(Originally appeared on Vice.com – http://tinyurl.com/jm7q5gk)
I’m in a cold rehearsal room in central London with a man I’ve never met. On his instruction, I close my eyes, open my mind and, with the aid of some vague guidance, am transported to my mum’s living room, eight years ago.
The bangs and warbling from neighbouring rehearsal rooms disappear and I feel the heat from the open fire in my old family home. I am totally at peace.The man sitting opposite me, coaxing me into this state, is hypnotherapist coach Ed Winslet, chaperone for my first ever “hypno-singing” session – a course that promises to improve your singing voice through the use of hypnosis.
In the UK, hypnotherapy is a booming business. It used to be that hypnosis was a mystical, esoteric exercise that only really appeared in vaudeville or travelling circuses. However, hypnosis as hypnotherapy began to emerge in Victorian times, and by the late 20th century had become a widely-accepted treatment for a number of maladies, spawning NHS programmes, bestselling books and celebrity endorsements. If practitioners are to be believed, you can quit smoking, lose weight, time travel to past lives, have mind-blowing orgasms, get smarter, cure your phobias, get rich, enlarge your boobs and heal all sorts of physical ailments, purely with the power of your mind.
There are, of course, some things to consider before handing your brain over to a stranger. On the NHS website, the safety guidelines regarding hypnotherapy state that it can be offered by “non-professionals with little training”, because, in the UK, you don’t legally have to join any organisation or receive any specific training to call yourself a hypnotherapist. This means that, without research, people with, say, a serious mental health issue could end up seeking help from somebody who earned their hypnosis stripes at Blackpool stag-dos.
Dr Emma Short, a chartered psychologist and senior lecturer at Bedford University, explains the potential dangers of getting yourself into that kind of situation: “Some of the more extreme phenomena that can emerge in a client during hypnosis are recovered traumatic memory and violent abreaction, which require a very skilled response and access to appropriate referral routes should there be a serious concern for the safety of the individual,” she says. “Without careful clinical assessment before proceeding and preparation before treatment, hypnotherapy should not be used, as there are certainly some circumstances where hypnotherapy would be extremely unhelpful.”
Similarly, Professor John Gruzelier, a professorial research fellow at Goldsmiths University, wrote of the potential dangers in his essay “The Unwanted Effects of Hypnosis”, in which he links hypnosis to chronic psychopathology, seizure, stupor and spontaneous dissociative episodes.
I put this to Californian hypnotherapist Kerry Gaynor, whose quit-smoking method (The Kerry Gaynor Method) has been endorsed by all your favourite celebrities. “That’s nonsense,” he says. “It’s a non-threatening experience. In fact, it’s a natural state – it poses no danger to anybody. It’s a very useful tool for achieving goals.”
(Illustration by Josh McKenna)
British TV’s hypnotherapist, Paul McKenna was taken to court in 1998 for allegedly giving somebody schizophrenia following a session. He was eventually cleared of all charges. Since then, his books – such as the optimistically-titled I Can Make You Thin, I Can Make You Rich and I Can Make You Happy – have become international best-sellers. In one of the episodes of his I Can Change Your Life TV series, Paul cures a man who has suffered from hysterical blindness (a neurological disorder common around the time of WWI) for eight years following a head injury, making him see again. But can hypnotherapy really be that miraculous?
“I have been working with clients prior to surgery, and I’ve got them coming out of surgery having no post-operative pain,” says Kerry Gaynor. “I don’t think medical science can explain that. It’s the kind of thing I’d never have believed was possible, but now I’m out here doing it!”
Despite its current standing in the world of accepted therapy and healthcare, hypnotherapy’s links to the supernatural still lingers. Past life regression (PLR) hypnotherapy is a popular practice that helps you ‘access’ memories that aren’t from your own life. Some explain this as gaining access to Akashic records, a paranormal compendium of thoughts, experiences and events that exists in the æther or ‘astral plane’. Some put it down to past life memories due to reincarnation, much like in Hinduism. Others dully explain it as just our imagination, or link it to cryptomnesia, the phenomena of recalling a forgotten memory and believing it to be brand new or original. Either way it is widely available with some hypnotherapists offering PLR as a means of helping everything from PTSD to sexual abuse.
Maureen Jackson is an advanced member of the National Register of Hypnotherapists & Psychotherapists and she told me that you don’t have to be spiritual or believe in reincarnation to benefit from PLR. “It can be purely metaphorical. It’s very individual thing, the problems that people face could lie in this lifetime or another,” she told me. “I believe that nothing ends, we are all energy and energy doesn’t get deleted, it just changes and lives on. We haven’t come from nothing. I believe we’ve come from past lives, in one way or another.” She went on to say she tries not to debate or argue with sceptics because she’s not trying to prove herself or convince anyone. “They believe what they believe.”
Before going to the hypno-singing session I got in touch with a few former hypnotherapy patients to gauge how effective it had been for them.
“I left feeling relaxed, but no more than you’d get from a meditation session or a flotation tank or whatever. I was back to normal soon after,” said 25-year-old Joe, who had attended sessions for his anxiety problems. “I’m sure it works on some people, but then again so do placebos. I think for it to have an effect you need someone who’s more open to the experience.”
Ronnie, 29, told me that despite it feeling “quite erotic” and leaving him “buzzing with self confidence” it didn’t cure his anxiety. “It certainly didn’t work for me. I’ve found cognitive behaviour therapy much more useful,” he said.
However, 25-year-old Rose went to a hypnotherapist following a “down-turn” in her mental health as a teenager. She was put on a lot of medication and sent to several therapies, but nothing worked, “I went to see this hypno guy three times. He told me that at no point would I be in a trance and I would be self-aware throughout the process,” Rose explained. “Instead, it was about relaxation. He made me analyse myself from an angle I’d never considered before. He objectified my disorder, which meant I could take a hold of it and really look at it. Hypnotherapy didn’t cure me, but it made me understand myself a lot more. With logic reinstated I could communicate better with doctors and I was diagnosed with extreme food intolerances, which were causing my mental health problems.”
Being “open” to the treatment is something hypnotherapists often insist upon, and it seems to be crucial to its effectiveness. I approach my hypno-singing session with a totally open mind and a genuine desire to come out singing like Prince. Each time I’m out of the trance I follow the notes up the piano with my voice, and to my delight I reach higher notes and with more ease.
“Like traditional hypnotherapy, the experience is different from person to person,” my hypno-singing coach Ed explains to me. “You are tapping into a higher level of your imagination and creativity.”
That seems to be a key factor with hypnotherapy: everyone has different experiences. Apart from Kerry Gaynor – who insists his results with smokers were repeatable and that he’d happily prove them under scientific conditions – hypnotherapy hasn’t had the same results on any of the people I speak to.
The lack of qualification needed to become a hypnotherapist adds to the confusion that shrouds the practice. Because of this, Dr Emma Short says, “There are still wide variations in the degree of skill, experience and, just as importantly, accountability among hypnotherapists.”
Understandably, this deters some people. Despite providing it as a treatment, the NHS website claims that the evidence supporting hypnotherapy “isn’t strong enough to make any recommendations for clinical practice”. However, regardless of its mysterious nature, it does have real-life positive effects on many, even if it’s just the power of psychosomatic placebo. “Hypnotherapy can be extremely helpful to some people. We don’t know why it works or how exactly it affects the brain,” says Dr Short, “but it does create the opportunity for people to focus clearly on their goals for change.”
As my hypno-singing session approaches its end, my singing voice is better than it has ever been. Range-wise I can hit a high A note, which I never could before. I also have a newfound ease and can hold notes for longer. Granted, it could be down to the vocal coaching that Ed gave me in between my hypnosis trances, but I’ve had vocal coaching lessons before and have never seen such a change.
I have a natural scepticism of hypnotherapy, but I can’t really contest the improvement in my singing voice, my heightened awareness of tonality and the thousands of positive testimonies online for hundreds of hypnotherapists. The effectiveness of hypnotherapy seems to be a combination of confidence building, clear focus on personal goals for change and the ability to work with, and unlock, the unknown powers of the human brain. With this in mind, perhaps the most incredible about hypnotherapy isn’t the actual hypnotherapy at all; it’s us.