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Hypnotherapy helped treat my depression and anxiety, here’s how

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JASON HENLEY
WORDS BY GEORGIE KIBEL

My encounter with non-traditional therapy.

This article is not a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied upon as such. Always seek the guidance of your doctor in managing your mental health. If you are in need of immediate mental health support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat online. If in immediate danger, contact 000.

Like many children of divorce, I spent plenty of time throughout my childhood with psychologists. Then, when I was 15, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. That meant that seeing healthcare professionals became (and continues to be) a fixture of my life. 

While I found therapy helpful, seeing multiple psychologists for hour-long sessions, year after year, did become frustrating, as I felt I was making very little progress. My psychologists were helpful and compassionate, but I, like many people who have mental illness, felt as though I was in a perpetual cycle of breathing in for five seconds, holding for six, exhaling for eight, to no avail. 

My mum, bless her, was constantly on the quest for a solution to my mental health woes, which is something that I presume millions of others have tried and failed to find. My mum is not a healthcare expert or psychologist, but she is an optimist. 

So when a colleague at her work explained that her life was being transformed through hypnotherapy with a woman named Sarah, my mum nabbed the only available session Sarah had for a month. 

When mum arrived home and told me that I must keep the Friday morning of the next week available, I apprehensively asked her why. She told me she’d booked me in to see a hypnotherapist. 

‘Oh god,’ I remember saying.

She ignored my response and handed me two brochures. In obnoxiously large capital letters, one read EMDRand the other HYPNOTHERAPY. Overwhelmed by even the font, I decided to make a cup of tea before I cracked either of them open. 

“Hypnotherapy is a safe, proven and effective tool for directly accessing the power of the subconscious mind,” the first line of the brochure read. The clinical reference to the subconscious mind threw me, as I was imagining the stereotypical associations I had with hypnotherapy – magicians; clucking like a chicken; become infatuated with a member of an audience. 

The next brochure informed me that EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a psychotherapy treatment that involves repeated eye movements. The goal is to change a memory in such a way that it loses its painful intensity and simply becomes a “neutral memory of an event in the past”. 

I wasn’t sold on either concept, but I told mum that I would keep the Friday morning free.

Upon arriving at the hypnotherapist’s home, I thought I would see wind chimes, a witch’s cauldron, or an object that would indicate I was about to undergo spiritual enlightenment. 

But the quaint apartment in a very monotonous neighbourhood was just like any other. 

I knocked on the door and was greeted by the cheery smile of Sarah, who I was surprised to see was dressed in corporate-style attire. She led me to a small room which looked like a doctor’s office and we went through the usual client-patient introductions. She asked a bit about what I was going through and as I explained myself, she nodded and responded in the same gentle style as the psychologists I’d seen. After I told her my spiel, she asked me to lay on the floor and close my eyes. Now, she would begin hypnotising me.

I must admit that I began to worry. Would I reveal to her my deepest, darkest secrets?

“You won’t do anything that you don’t want to do,” she assured me. I tried to push any strange thoughts out of my mind, just in case. 

Then she started conducting what I can only describe as meditation. She counted backwards from 10 while instructing me to breathe in and out, against the backdrop of soft music. Sarah lulled me into a very relaxed state. After an amount of time that I couldn’t be sure of, she began chanting phrases such as “you are loved”,  “you are important”, and “there is nothing to be afraid of”. While I was aware of what was going on, I felt entirely convinced by her voice. It was an odd experience, but not at all uncomfortable.  

She led me out of this state by counting backwards from 10 once again and asking that I open my eyes. I felt good afterwards. Really good. It felt like I had been embraced by a warm hug. I felt free from anxiety and warmly content. 

Happy with her initial success, Sarah then asked me if I wanted to try EMDR. Despite reading the pamphlet, I was still slightly confused by it all. She said the best way to explain it was to go ahead and try it.

She began by asking me to recall outloud the very first time I could remember feeling depressed. I told her about the experience in excruciating detail, and felt the usual hot sensation of tears stinging my eyes that happens any time I attempt to discuss such memories. 

After offering me a tissue, Sarah took out what looked like a teacher’s pointer. She told me to follow the tip of it with my eye and then let her know when it felt like it was in a meaningful part of my vision. This confused me a little, but I said yes when I felt a sort of emotional response to its positioning. She made a noise of revelation as I decided to leave the tip of the pointer in my upper left field of vision. 

Sarah then asked me to follow the pointer as she quickly moved it back and forward. My eyes darted left and right. She told me we were “re-calibrating” the memory, and directed me to tell her yet again when it was in a place that caused an emotional response. We did this around four or five times.

I can’t be sure the EMDR worked, but when she asked me to go through the same memory once more, I didn’t cry. The memory was entirely benign in my head. Despite my eyes feeling quite strained, it was a satisfying outcome.

I continued to see Sarah for eight sessions and felt a positive shift in my mood. She used some traditional psychology methods that I have encountered before, with a mix of some more unorthodox practices such as EMDR. She often referenced that I was a Virgo (as if this was a crucial part of my identity), gave me essential oils and told me insights into my ‘past lives’ that I must admit, I struggled to believe. 

But despite these peculiarities, after each session, I left feeling buoyant and energised. Each week I felt far less sensitive to the small occurrences that would have once sent me spiralling. 

I was embarrassed to reveal to my friends, family and even my GP my experience with hypnosis, as I felt foolish. But I think that despite my own apprehension, it was a worthwhile personal experiment. While I wouldn’t personally use it as a replacement for traditional mental health help, my own experience with hypnotherapy was a rewarding one.

One of the challenges with any sort of therapy is that it is hard work. I won’t go as far as to say that it has ‘cured’ me, but it sure was worthwhile in alleviating some of the stress and anxiety that stem from compromised mental health. 

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