Smith, too, started off as a skeptic. She got her bachelor’s degree in human rights. But in her desperation to quit smoking in her 20s, she decided to try hypnosis. Much to her surprise, she says she was able to quit after just one session. Smith was so moved by her experience that she decided to quit her corporate job and become a hypnotherapist herself. “From a human-rights perspective,” she says she thought at the time, “if there’s a tool that’s this effective in ending suffering, why is this not mainstream, and why is it so misunderstood?”
While hypnosis may look like sleep (or even mind control), it’s simply meditation with a goal, says Smith. When I tell Smith that I find it nearly impossible to meditate, she says she’s not surprised, because most Type A personalities find it difficult to meditate. Having met her over Skype about two minutes earlier, I am slightly shook.
The good news, Smith says, is that hypnosis is easier than meditation for most people. Meditation is typically more open-ended, and self-guided, whereas hypnosis has an end goal in mind. You also aren’t expected to totally clear your mind. “The conscious mind isn’t our goal,” says Smith. “Ultimately we’re focused on the subconscious. You can think thoughts and still be hypnotized. Ninety-nine percent of people will [still think other thoughts].”
With the general process explained, and my misconceptions dispelled, Smith told me we were ready to begin. I’d decided to focus our sessions on my generalized anxiety, of which I have plenty left over even after Prozac and regular therapy. To begin our first session, Smith asked me to close my eyes and rate my current stress level on a scale between zero and 10. I said four. Sitting on a wooden chair at my makeshift desk (a folding table near my living-room window), next to a busy Brooklyn street, I was doubtful I would be able to get that number any lower. But Smith has an unusually soothing voice, and she’s earnest without crossing over into woo-woo territory. I would rather die than attend any event requiring audience participation, but somehow, when Smith asks me to repeat lines after her, or to converse with my 16-year-old self, I don’t resist. (Admittedly, I don’t have many other options, though I suppose I could have hung up on her.) This is the simplest understanding of what it is hypnosis can do: lower your guard, just a little bit.
According to David Spiegel, a hypnotherapist and psychiatry professor at Stanford University, the primary effect of hypnosis is that it allows people to separate their physiological reactions from their psychological reactions. “Typically, when we're anxious about something, our bodies react to that,” he says. “Your muscles tense up, you may start to sweat, you breathe faster, and then you notice that, and you think, ‘Oh God, this is really bad,’ and then your body says, ‘Oh, now she’s feeling really bad.’ It’s kind of a snowball effect.” Hypnosis helps us to isolate our thoughts from our feelings, so to speak, so that we can think about what’s causing us stress without getting absorbed in our physical responses to that stress.