Getty Images / Alpgiray Kelem
Overthinking and I seem to be best friends. I've always been one to jump to conclusions, and recently, after two fresh heartbreaks only a few months apart, my brain started going into overdrive. My mind was unable to form positive thoughts; I had succumbed to acute anxiety spirals that hit on my deepest fears that convinced me that I was going to end up alone. Add a global pandemic and social isolation to the mix, and I could practically feel my heart pound underneath my rib cage. I knew I needed to switch up my perspective and fast, but I had no idea how. That's when I found hypnosis.
I'm no stranger to the spiritual world — I've had energy healings, tarot card readings, and have even consulted with psychics after a particularly brutal breakup left me lost and confused two years ago. Still, I'd never tried hypnosis. I do have several friends who swear by it, claiming it's a really great way to quiet the noise in your head and become aware of subconscious habits that are holding you back. So, I asked one of them for a recommendation, and before I knew it, I was having a Zoom call with a hypnotist trying to get rid of decades-old baggage.
What Is Hypnosis, and How Does It Work?
Unlike what you might imagine, hypnosis isn't a magic trick that'll automatically make you forget who you are or involuntarily quack like a duck — although, I admit I had these misconceptions going into it. Instead, Morgan Yakus, a former fashion veteran who's been a hypnotist for more than a decade, explained to me that the practice is actually more like a form of relaxation or meditation. "People think they'll go 'under' or say something ridiculous, but you're really conscious of everything that's happening the entire time," says Yakus.
Hypnosis is designed to release you from subconscious beliefs you're holding onto that are limiting your growth, and rewire your brain so new thought patterns and perceptions can take hold. Think of hypnosis as an aid for neuroplasticity, which is the idea that you're constantly able to create new neural pathways in the brain, that can, for example, better align with what you want to believe rather than how you've been programmed to think thanks to previous experiences.
"Hypnosis is a way to shift the part of you that feels you can't make a change as it's out of your control," says Yakus. "When you're in this focused state, you can quiet the chatter and close the internal narratives which are all running at once. The idea is to unfreeze the loops you create, and upgrade to a more positive reference for where you are in life now." You know the kinds of loops: "I'm so stressed" leads to "I can't get anything done," then to "I'm a failure." Ideally, you want to be able to recognize you're going down a rabbit hole and get out of the loop before it can get to that point.
Hypnosis happens in a state of focus known as the theta state, according to Yakus. "This state is experienced every night before sleep by everyone, the place where people often report receiving many insights," she says. "In this state of focus, you are fully in control and aware of every moment you are creating. (This may remind you of what's called lucid dreaming.)
The purpose of hypnosis is for people to visualize the outcome they desire and have it overwrite their negative perception. You're essentially accessing your subconscious mind when you're in hypnosis. While conscious, "you spend a lot of time telling your brain what you can't or shouldn't do, and you create a lot of negative scenarios," says Yakus. "When creating negative thoughts, images, and feelings, you instruct your brain to carry out negative actions, but you can use that same skill for good: You are actually in control, and when you talk to yourself positively, you can create positive outcomes in your mind, and the brain will start to work toward the state you desire." This allows you to get out of your wallowing and make room for your mind to begin to explore other, new, encouraging possibilities — and that's exactly what I hoped to get out of my own experience being hypnotized.
Potential Hypnosis Benefits
Hypnosis has been shown to be effective in treating several different issues, from smoking cessation to pain management following an injury. Previous research even found that, for some women, hypnosis was more effective in alleviating pain following childbirth than traditional medicine or pain relief techniques. In another 2009 study, those who routinely underwent hypnosis reported feeling less anxious and stressed than those who weren't hypnotized.
So how can you get the most out of hypnosis? It depends on the patient. The number and frequency of hypnosis sessions depend on an individual's baggage, resistance or openness to treatment, and how deeply rooted their existing belief systems are, explains Yakus. "In general, if a client wants to work on a few things, I recommend starting with three sessions and then seeing where they are," she says. "Then, they can follow up the next time they want to shift something else." You could do this at home (more on how below) or you could search for a qualified practitioner with proper credentials to get started. The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and Psychology Today both have online directories where you can search for certified hypnotists near you. You can also contact the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis and the American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists for information about their respective directories. Word of mouth, of course, is also a great option.
In terms of frequency, Yakus recommends beginning with weekly sessions until your neural pathways start to change, at which point she says you can start to space them out. "The issue is, the brain develops a pattern to adapt to an environment at some point earlier in life," she says. "As the years go on, the environment, relationships, and location change, but the same patterns continue to reoccur." It takes some time for the brain to essentially unlearn this behavior, she adds. Basically, you aren't reacting to what's actually happening but to a memory that gets triggered. This is why rewriting your brain's narrative is so important.
Can You Practice Self-Hypnosis?
Self-hypnosis is possible, but it may not be as effective since you won't be able to fully let go without being self-aware, according to Yakus. If you want to give it a go, her website offers five steps that can help newbies ease into the process of self-hypnosis.
And be patient, if you're not able to reach a high level of visualization right away. "There are two major factors to having a positive self-hypnosis session," says Yakus. "First, see yourself in the location where you want to be creating the new behavior. Once you have visualized yourself feeling good in that situation, float in and experience it in first-person. You can also use this technique any time you have a negative thought or visual." The second element is being able to successfully interrupt any negative thought of visualization to stop the loop and rewrite the scene, she says.
So, Is Hypnosis Real? Here's My Experience
To start, Yakus and I talked about my belief systems, such as "I won't find the person I'm meant to be with" and "I'll always be alone." I talked to her a little about how I was made to feel as if I wasn't good enough while growing up and how this underlying anxiety was affecting my ability to look at dating as something to enjoy. Basically, I told her I was at the mercy of my biological clock, and that it was making me extremely anxious since I also didn't feel good enough to have a healthy relationship after my two fresh heartbreaks.
After talking for several minutes, Yakus decided that the basis of our session would be reframing my beliefs around dating so that I'd ultimately be able to open up to the process and enjoy it. I lay down with a sleep mask over my eyes and listened to her calm voice as she made me highlight a memory where I felt like I wasn't good enough. She told me to really feel that emotion to the best of my ability, and TBH, this wasn't pleasant at all. After some time, she basically told present-day-me to go back in time to the same scene and talk to then-me. She instructed me to tell my past self that I was going to be fine and that everything was going to be okay. Next, she asked me to find a memory of when I felt the most carefree and confident and to put that positive image of myself into the previous memory. Now, this time, she wanted me to re-imagine the scenario as my future self, and how I wanted to act and feel on dates, meeting new people, and just going about my day.
The whole process took about an hour, and I was aware of all my thoughts and feelings the whole time through my visualization process, though it did kind of feel like I was floating through the air. The premise behind my hypnosis process is the same as any — to rewire the old, negative memory with one that was more positive and in line with how I wanted to feel. From there, the goal was to finally create a future based on those desires. "Eventually, clients find themselves living in this new pattern," says Yakus, who claims to have helped clients manifest everything from finding their dream partners to achieving great success at work. She says she's found that eliminating negative self-talk is the first step to true manifestation.
A few days after my session, I was swiping through Bumble, and instead of dread and nervousness, I found myself in a stable position. I wasn't overly focused on it but also wasn't beating myself up for not finding the "person." While I haven't found the love of my life just yet, days have gone by without that being as much of a pressing thought in my mind. And even on the days when I have focused on it, I didn't feel as scared. My anxiety has stopped completely spiraling, and even though I do have a pang in my heart when I think about how my most recent relationship ended, I can confidently say that I'm not overly fixated on the past. I no longer feel the same pressure to find someone to spend the rest of my life with. I kind of trust it'll happen when it's supposed to — which, let me tell you, is such a relieving change that I don't care if hypnosis helped me get there.