken—or worse, being catapulted into the Sunken Place, a la Get Out. Trust, the thought did initially cross my mind. (For the record: yes, Carol is a white woman, but no, there are no teacups involved).
So, why hypnotherapy? Because after over a decade of being in and out of talk therapy, I wanted to go deeper. While medication can physically treat the symptoms of my depression and anxiety, I want to get to the why of what I experience on the surface—preferably, as quickly as possible, since I’m not getting any younger. Why have I been locked into certain belief patterns for so long? Why do I keep attracting the same scenarios (and people) and responding in the same, self-sabotaging ways? Why can’t I just “change my mind”?
As it turns out, maybe I can—at the unconscious level, where all of those patterns are imprinted. Speaking with Carol about how hypnosis can be effective as a complement or alternative to other therapies, she explained that “hypnosis is a way to accelerate change because it works at the unconscious level, where the structural changes need to be made.”
So, how does it work? Well, in our sessions, we typically start with talking, which not only helped Carol and I initially get acquainted, but now works as a collaborative process where we form goals and suggestions to be used on the unconscious level. In fact, some sessions are solely talk-based, depending on what I’m working through at the moment. Using that information, she then guides me into a trance state, which can be most readily likened to a meditative state. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, the prototypical therapist’s couch or recliner is in use.)
While I’m in trance state, Carol gives me both direct and indirect suggestions, some of which I’m completely aware of, and others, less so, as I slip between different levels of consciousness, also known as brainwave states. Some sessions feel like I’m just listening with my eyes closed; during others, I’m convinced I’ve dozed off. Carol says both are normal for clients in hypnosis.
“They can expect variation in what they consciously hear during the session,” she says. “They may hear everything the clinical hypnotist says, hear only parts of what is said, or hear very little of what is said. And they can expect each experience to be a little different along this continuum. I always tell clients that while the conscious mind may drift away, the unconscious mind is always listening and absorbing the suggestions that are just right and fitting for them.”
So, it’s fine if I doze off; my unconscious mind is still listening. (In fact, Carol has even customized and recorded a nighttime hypnosis for me which eases my insomniac brain into sleep like clockwork while still filling it with suggestions.)
While in trance, Carol uses a number of other methods to leverage the brain’s neuroplasticity and help me access the core of my issues; including imagery and the five senses, and identifying “parts,” or ego states (i.e. shame, criticism, anger, fear, etc.), any or all of which may be informing my conscious thought processes and behavior.
“Hypnosis enables the client to achieve a state of very passive, yet highly focused concentration and attention in which both imagination and suggestibility are enhanced,” Carol explains. “Through the use of relaxation, hypnotic language forms, metaphor, and guided imagery, the clinical hypnotist guides the client down from the beta state, bypassing the critical faculty and into the alpha and theta states—where suggestions can be absorbed and retained.”
Carol and I have built considerable trust by this point, but if the idea of someone “suggesting” anything to you while you’re not fully conscious is unfathomable, consider that trance is a natural state we frequently slip into with no assistance, whatsoever. As Carol explained, hypnosis draws upon well-established mental faculties we already use when daydreaming or getting “lost” in a good book or film. Hypnosis simply deliberately reframes our unconscious thought patterns and ultimately, creates new neural pathways that guide us toward more positive outcomes.
“Probably the most common misperception about hypnosis is that you are giving up control, which is not at all the case,” says Carol. “It’s important to really understand that the unconscious mind is there for the person’s protection and safety. If it is not time to discover something traumatic or discover anything that won’t serve your best interests, or if there is something that the client does not want to share or say, or is not ready to reveal, they will not do that.”
Carol uses the iceberg analogy when describing the mind, with five percent conscious and aware of what’s happening at any given moment—the tip of the iceberg—and the remaining 95 percent unconscious (or, submerged underwater). The latter is the part hypnosis is trying to access.
“The average person is aware of some of their beliefs, but many core beliefs and memories are repressed and hidden from conscious awareness,” says Carol. “The unconscious mind is the repository for everything you have ever learned, and it is the seat of all habits, positive and negative.”
As a person struggling with several, long-term bad habits—from defeating self-talk and procrastination, to gravitating toward dysfunctional, unfulfilling relationships (of all types), to my tendency to self-soothe with food (and alcohol) while avoiding intimacy—my unconscious mind was the part I most wanted to access when considering hypnosis as an option. I knew I could keep treating the symptoms, but the dysfunction—like an infection—would persist until I got to the source. And when you’re suffering from depression and locked into self-destructive patterns, it does feel like an infection. It’s like a virus, eating away at your sense of self.
It’s important to note that like psychotropic drugs, hypnotherapy is a highly customizable form of treatment; equally important is that the two are not mutually exclusive. Hypnosis doesn’t preclude me from seeking out medicinal options or other therapies, though Carol advises it be a collaborative process between practitioners. (“As neuroscientists say, what fires together wires together.”)
In fact, she says, “Sometimes a person needs to be on a medication in order to utilize hypnosis. If one is depressed, for example, the medication raises the floor on their emotional state so that they can engage in hypnosis. ... Having said that, in the area of physical relaxation, there is overlap, because when one’s overall state improves with medicine, the autonomic nervous system calms down; levels of adrenalin and cortisol decrease and levels of endorphins and other “feel good” chemicals increase. The relaxation and overall sense of well-being produced by hypnosis also improve the functioning of the autonomic nervous system.”
So, how’s it going, so far? It’s not a quick fix, nor is it an entirely passive one—despite the fact that I’m semi-conscious during a good part of my therapy. Adjacent therapies like tapping (EFT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and sonic therapy are all complementary tools Carol also suggests (sometimes as homework) to help engage unconscious levels of the brain. Deprogramming deeply held beliefs is, well, deep, and it’s amazing what an intricate defense system the mind can build to protect itself from pain.
“I often refer to the conscious mind as the captain of the ship, calling out instructions through a megaphone from the top deck to the crew beneath the deck,” Carol says. “And the crew beneath the deck is the unconscious mind. And when the crew beneath the deck understands the new instructions, it immediately begins to fulfill the goal and move the client in the desired new direction.”
Maybe it’s the exercise of trusting someone with the inner workings of my unconscious mind, but I can honestly say I feel the vice grip of my neuroticism starting to release—including my need to keep everyone but my immediate family at arm’s length. My relationship to food and alcohol has also come into sharper perspective; while I’m far from perfect, as my perfectionist tendencies lessen, I’ve also found less of a need to numb myself.
Mostly, for the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward, instead of constantly recriminating myself for the past. I’m less ruled by shame and more accepting of (and even expecting) my inevitable failings. I’m not out of the woods, but I’m genuinely looking forward to what’s on the other side; I can sense it waiting for me.
But as I continue to do the work to get there, I just really hope I don’t fart.