Hypnosis exists in many styles and methods. The word hypnotherapy is a gray area for practitioners; generally, the National Guild of Hypnotists recommends avoiding the term unless you're a licensed healthcare professional, since the word therapy indicates the client will undergo a psychotherapeutic treatment. In many states, hypnosis is an unregulated field, though others, like Colorado, require practicing hypnotists to be licensed and to pass an exam. In New Jersey, hypnotists do not need to be licensed when aiding clients in increasing motivation, kicking habits like smoking, and "stress management not related to a medical or mental health disorder."
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While my mother and I both experience stress individually, some of our worries hinge on each other. Before I was born, the first 30 years of Daria's life were largely stress free—she didn't feel pressure to do it all. After my siblings and I arrived, she started dreaming the devil would kidnap us. Beyond that, I watched her wear herself thin driving us to various practices and playdates and still make dinner after a full day in the office. Also, she was single.As a kid, watching your mom hold herself to a higher standard than others, you start to get the feeling you should be "better" too, even if you have no idea what "better" actually means. Throughout my adolescence, I acted in ways I knew would get my mom's approval: enrolling in advanced courses, getting good grades, becoming a varsity runner. She wasn't one of those helicopter parents, but she offered praise and reward whenever I pushed myself, sometimes to the point of panic attacks."When she was so conscientious and so striving, I reinforced that behavior," Daria admitted to Angelo in a discussion before the hypnosis part of the session took place. "I didn't realize it was making her crazy. I rewarded that stress and ridiculous obsession, but I didn't realize it was making her feel like she was going to die. And no one did it to me, so I must've just done it to myself."Angelo's Mount Laurel, New Jersey office is in a two-story strip mall that also houses a nail salon, hoagie shop, dentist, and dry cleaner, but her second-floor space, a windowless yet pleasant enclave, is a eucalyptus-scented oasis of zen. Buddha statues accent the blue and green color scheme. Bowls of chocolate sit on a cabinet by the door.
"We're hyper-competitive," Daria said. "That's where a lot of our stress comes from.""Would you say you're a perfectionist?" Angelo asked.It's a resounding no from both of us, though my mom said it best: "We think we're so far behind that we're trying to catch up."It doesn't take a degree or certification to know that these negative affirmations don't help our case, so Angelo said she would focus on helping us train ourselves to stop these thoughts and just relax. Then, the hypnosis began. All we had to do is follow her perfect voice: Equal parts embracing and sedative, it was so smooth that it made my scalp feel like it was melting.As we settled into two lounge chairs in Angelo's office I worried if Daria would be able to adequately follow directions and press pause on her hyper-active awareness. And would the knowledge of unread emails prevent me from fully embracing the experience?
While my mother and I both experience stress individually, some of our worries hinge on each other.
Angelo dimmed the lights and turned on a CD of ocean sound effects. She started talking, a deep, constant flow of words, and told us to focus on our breath, to imagine a ball of light traveling over our bodies. I felt my limbs press into the chair and then into floor below—I couldn't bear to move even when Angelo asked us to place our thumb and forefinger together in an A-OK sign.I followed Angelo's voice, that beacon of light in fog, but her words started to phase in and out. In my mind, I saw a triangular blue neon sign, walked toward it, and suddenly found myself in a kiddie gymnastics class with a baby strapped to my chest. I placed the baby on the floor and a man whose face didn't enter the frame picked the child up. Suddenly, I was in the middle of a bar fight (no baby), not participating, but in the line of fire. But I was at peace, not knowing where I was or what was happening or if I was awake or dreaming.To my right, I later learned, Daria was convinced spiders were crawling on her face and couldn't help but think her pants were cutting off her circulation. She fidgeted a bit, Angelo told us later. As the session went on, though, my mother noticed the pain in her knees subsiding, along with the chaos in her head. A vision of a dark pinkish-purple cloud took its place. The cloud then morphed into a pear.
All we had to do is follow her perfect voice: so smooth that it made my scalp feel like it was melting.
My mother seemed proud she was able to disconnect from consciousness for even a little bit. I was proud of her, too. As people who have praised the other for waking up at 5 AM to work out, it felt good to revel in mindfulness for a change. And despite our past brushes with anxiety, we'd never really discussed the issue at length until now. In Angelo's office, as I explained how watching Olympic gymnasts pushed me toward a panic attack in the summer of 2012, an event which resulted in a series of middle-of-the-night texts to my mother, I realized I'd never actually explained why I feel the way I feel (even if the reasons are hinged on slightly neurotic obsessions). The same was true for her. I'd never heard her verbalize how being a single mother had impacted the way she viewed herself and thus behaved. Attempting hypnosis allowed us to discuss these things more freely."Maybe I focused harder because you told me I don't follow directions, and I was trying to follow them," Daria told me afterwards. While she said she wasn't able to detach herself completely—"I thought there was a clinical definition of hypnotized, and that didn't happen for me. I couldn't stop thinking about things; I did think a lot less, but I don't think I ever stopped thinking my toes hurt in my shoes"—she did feel better.A few weeks later, on Easter, when I selfishly unloaded all the things that were making me anxious upon my mom, she told me to place my index finger to my thumb—the same A-OK sign Angelo had instructed us to do in our hypnosis—harkening back to the chill we had experienced. Whether it was the memory of the hypnosis or the fact that my mom had actually given me constructive advice, for a brief moment I forgot what it was I worried about, and even what it meant to be worried at all.