I am driving north on a stretch of South Jersey highway at rush hour, and for the first time, I am hearing the story of how my mother feared the devil might possess me as a baby. It is on the list of the irrational and not entirely religiously inspired worries that have plagued her over the last quarter century. (Others include suffering from a flesh-eating bacteria and not arriving to work before that guy in accounting.) She is unsure why these are the things that cause her stress, and equally as sure that these are thoughts other people do not have.
My mom, also known as Daria, is explaining the moment she became an anxious person and saying how she feels partly responsible for my own nervous tendencies. We are on our way to our first-ever joint hypnosis session where, we hope, to be charmed out of our anxiety, a compound and interdependent type of stress that has led me to wonder whether it is a learned behavior or an inherited one.
Often, the idea of hypnosis conjures visions of being lulled into a trance so deep that you end up clucking like a chicken onstage in front of an audience of bloated, red-faced retirees on a cruise ship. But the practice has become a trusted form of treatment for pain management and behavior modification. During the American Civil War, doctors used hypnosis on soldiers before amputating. More recently, collegiate psychology programs have been incorporating hypnosis into their curriculums. Washington State University integrated psychological hypnosis into their counseling psychology graduate program in 1984, calling the practice "one of the most versatile and useful of health care tools for both physical and mental health."
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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."
"In my experience, the people that do best with hypnosis are people who have done therapy and counseling," says Steve Roh, chief hypnosis officer at Center City Hypnosis in Philadelphia. "With hypnosis you work with the subconscious." In other words, hypnosis can be used as a way to tap into behaviors after they've been addressed consciously. For our purposes, this was bad news—hypnosis is the only form of professional help that my mother has expressed interest in. Roh also seemed skeptical at the fact that Daria and I wanted to be hypnotized together, likening the experience to attending psychotherapy together. No one really wants to talk about past trauma in front of their mother. "With another person there, [a person] who you know, who is a relative, some of these techniques would be crossing a boundary," he said. "It puts you in an unfair position if you know the person."
But our soon-to-be hypnotist, Barbara Angelo, didn't mind. A certified practitioner with the National Guild of Hypnotists and certified hypnosis instructor who has performed hypnosis in seminars, groups, and one-on-one interactions, Angelo has found that a generalized level of stress exists at the root of most of her clients' various phobias and habits. When you address a concern, such as fear of flying, you often uncover another layer of anxiety beneath it, she says. Daria and I wanted her to go there.
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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.
Despite the fact that my mother didn't have an uber-anxious role model in her youth, Angelo says it's still possible that she might have inherited her behavior. Studies have shown that traumatic memories can be passed on from generation to generation. Where I might have learned that positive reinforcement results from stressing myself out, it's also possible both my mother and I could be genetically predispositioned to worry. Roh confirmed that "the inclination to develop a fear or a bad habit" can be inherited or inspired by environmental factors.
While my mother and I both experience stress individually, some of our worries hinge on each other.
"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?
All we had to do is follow her perfect voice: so smooth that it made my scalp feel like it was melting.
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.
Suddenly, Angelo's voice came back into the foreground: "It's so easy. Remembering all of this is is so easy because it's who you are, and you've chosen to move more slowly, to relax so easily." She began counting down from ten, bringing us into more lucid territory with each number. At one, she instructed us to open our eyes. I wondered why I hadn't been hypnotized before.
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.