I Tried Hypnotherapy For My Anxiety

Here’s what happened

Illustrated by Jihyang Lim

Let me start with this: I've tried hypnotherapy for the first time after a very specific anxiety had started taking over me, one which had long been hiding, coiled up in the dark recesses of my mind, always ready to strike, lying in wait for the perfect moment to cause terror and panic. I was afraid to fly. This particular fear was an uncomfortable feeling for me, not least because, in the decade or so that it's been active, I've taken dozens of plane trips, many of them lengthy international ones. I have been so determined not to let this fear get the best of me that I've gone out of my way to combat it, by blithely pretending it didn't exist while I booked flights from New York to Amsterdam, Costa Rica, France, and Los Angeles. I worked my hardest to intellectualize my anxiety, always working to get rid of any gut-level fear and replace it with a mindful awareness of the safety of flying. And that would work to an extent: I knew that everything was going to be fine, but I still felt like everything was going to go wrong.

It's hard to explain anxiety to someone who doesn't suffer from it and convey with any accuracy the kind of bowel-emptying terror that happens when you're just going about your life, doing totally normal things—even wonderful things, like planning a vacation—and your mind starts spinning uncontrollably, filling itself with images of your demise and the catastrophic deaths of everyone around you; it's hard, for example, to tell your boyfriend that what you're trying to pass off as mere travel anxiety (i.e. "I just have so much to do at work, so I'm nervous about leaving for a few days") is actually a situation where your brain keeps playing a scene (on loop!) in which you're falling out of the sky and you have to say your last words to him and, for fuck's sake, what are you even going to say? 

Believe me, I know how extreme this all sounds. There's a reason I kept this anxiety to myself for so many years. I knew it wasn't based on anything logical—phobias never are—and I like to think of myself as a pretty logical person. There are no other irrational fears in my life, and I spent a really long time trying to ignore this particular one, going about living my life and dealing with a few days pre-plane trip in a state of constant stress and panic (which is not a fun way to live for even a couple of days) and then forgetting about it. But after going on two different trips to Europe last year, during which the lead-ups to my flights were so stressful that I found myself crying at having to deal with what was obviously becoming more and more something that I couldn't ignore any longer, and knowing that my fear was starting to prevent me from wanting to even plan trips anymore, I realized that the time had come to do something. 

The reason I wanted to try hypnotherapy instead of medication is because I knew that this anxiety was a manifestation of my mind, and so I wanted to see if my mind was capable of fixing itself—with the aid of a trained hypnotherapist, of course. Also, while I know medication works well for many people, my anxiety is not generalized; it doesn't have a presence in any other part of my life. Also, I knew of people who had had good experiences with hypnotherapy when dealing with everything from pain management to quitting smoking, so I felt confident that this method would be worth a try. 

I reached out to the Maha Rose Center for Healing in Brooklyn, New York, after it was recommended to me by a colleague and was connected with Shauna Cummins, a trained and certified hypnotherapist, whom I made plans to meet with before an upcoming trip to Denmark. I started telling people I knew that I was going to try hypnotherapy for anxiety and, to a person, they all expressed extreme interest in what the process would be like. Actual questions I was asked included: "Are you going to have to stare into a spinning crystal?" "Will you start clucking like a chicken if I say a certain word?" And I guess this type of curiosity is understandable; there's a lot about hypnotherapy that confuses people, in part because there is a lot that is mysterious about the inner workings of our minds. But I was ready to have some of those inner workings clarified, find answers to my anxieties, and put to rest some of my fears.

On my way to my first session at Maha Rose, I started to feel a flare-up of anxiety: What if this didn't work? What if whatever is unsettled in my brain is just like that permanently? What if whatever is broken just can't be fixed? But immediately upon entering the discreet door to Maha Rose, my nerves started settling and my worries faded. Maha Rose has an almost instantly calming vibe; the whole space is scented lightly with a spicy incense that engages the senses without overwhelming them, and it's draped in beautifully textured and softly colored cloths, curtains, and blankets that lend a sense of serenity and coziness to the whole place. I removed my shoes at the door and padded over to meet Shauna.

A few words about Shauna: If there is a human embodiment of the word "serene," Shauna is it. She seemed to move as if she were floating, a smile slid so easily and warmly onto her face that it in itself was a little hypnotizing because of how welcome and complete it made me feel. Her voice was soft but strong, and her powerful eye contact as we sat and talked in the dimly lighted therapy room was steady and reassuring. Shauna and I started off by discussing the things which were bothering me, and how they made me feel. She asked me questions about where I felt my anxiety when I had it (the top of my chest, above my heart) and what color it was (acid green); we talked about where it was that I felt confidence (in my shoulders and neck) and what color that was for me (a lightly glowing pink). At first, I found myself telling Shauna about my fear and trying to dismiss it to her in the same way I've long tried to dismiss it in myself, by explaining that I knew it was ridiculous and I felt weak for even feeling it. But Shauna didn't let me be too critical of myself, and would actually turn everything I said about being pathetic into something positive. Like, when I told Shauna how, before every plane trip I take, I reliably have a dream in which I'm on the plane and everything goes smoothly, which to me seemed like another sign of how absurd my fears were, Shauna smiled and nodded, saying, "You see, your subconscious mind is already trying to take care of you. You just have to let it."

Within minutes, I found myself talking to Shauna as openly as I've ever talked to anybody. And we were soon enough not just talking about my fear of flying. Shauna's hypnotherapy practice has a holistic approach; this was not something which I necessarily would have thought I'd need, since my anxiety was so specific, but was actually something I found incredibly powerful and helpful. Shauna had me write down 10 qualities I possess of which I'm proud, something which was really interesting to do right after I had been talking so negatively about myself with regards to my anxiety. After Shauna asked me to read them out loud, we spoke about the common thread throughout all of them, and I realized that these qualities are both the things I possess, but also the things to which I aspire to be. I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders when I realized that, without even consciously realizing it, I am working toward being the person who I want to be.

During my hypnotherapy sessions with Shauna, she also had me write down the things I would like to see happen in 2017. Then, she had me tell them to her as if she and I were running into each other in January 2018, and I had already done all the things on my list. I had written down some pretty ambitious things—all of which I want to do, but some of which, even as I was writing them down, seemed maybe a little too lofty. But as I talked with Shauna and spoke to her as if those things were already a reality for me, I started to also think of the ways in which I could make them happen for myself, and I started to get excited. I wasn't just listing off my dreams; I was figuring out how to make them a reality.

Now, if you're reading this and thinking, This all sounds great and everything, but where does the hypnotism part come in? Don't worry, I'm getting to that. The thing is, though, that during each hour-long session with Shauna, probably about 40 minutes was spent talking in a way that would probably remind some people of a traditional therapy session (depending on your therapist's practice, of course). That time we spent talking was not only incredibly valuable to me, in general, but also came into play once I actually laid down on the therapy table and Shauna started verbally guiding me through getting rid of my anxiety on a subconscious level; all the work we had done by talking manifested itself during the hypnotism in a really profound way. Shauna's voice steered me toward visualizing my anxiety as a tangible object, which I then rid myself of through actions. While I never felt exactly like I lost consciousness, there did come a time when I distinctly realized that although I was comprehending Shauna's words and replying to them with my own, I no longer felt like I was hearing her with my ears; rather her voice seemed to be emanating right from my brain. This might sound potentially unsettling, but it wasn't. Rather, it was comforting and liberating, as if the burden my brain sometimes bears was not only my own to carry anymore; I now had help.

After leaving each session of hypnotherapy, I felt drained. Not in a bad way, rather in the kind of way you feel deplete after a long and hard workout. I felt at peace, but like I needed to rest, like there was still a lot to process. But I also felt a renewed confidence about not just dealing with my anxiety, but also about my future in general. There was a little part of me that was wondering, though, how it would actually feel to fly. 

I found out soon enough when I got ready to leave on a long-scheduled flight to Copenhagen. Unlike prior recent trips, the anxiety didn't appear a few days before. In fact, I felt remarkably peaceful, as if I had nothing to worry about. But then, a couple hours before the flight, as I was packing, it returned—and it came back in a big way. My brain was once again flooded with images of horrific things, and I started to shut down. My boyfriend was a wonderful support, though, and was there for me completely. As we drove to the airport, I said, "I don't know, maybe it is about time to just look into beta blockers." And I felt pretty miserable. But then, once in the airport, things began to shift. I worked hard to visualize the things Shauna had helped me see; I closed my eyes and saw a radiant pink outline along my neck and shoulders; I saw myself expelling the bilious green fear from my chest. And I started to feel a little bit better. I made sure to spend at least a few minutes each day in Denmark doing those same visualizations, and the anxiety didn't return for the flight back. On another flight this month to California, the anxiety wasn't there at all; this decade-old fear that my brain had clung to seemed to have disappeared.

I sit here, writing this, thousands of miles from my home, knowing that in a few days I will be back on another plane back to New York, not feeling scared at all. It's hard to quantify the amount that this has changed things for me, this new ability to find peace in my mind where once there was only a compulsive cataloging of disaster. And because I know how suddenly and completely this fear descended so many years ago, I know that I will always be on guard for it to return. Now, though, I have a new set of tools to deal with it, and a willingness and ability to confront what lurks beneath the surface, rather than refusing to fully admit its existence. This is invaluable for me, and would, I'm sure, be helpful for anyone dealing with fear of mostly any kind (and who among us, especially with today's political climate, doesn't have anxiety right now?), because these tools are not just about dealing with a targeted problem, but are really about applying a different sensibility to life in general. And for me, this means that now that I don't have to spend any time worrying irrationally about how my life will end, I can use that energy toward accomplishing everything I want to achieve in 2017. Luckily, I've already got a whole list of things planned out.  

To visit Shauna Cummins at Maha Rose Center for Healing and find out more about the treatments offered there, check out the Maha Rose website, here.