My New Year's resolutions tend to last about as long as a flute-full of champagne, and I'm not alone. Whether we want to quit smoking, lose weight or get rich, 13 percent of us fizzle out five minutes past midnight, according to Health magazine; by St. Patrick's Day, more than half of Americans have given up their good intentions. A measly 12 percent make it through the entire year.
Against such odds, more people are turning to clinical hypnosis, or hypnotherapy, to break their bad habits. And thanks to recent neurological studies that bolster the anecdotal evidence of hypnotic effects, the practice is becoming more acceptable in mainstream medical circles. Once the realm of high school gymnasium entertainers and cartoon characters, hypnosis is finally getting some respect. Its applications extend beyond smoking cessation and weight loss to performance enhancement, pain management and curing phobias related to flying, driving and buttons. Yes, buttons. Apparently, it's a fairly common malady in England.
I, too, suffer from a fear of buttons: namely, the "on" switch of my Macintosh, which sends me spiraling into a frenzy of multitasking, anxiety and daydreaming as I attempt to meet various deadlines. Hoping to find a bit more focus in 2005, I book an initial appointment with hypnotherapist Kristin Watson at Burlington's Pathways to Wellbeing. In her office, there are no trace-inducing pendulums or whirlygigs. Instead, I find two chairs, a bookshelf and a table; Watson is also a massage therapist.
She asks me a few questions about what relaxes me; at first I answer "skiing," but then remember being forced as a kid to slide down slopes on minus-20-degree days, which was definitely not relaxing. I switch to "being outdoors, on the water." She asks how my life will be better if I am able to improve my concentration and stress reduction, and habits -- good and bad -- that make up my work day.
Watson uses this information to steer clients through hypnosis sessions, so that the positive habits rise to the surface and negative actions sink to the bottom. "Our day is made up of hundreds of little habits," says Watson, who points out that the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray learns to correct his self-destructive behavior, is a good primer in the basics of hypnosis. Other movies discredit the practice by spreading misinformation, according to Watson. In Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Voltan puts Woody Allen under an evil hypnotic trance.
"A person under hypnosis will not do anything they don't want to do," says Hawaii sport psychologist Dr. Beale, who creates customized self-hypnosis CDs and MP3 files. "You can only help people through hypnosis."
Hypnosis, in fact, is a natural state we fall into every day -- driving the car, for example, or staring at the computer screen. Hypnotherapists simply use the power of suggestion to help individuals tuck beneficial ideas into their subconscious minds. While they are in this deeply relaxed state, Watson asks would-be nicotine quitters to imagine themselves as future non-smokers and, in contrast, picture what they would look like after five more years of continued smoking. The nonsmoking image grows larger and in full color while the smoking image, in black and white, shrinks and disappears. "I've had pack-a-day people quit in one session," says Watson. "But I've also had people who've had to come back several times; it just depends on how ready, motivated and suggestible you are."
Suggestibility is key. While Psychology Today claims that 95 percent of people can be hypnotized to some degree, Watson estimates that only about three-quarters of the clients she sees pass the susceptibility tests on the first try; many find that it's a learned experience.
I feel silly -- and skeptical -- when I lie back on the table and close my eyes. "Let your body feel heavier," says Watson from a nearby chair. "In a few minutes you're going to feel more relaxed than you've ever felt before."
Yeah, right, I think. Cars are honking on Battery and King Streets; a distant ambulance wails. These outside noises, says Watson, will only contribute to the relaxation. She tells me to feel the outside world melting away, to visualize myself in a sailboat on a calm sea, surrounded by white puffy clouds and the sounds of other vessels.
The muscles around my mouth begin to slacken, and I remember the clanking halyards, the snap of sails in the wind and the wailing foghorns that served as a soundtrack for my once worry-free summer days. By the time Watson tells me I can't open my eyes, I really can't; they feel glued shut. I can't lift my left arm, either. When she tells me I'm holding a red helium balloon in my right hand, and that I'll be amused as the arm lifts into the air, sure enough, my right arm heads for the ceiling and I start laughing. It's a little embarrassing -- and freaky.
Watson then instructs me to envision myself at my desk, organized and in control, focusing on one task at a time. The vision comes easily, and I think to myself, Well, of course, that's how I'll be for every day from now on. After what seems like five minutes, Watson tells me I am soon going to open my eyes and feel alert and refreshed, as if after a long nap. I'm astonished when my eyelids flutter open and I discover it's been half an hour.
"You passed those tests with flying colors!" says Watson.
The real test, however, comes when I return to my desk.
I fail miserably. Within 30 seconds of sitting down, I hop on my instant-messenger system and begin gossiping with one of my brothers. My fingers fly across the keyboard -- but in emails to my friends, not in brilliant prose. I stare out the window. I unwrap a stick of gum. I watch the lights on my modem flicker and examine a crack in the ceiling. I do pretty much everything except concentrate on one of the three assignments I'm juggling.
The next morning, while I'm running, I feel myself sliding back into a trancelike state. With my conscious mind focused on avoiding ice slicks and unleashed dogs, my subconscious sees productivity, calm, creativity. That day, I sail from one story to the next, refusing to succumb to distractions, and I soon find myself revisiting the initial hynotherapy experience. Did it work? Maybe. Should I go again, for lasting success? Depending on the problem, two to 10 sessions is a typical prescription. Either way, my resolution has already outlasted last year's, to be more patient. Now it's time to focus on getting rich.