Is Hypnosis Magic or Medicine?

Lady Things gets hypnotized to see what happens.

Welcome back to Lady Things, the column where we sink deep into the female subconscious. This week, we explore the mysterious world of hypnosis.


I've done a lot of weird and scary stuff for Lady Things so far. Deep frozen myself, squished my intestines like a Kardashian, ingested laxative tea. But when my boss sent me an email from a local hypnotherapist offering free hypnosis to a reporter, and suggested I go for it, I was pretty much terrified. My main experience with hypnosis is the Hollywood-type stuff: mind control, people quacking like chickens, that kind of thing. Also I've heard, third-hand, of people using hypnosis to quit smoking. Also, there was one time as a young kid when I found a self-hypnosis tape and tried to hypnotize my brother and cousins before we all got too freaked-out and turned it off.

But look, I'm game for whatever.

Laney Coulter, the woman behind Loving Kindness Hypnosis, wanted to talk over the phone before our first session, to figure out what I wanted to be hypnotized about. Over the phone, I hedged: "Maybe I need to lose weight?" I said, trying to come up with a lady-related thing I should want to fix deep in my brain. "Sure," she said. "That's a tough one."

I thought about how sick I was about writing about losing weight-type stuff, and how truly little I care about losing weight. I tried to figure out something that really was stressing me out, something that I thought other women might be experiencing. I flipped through my phone and opened Facebook and saw a picture of some acquaintance's daughters doing a shell-based art project on a beach. Then I called her back. "Maybe we can do anxiety related to other people's lives seeming so much better than yours on social media?"

"OK," she said. "You didn't really seem too into the weight-loss thing."

Loving Kindness Hypnosis is in an old white house converted to office space in Northwest Portland. It was creepy and empty the first time I went—rain was dripping out of the sky and had been for a month. Everything felt ominous, like the first scene in a movie I already wished I hadn't turned on.

I texted my boyfriend the address, for safety.

The office is on the first floor, behind a big sliding door. By the time Coulter opened the door to what is essentially a tastefully decorated living room with a desk, I was nervous sweating and imagining my own grisly murder.

Coulter was immediately friendly. She has wild, curly gray hair and a sort of business casual Stevie Nicks vibe: flow-y clothes, chunky beads but nothing over the top. She's from the East Coast but spent a lot of her life in California, so she speaks with the laughter and frankness of an East Coaster but has the calmness of a crystal-wearing Californian.

Our first meeting began with us sitting at the desk in the corner of her open office, talking about hypnosis. It was clear that I basically didn't have any idea what hypnosis was, but I had also promised myself that, for journalism, I would be as open as I possibly could to the process. My immediate reaction had been that hypnosis was the kind of bullshit quick-fix nonsense that lesser minds than mine would try, but the way Coulter described it, maybe I was wrong, or at least I was a sucker. She's been doing hypnosis for a long time—it's her second career, and she got interested in it after she was hypnotized and it worked for her. The kind of hypnosis she practices is called "5 Path," and more than quackery, it sounded like guided meditation. The idea is, as she put it, we are all reacting to past hurt. We think when, say, someone in our lives makes us mad or we repeat unhealthy behavior that we're reacting to whatever is happening at that moment. Not so, says Coulter—and also my old Buddhist meditation teacher Rik. We are reacting to past hurts, trying to protect ourselves from pain that we expect is coming.

In meditation, you focus on being present in each individual moment. In talk therapy, you talk through your issues and try to use your conscious mind to solve your problems. With hypnosis, the idea is to find original, behavior-creating injuries and reframe them in the subconscious.

I was impressed by how normal Coulter seemed. Not kooky at all. She told me she doesn't consider herself a therapist and always refers people with mental illness to someone else. She works only on healthy people. And she thinks what she does works well with other forms of personal work, like therapy, in that she works on changing the subconscious while therapy works on the conscious mind.

I've had experience with some woo-y, self-improvement stuff. I've done lots of yoga, an old co-worker used to read my tarot cards for me at work every week, and I loved my weekly meditation class in San Francisco with Rik. I felt as if becoming aware of my own motivations and taking responsibility for my feelings and reactions really changed my life. If hypnosis was a less cerebral way to do that, why not?

Another thing also happened during my first meeting with Coulter. When we started talking about what I wanted to focus on during my time with her, I broke down crying within minutes.

I was going through a thing that is pretty standard to the human experience, and that I can't get into details about, but, you know, follow me and I'll probably write an essay or two about it in the future. It was the kind of interpersonal struggle that a person has with a friend, family member, partner, co-worker or parole officer. It was making my life unnecessarily difficult, and I couldn't really focus on much else.

Coulter had some helpful advice about the personal situation, kind of unexpected advice, really, that was concrete, like, "Next time X does Y, do Z."

Then, she sat me down in the comfiest chair I've ever sat in, which pushed back so I was horizontal, and she hypnotized me for the first time. That hypnosis felt, truly, like guided meditation meets positive affirmations. She counted down and told me I was relaxing, just like Hollywood hypnosis, but I stayed perfectly present. The only vaguely weird part was when she picked up my hand, dropped it, and said, "Sleep!" in a forceful voice. I felt like I was floating in the overstuffed brown chair as she told me how great and wonderful I was.

At one point, she told me my eyes were sealed shut and that I should try to open them but I wouldn't be able to. In my head I thought, "I can open my eyes if I want to, but I am going into this totally and fully, so I will not open my eyes."

I told her about that at the end, and she said that was perfect.

I walked back to work, feeling lighter and happier, which I attributed to the fact that I had just unburdened myself to a stranger. That week, I put her advice into practice and things felt marginally better.

Our next session was childhood regression. Coulter told me that usually she doesn't tell people that childhood regression is coming because it freaks them out. I understood. I was freaked out.

When I think childhood regression, I imagine recovered memories of sexual abuse, the kind of stuff that was big in the '90s. I had, as far as I remember, an idyllic childhood, so I wasn't stoked on the idea of recovering memories.

When I sat down for my second session, I was already having a terrible day. The issue that had bothered me last time was back and filling my chest with nervous anxiety. Plus, you know, the childhood regression thing. But Coulter led me to the chair, and counted down like she had before, telling me to relax. She did the same "Sleep!" hand drop, and again, I felt totally present and awake. Relaxed but not like overly relaxed. Floaty a little bit, on the puffiest chair in the world.

Then, Coulter asked me to focus on the feeling I was feeling, the bad anxiety feeling. Give it a shape and a color and make it big, feel it in my entire body. Soon, I was crying again.

Childhood regression turned out not to be scary at all, just emotional. Coulter helped me focus on the anxiety feeling, and then I thought of an earlier time I had felt it, and an earlier time, and an earlier time. Remembering all these past experiences of fear and anxiety was sad but also interesting. I hadn't linked the events before in my mind and hadn't thought about why I was reacting to certain situations in this one particular way.

In the earliest memory I could come up with that involved this feeling, I was about 7, but Coulter wanted to go earlier. So I did. And that part was very interesting. I don't really have concrete memories from when I was, say, 3. But I have ideas of things that happened, places and people, and could vaguely remember the outline of things. I was more in a twilight memory world, mostly making up the details that Coulter asked for, but the feeling was authentic. I could imagine myself as a little girl, feeling this particular kind of fear and anxiety for the first time. Then Coulter had me talk to that little girl.

Basically, the idea of this kind of hypnosis is to change the subconscious narrative. So I talked to the little girl, explained why she wasn't really in trouble and how smart and tough she was, cried a bunch, like sobbed, and then came out of it.

It was kind of amazing.

First of all, it helped me realize where my anxiety was coming from. Then, it allowed me to take responsibility for it. Again, I left feeling lighter. That was in December, and now, three months later, I still feel lighter and more able to navigate that particular relationship.

After that, I figured I was done. But still, there were three more sessions with Coulter. In the third session, we focused on forgiving others. I cried again and thought about other relationships and realized I was harboring anger that I hadn't acknowledged in a long time.

In the fourth session, we worked on self-forgiveness. And in the last session, like the first, I lay on the puffy chair while Coulter said really nice things about me.

Ultimately, in a completely surprising way, the experience of hypnosis changed my life. If not dramatically, it changed the quality of my interactions with other people. Since I finished those sessions, I've been more aware of my immediate feeling-based reaction to things. I've been trying to come up with better responses. I've been trying to take things less personally, blame other people less, and use my emotions as a tool to understand what's going on in any given situation.

Is hypnosis magic? No. It's working with the same ideas as good therapy or meditation or journal writing or even yoga. It's about understanding your life as a narrative and controlling that narrative. It's about recognizing the trauma that comes with being a living human and not letting it dominate your life. It's about living in the present moment instead of cowering in fear created by things that happened to you in the past.

The only problem with hypnosis, it seems, is the narrative around hypnosis itself. Even Coulter was reluctant to tell me how much it cost (around $700 for a full five sessions) or much about the childhood regression stuff before it happened. But I think this secrecy around what hypnosis actually is is what turns people away or why it doesn't even register as an option. I went in not even knowing what I would work on or if I even had anything to work on—the issues I was having I figured were just normal life stuff that I just had to deal with. But unlike therapy, hypnosis has an end date and a concrete goal. And unlike meditation, the work you are doing is specific, made for you and, again, completely concrete.

I left hypnosis wishing I had a bunch of money so I could get hypnosis gift certificates for all my friends. Because it's empowering to feel like you control your own narrative, not to mention totally interesting to get to the roots of your triggers, recognize them as triggers, and then stop allowing them to be your master.

TLDR? Hypnosis: In a crazy twist, Lady Things officially recommends it.

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