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State of Mind

by Regina Schaffer

For some, being hypnotized is the ideal way to fix what ails you.

The daily bouts with abdominal pain were becoming unbearable.

Maria, who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, would spend hours a day in intense pain, often keeping her up throughout the night. She tried various medications, therapies, spoke with specialists and drastically changed her diet. After four long years, the Burlington County teacher began to worry that this would be her life.

By the time she decided to visit a Cherry Hill hypnotist’s office last August, she was at the end of her rope.

“I was looking on the Internet, and I found a study that said hypnotists were helping some people with this,” says Maria, an Edgewater Park resident who asked that her last name not be used in this story. “I figured, let’s just try it. I tried other things. I certainly never expected a cure, but any relief ... is a good thing.”

Maria never pictured herself lying on a couch, getting hypnotized and being asked to visualize what her intestines look like. Yet, after the very first session, Maria left the office feeling slightly more relaxed and reassured, she says.

Within a few sessions, she says, between 60 to 70 percent of her painful flare-ups had stopped completely.

“When I was first diagnosed, I was up every night,” Maria says. “It would interrupt my sleep. Now—it’s not like I’m cured—but I’ll have maybe 10 or 15 minutes of issues in a given day. It’s incredible.”

For many, the idea of getting hypnotized may conjure up an image of a magician waving a swinging pocket watch in front of a willing audience participant, saying the words “you are getting very sleepy.” But the therapy is very real—and for many, it works.

Hypnosis, also referred to as hypnotherapy or hypnotic suggestion, is considered a “trance-like state” in which a patient will have heightened focus and concentration. Hypnosis is usually done with the help of a specialized therapist, using verbal repetition and mental images.

“It’s really just an inner-focused state,” says Audrey Sussman, director of The Anxiety Control Center of Cherry Hill and a nationally recognized hypnotherapist. “When we focus inward, we can get to the unconscious. We can get to that state in 30 seconds—we don’t need 45 minutes to get there.”

Patients typically report feeling more calm and relaxed while “under”—making them more open to suggestions about problems they may want to conquer, like quitting smoking, speaking in public, or a fear of flying.

“There’s no watch, there’s no swinging,” Maria says, laughing.

“We’ll talk, and she’ll ask me to give her an issue to work on. You really have to be able to focus. You really have to just think about what your intestine looks like. And you can’t think about anything else. You’re just very focused on that one thing. When it’s over, you think that five minutes have passed, and it’s really 25.”

Hard numbers on just how many people are turning to hypnosis as a means of therapy are not available, but South Jersey-based therapists who practice the technique claim to see more and more patients who have exhausted other options giving it a try.

“A lot of times, they have tried other things … and this can be a good tool,” says Thomas Newmark, a professor of psychiatry at the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University who practices hypnotherapy. “It’s basically, more or less, a tool. So it’s important that people don’t overestimate what it can do.

“I think it can be a good tool for the different habit disorders, for performance enhancement, and even certain medical problems,” Newmark says. “I have people suffering from migraines, and they feel relief when they’re in this state.”

Hypnotherapy works best, Newmark says, when a patient can become very relaxed physically and at the same time remain mentally focused to develop visualizations in their mind.

“I have a patient close their eyes, and then basically go from the top of their head, using progressive muscle relaxation, to the bottom of their feet,” Newmark says.

“When they’re in a very, very relaxed state, I work with them to develop positive images or visualizations.”

Of course, with something like hypnosis, a little skepticism is to be expected. But the more open a person is to the therapy, the more likely it is to actually work. “The person has to want to get change in their life,” Sussman says. “They can even be skeptical, and it can still work. In all my years practicing, I have not found someone that could not be hypnotized if they didn’t want to be. But, there are people who are not really the best subject.”

Before a person can undergo clinical hypnosis, goals must be set. The therapist will typically sit down with a patient and go over their fears or troublesome issues and decide together what they want to achieve from the sessions.

“My goal is to have people no longer need me,” Sussman says.

“There will always be a predisposition (for the issue) ... but you don’t always have to experience anxiety. Hypnosis can give you the freedom of just being a person.”

In a best-case scenario, a patient sees relief in two to four sessions.

“Most people you have to figure between six to 20 sessions because I see people who have tried everything and been everywhere,” Sussman says. “No, you don’t have to come in every week. We try to get the first four sessions close together. … After that, if the person seems to be on track, we start going every two to three weeks, spacing it out.”

Newmark cautions that the therapy is “not a miracle,” but does seem to work on at least half of the people he works with. “It depends, but usually after a session they begin to feel some benefits,” Newmark says.

“It’s like re-programming your brain to have positive thoughts. When a person does this over time, it can actually change a person’s behavior.”

Melissa, whose last name and town are withheld for this story, was suffering from debilitating anxiety and panic disorder that led her to drop out of college.

“I went off to college and it became crippling,” she remembers. “I didn’t want to get out of bed to go to class. It just kept mounting. It started affecting different aspects of my life. I couldn’t live normally. So I decided to find someone.”

Desperate, Melissa found Sussman through an online search for various therapies. Her first session lasted about two hours.

“The first thing she’ll have me do is close my eyes and have me go inside,” Melissa says, referring to going inside her own mind. “She has me imagine a timeline of my life. She’ll have me float up above it —a feather, floating on a feather. It’s a way to get me to travel back and forth in my mind to any event or time period in which I was feeling anxiety. She’ll guide me with her voice and keep it really relaxed.”

Melissa feels totally alert during the therapy, yet when the session ends, she knows something changed. “I know that when I come out of it, I feel like my eyelids are a little heavier,” she says. “It takes a little time to come back to where we are because, in my mind, all I’m seeing is where I need to be to fix whatever I’m working on. It’s like feeling submerged in the moment.

“Every time I left a session, I felt so amazing. It felt like, with all those things that I was focused on and worrying about, I felt more empowered about them. We got to the root of that memory and worked on it.”

Melissa, too, is quick to point out that hypnosis isn’t a cure-all. She continues to see Sussman when needed—but anxiety no longer has control over her life.

“It’s an ongoing thing,” Melissa says. “I had hoped it would be a 1-2-3 thing, but I had no previous experience. It’s not magic. It’s a process.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 4 (July, 2013).
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