Author | Photos Elijah Hiett

My Journey with Hypnotherapy: Visualizing the Forest

I didn’t know what to expect from my first hypnotherapy appointment. Wracking my brain, I could only come up with three references for hypnosis:

  1. The cinematic trope of a creepy man, with a Dali-like moustache, dangling a gold-chained watch back and forth until his subject loses all control of his/her own ability to make decisions;
  2. The story I once heard about a corporate event for “team-building,” when an employee was selected to go on stage, in front of their entire company, to be hypnotized. They proceeded to say embarrassing things to a theatre full of colleagues (what HR person thought that was a good idea?);
  3. A run-in I had with a famous Canadian actor at a TIFF party, where we gushed to one another how we both quit smoking (we had shared quite a few butts the previous year). She was so excited to tell me how it was only when she tried being hypnotized that she was finally able stop.

Truly, I had no idea what would happen, but I was excited to find out.

I walked up the narrow staircase to a modest reception area in a slightly run-down building. After chatting with the receptionist, I did a survey of the room. Having learned about the place purely from a Google search, I was entering an unknown experience; no one had recommended it to me. After a couple of silent minutes, gazing at the cover stories on a parental magazine and a few assorted plants that lined the shelves, I was called to the hypnotist’s office, which was a few inches from me, in the tightly packed space.

I walked in and sat on an enormous chair. It was so big that I wasn’t sure how to distribute my weight. The hypnotist, let’s call him Steven, noticed my awkwardness:

“It’s a rocking chair. You can balance on the front of it, or lean back.”

I committed to the front part of the chair, not yet comfy enough to stretch out in front of a stranger, but after a few minutes of spilling my secrets, sharing with him about my neurotic scratching, I felt at ease, so I leaned all the way back. 

This first session wasn’t actually a session, but a conversation for Steven to assess my situation and to test how malleable I am to hypnosis. 

Steve explained to me that hypnosis is a combination of the mind’s willingness to drift into a relaxed state and being physically at ease enough to get there. These weren’t his words exactly (I wasn’t taking notes), but he told me it’s not just a hypnotic voice or journey that will transcend you; the subject in the chair needs to be able to stretch their imagination a bit in order to allow themselves to be hypnotized. 

So he tested me out. I closed my eyes and he guided me to a visual of a beach. There was a weight in one of my arms (a pretend weight) and a helium balloon in the other (again, not real). He guided me into this imagined state and, using a very tranquil voice, asked me if I could feel the weight of the of the rock in my left arm and the pull of the balloon in my right. After a minute or so, I opened my eyes and noticed that my arms were stretched far apart. “This is the best possible outcome. Hypnosis will work on you,” he said.

For those who are reluctant to be guided, the arms would have barely moved. I, apparently, am extremely keen/willing to enter an altered space. Not surprising, I always have been. Although this one seems healthier than guzzling wine then vodka to get there, the path I used to take. (Not to say that getting blackout drunk is the same as being hypnotized, but in my mind, there are similarities.)

While Steve has never had a patient with my particular issue, frantic scratching (every time I write that, I feel like a wild dog with fleas), he said he would approach it in the same vein as nail-biting and obsessive skin-picking. To do this, he must help me rewrite a script in my head, and the one we decided to use was this: “My body is capable of healing. I must be a good steward for my body, understand that it is beautiful in its imperfections, and trust that it will heal itself. When I interfere with my scratching, I am causing destruction.”

To help with this, he gave me a few options of how to visualize myself. I was so taken by one of his suggestions that I can’t even recall what the other two were. Always being someone who finds answers in nature (some call it God, but I think of it more as a powerful spiritual connection to the earth), I jumped at the visual that had me standing on top of a mountain, looking down at a forest-covered valley, with a winding river, and breathtaking cliffs. Moving forward, I’m to think of my body as this natural landscape, which definitely has its rotten trees or eroding riverbanks, but is genuinely perfect in its imperfections. 

This was an easy concept for me to grasp. As someone who spends a lot of time outdoors and finds peace in the wild, I understood exactly what he meant by having a view of nature that is simply perfect, knowing that when trees fall, or animals die, nature replenishes, and that it’s all one thriving ecosystem that supports itself. Only when man enters with a bulldozer does it become vulnerable to destruction (in other words, my fingers pulling at my face).

It’s a bit tricky to explain, but simply upon thinking of my body this way, I instantly felt relief. In the week since that first appointment, I have repeated this mantra to myself: “You are perfect as you are. You are capable of healing yourself. Be a good steward.” That alone has provided me with a great sense of calm, which I can feel in my gut, my brain, my skin. 

Hypnotherapy is part of a personal experiment to tackle my anxiety-induced skin scratching. Check out the series here.

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