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Over the weekend, I found myself staring at the mirror with bloodshot eyes, tears streaming inexplicably down my face, in the bathroom of a hypnotist’s home office.
For years, I have been plagued with a very severe, almost laughable, fear of frogs. When I pitched the story idea of overcoming my frog phobia with hypnosis, I was admittedly looking for a quick fix to my quirky problem. But bawling my eyes out in a stranger’s toilet following a shocking revelation about my deeper self? Definitely not part of the plan.
A snapshot of a decade-long frog phobia looks something like this: Constantly curating travel routes to avoid seeing them, going into heightened alert when watching nature documentaries, giving half-baked exposure therapy a go with Google image searches (didn’t make it through one frog photo, by the way), and writing about my crippling phobia in hopes of some relief.
More recently, when TikTok pulled up to the social media scene with its notoriously pushy For You Page, I discovered the horror of landing on unsolicited frog videos during a casual scrolling sesh. With my deathly aversion to the slimy creature refusing to budge, I was always joking that the only way I could ever get over my phobia was if I was conked out and magically hypnotized.
So when the opportunity arose for me to actually make good on the joke, I got in touch with Lee McKing, a hypnotist in Singapore, to find out: Why do people get hypnotized? Does it actually work? And can hypnotism help me get over my fear of frogs?
What is hypnotism?
The ancient practice now widely known as hypnotism had been around for ages across different cultures before it began to be studied scientifically in the 18th and 19th centuries, and became an increasingly popular form of alternative therapy. Nowadays, people go into hypnosis for a wild variety of purposes, from getting in touch with their past lives to treating pandemic anxiety and even achieving touch-free orgasms.
The state of hypnosis, Lee explained, is “basically going from your conscious mind into your unconscious mind.” Where the conscious mind is a logical gatekeeper, the unconscious mind is a sponge that is more emotional and sometimes quite illogical, he said.
Lee told me that his style of hypnosis, which he described as more “conversational” and “modern,” is quite different from the pocket watch-swinging types sensationalized for screens. But at the same time, it departs from traditional hypnotherapy in its flexibility. He apparently mixes and matches different techniques to suit different problems, and sometimes even creates new techniques on the spot to adapt to individuals’ issues.
Before hypnotizing his clients, he usually does a long interview with them first.
“I want to understand how their mind works first, how the problems are constructed in their mind, because every single person could have a different construct for their problem,” he said.
Once he knows how people’s problems are formed, he then decides which techniques to use for solutions. For example, he often uses the technique of regression to help clients track their memories to the origin of a troubling thought or behavioral pattern. There’s also dynamic mental imagery, where people immerse themselves in imagination while in a trance state.
Most of his clients come to him for mental issues, such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and phobias. Over our Zoom interview, Lee was pretty confident that my frog phobia was something we could cure in one session—like most of his clients’ problems.
But I was kind of skeptical. After all, he made some pretty bold claims: Stories of how he cured mysterious medical conditions and helped people overcome long-term mental health issues (we’re talking deep childhood trauma and lifelong behavioral patterns), all through hypnosis sessions that didn’t take more than an hour.
I didn’t see any harm in trying, though, so I arrived at Lee’s home office armed with cautious optimism for a simple solution to my serious amphibian anxiety.
Going into hypnosis
I entered hypnosis sprawled on a comfy armchair in Lee’s office and focused on his voice in my trance. We began with regression to trace my phobia to its roots. He had me imagining a timeline decorated with dots, each representing a moment when I experienced the same fear I have come to associate with frog sightings.
You don’t have to remember these incidents consciously, he added, just as long as you see a bunch of dots.
To begin, we stepped right into the first dot on that timeline: I was a kid, playing in a park where frogs would appear at nightfall. I remember being terrified that I would accidentally step on one of them in the darkness.
Lee told me to store the positive learnings from that event while releasing the negative emotions attached to it, so I tried to do just that. My fear hadn’t really budged, I noted, as we moved on to the next dot in the timeline: A frog brought home by my father in a plastic bag, hopping around my childhood home.
As Lee prodded me with questions that dug deeper into this memory, I found the session steering into a zone I was not prepared to confront. Emotions started to swell up to my throat. I was looking for a fuss-free cure to my frog phobia, not a dissection of my deep-seated issues. I can’t do this, I thought, as I snapped out of the trance and opened my eyes. Tears came trickling down and I choked out a soft chuckle in embarrassment.
I excused myself to the bathroom, and, when my conscious mind regained dominance, struggled to understand why I was crying like a child. I knew that we had touched on a core memory that may be at the root of my phobia, but it also seemed so irrelevant to my fear of frogs.
“Sometimes, what we see as a problem may be some deeper stuff inside,” he later told me as we tried to make sense of my tears. And sometimes, like in my case, these things only come out during the hypnosis session itself.
“Sometimes, what we see as a problem may be some deeper stuff inside.”
Turns out, the phobia that I thought stemmed from a line of nasty frog encounters might actually be the wildly illogical outcome of a deeper inner conflict—and one that I was not ready to confront or discuss with a stranger. What I can say is this: To the rational mind, they’re almost completely unrelated. But like Lee said, the unconscious mind isn’t logical.
Is there any other way we can still treat my frog phobia but without touching on that issue? I asked Lee, reluctant to call it a day just yet.
“Let’s try something else,” he offered.
Back in a trance now, Lee told me to visualize the fear in my body. For me, it took the initial form of a red circle in my chest.
Lee then instructed me to ask it questions like: What is your message for me? What are you protecting me from? And what is your positive intention for me?
With these prompts, the red circle morphed into a green square, which reappeared as an orange circle and later, a purple triangle—all shapes that carried different emotions in my head. Despite the continuous geometric transformation, the shapes were, for the most part, pretty unresponsive. But with the right questions, answers and thoughts popped into my head in my hypnotized state. I repeated them to Lee, who then responded with more questions.
I wondered if I was being a good hypnotic subject as I found myself struggling to stay engaged with my imagination. Was I really speaking from my subconscious mind, or just saying what my conscious mind was imagining my subconscious would say?
“Usually, I will just take it as it is,” Lee later said when I shared this thought with him. “But if you find that the feeling has shifted, then it’s definitely from your unconscious.”
As we progressed through the different shapes, I could feel the fear of frogs being taken down in notches, and we did periodic checks by having me imagine frogs and rating my feeling of fear.
The final exercise was to recall a specific image of a splattered frog that has long been etched in my memory. I imagined the color image change into black and white, shrinking and blurring before I shut it into a box and tossed it far away into oblivion. It was gone. Then, upon the count of five, I was out of hypnosis.
“How was that?” I asked Lee after I opened my eyes. “Eh,” he shrugged with a smile and suggested I look at some frog photos.
As a test, I had forced myself to look at some frog photos before my hypnosis session. Just like how I usually reacted to my frog encounters on TikTok, I squirmed in my seat in Lee’s office, eyes squinted shut to protect myself from the repulsive images.
Here’s where it gets weird. Post-hypnosis, I felt strangely collected as we ran through the same photos, and then more. I didn’t even flinch.
“I would say it’s still not my favorite animal,” I began. “Of course,” he nodded. “But I feel a reduction of fear,” I confessed.
With that, it was time to head straight to a local frog farm to test my phobia. I said goodbye to Lee, feeling a little self-conscious about my inexplicable crying episode and a lot thankful for my visibly improved reaction to frogs. But this was just another day at the office for Lee, who has dealt with more extreme outbursts and even more intense backstories.
On to the frog farm
Greeted by frog statues at the entrance of the dreaded frog farm, the pre-hypnotized version of me would probably have freaked out and noped the fuck out of there. But I was feeling cautiously chill.
When I came face-to-face with a swamp of resting bullfrogs, I was still very jumpy—surprisingly, this apprehension was nowhere near the existential threat I used to feel around frogs. My biggest breakthrough, I discovered, is that I can finally bear to stare down frogs in their slimy, croaky entirety, and not feel like I’m going to hyperventilate and pass out.
I haven’t completely banished my phobia—this could be why I’m still not ready to hold a frog just yet—but compared to the person who couldn’t even look at them, I would say I’ve leapfrogged over my first mental barrier.
Hypnosis can work, even for those who don’t believe in it, but not for those who aren’t ready to confront their issues, Lee told me before I visited his office that day. So, it seems like overcoming my phobia would require me to tackle some deep-seated personal issues that aren’t even linked to frogs.
A few days after our hypnosis session, Lee reminded me that I could still meet him for a chat to get to the real root of my phobia.
“Am considering that,” I texted him in reply. “Perhaps sometime when I feel more ready.”
If my enduring frog phobia was an apple, then my tear-filled hypnosis session was taking a big bite into it. I can’t see the apple seeds clearly yet, but I’m now a little closer to the core. At least for now, I no longer have to cower in fear whenever rainforest scenes from Animal Planet come on TV.
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