A Florida playwright credits hypnotherapy with helping him better understand his depression and move past it.
By Denise Mann Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH Image: Leonid Plotkin/Alamy
Hypnosis involves invoking a trance-like state in which the patient has a heightened focus.
It was just after Sept. 11, 2001, and Steven Billing was coming undone from living with depression. He was severely depressed after a breakup, and one of his closest friends came “this close” to getting on a flight on that fateful day.
“I was really down,” he recalls. At the time, Billing worked for an extremely progressive company that supported the use of alternative therapies, including hypnotherapy, for depression. “I was skeptical, but at that point I would have tried anything,” says Billing, now 51.
Today, the Orlando, Florida-based playwright is happier than he’s ever been.
What Is Hypnosis?
In hypnotherapy, there is no clock on a chain that waves back and forth as a person grows sleepy. It’s also different from what’s seen on nightclub stages, where a hypnotist might “program” participants to cluck like a chicken when they hear a clap, much to the audience’s awe and delight. That’s entertainment.
In medicine, hypnosis involves invoking a trance-like state in which the patient has a heightened focus, says William Dubin, PhD, a member of the American Psychological Association and a psychologist specializing in hypnotherapy at Psychological ARTS in Austin, Texas. A healthcare professional often guides the process, according to the American Psychological Association.
Besides depression, hypnosis may help with issues such as hot flashes, smoking cessation, and pain management, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The number of sessions needed to see an effect varies. Some people are able to self-hypnotize by following a CD or DVD, but others may need more guidance, at least in the beginning, Dr. Dubin says.
“I started feeling better after about five sessions,” Billing says. His therapist played relaxing music and asked Billing to close his eyes. “He talked to me about being on an elevator and going down and down and down,” he says. “Eventually, you fall in, and many issues come up that you can speak about calmly.”
The overall goal is to create a relaxed but conscious state where individuals feel comfortable enough to discuss their circumstances without becoming overly anxious or emotional, explains Wendi Friesen, CHT, a certified clinical hypnotherapist in Boulder, Colorado.
The experience allowed Billing to see himself and his choices more clearly, especially in terms of how he approaches dating and relationships. Before hypnotherapy, he was jealous, clingy, and insecure. “Today I am single by choice,” he says. “I am comfortable in my own skin.”
Billing’s experience also allowed him to tap into his inner creativity. In 2004, after being moved by a documentary about elephants in danger of extinction, he wrote a musical called Tusk that played off Broadway. He’s now getting ready to write a book about the same issue.
“I look at my life now, and it’s so much more peaceful and happy,” he says. “Had I not gone to that hypnotherapist, I don’t know what would have happened.”
His advice to others is to not knock it till you try it. “It’s also important to see a licensed hypnotherapist or mental healthcare professional who specializes in it,” he adds.
Hypnosis for Depression Treatment
“Depression often has a cause, and when the cause is found and released and transformed, the depression lifts,” Friesen says. “Hypnosis uses the ability of the brain to create new neural pathways and connect to the new experiences, imagined vividly in hypnosis. We ask the person to go back to a time when they felt the same emotions while in a trance.” In that way, hypnotherapy helps find the root cause of depression. “It is different than re-experiencing a trauma,” Friesen adds. “You are aware of everything that is happening, but you are experiencing it as an observer.”
Another way hypnosis addresses depression is by helping people focus on a better, brighter future, Friesen says.
“We take someone to a time when they have overcome the problem,” she says. “We create a future timeline, and let the client experience several moments in the future where they are doing something they love, feeling challenged and rewarded, having energy and happiness. In this future moment or future memory, the brain creates expectations on a subconscious level and creates new emotions and beliefs about what the future holds.”
For the right patient, hypnotherapy for depression can be extremely effective. “Hypnotherapy creates an intentional trance-formation,” Dubin explains. “Whatever you are paying attention to can affect your mood, but hypnotherapy can shift your attention to other things that elicit a different reaction.” The hope is that once you learn this skill set, you can do it on your own.
Good candidates for hypnotherapy are individuals who get easily absorbed in books or movies, those who are adept at visualization, and those who are open to hypnosis.
“People who are defensive may not be the best candidates,” Dubin says.
Last Updated: 5/1/2015