Article On Phobia Resolved Through Hypnotherapy
Published in Weston Magazine in 2003

A Bridge Too High?

Would it be all right, I asked, for Jane to become aware of an event or experience that caused Jane to be afraid of heights?  In a delicate, flickering manner the index finger of Jane’s right hand began to float up signaling an unconscious response of “yes.”  Deep in trance, Jane was about to remember the origin of her phobia for heights. 

Jane’s phobia had plagued her for her entire adult life. She could not drive over bridges.  Heights put her in a panic.  While the small bridges in Weston and the surrounding towns were avoidable, Jane was planning to move to Florida with her husband to live closer to her mother.  She came to see me, because she would no longer  be able to avoid high bridges when she would be driving over Tampa Bay to her mother’s house and she was experiencing significant anxiety just thinking about it. 

With only seven weeks before the move, and feeling desperate, Jane called hoping she would be able to benefit from clinical hypnosis.  While this was a possibility, it was also possible that the resolution of her problem could take more than the time allotted, or treatment might only be partially successful.  Of course, such an expectation puts some pressure on the clinician to provide a “cure” in short order.  This stress is moderated by the knowledge that change can take its own time and the fact that one can’t help everyone, in spite of one’s best intentions Nonetheless, by utilizing hypnosis, dramatic changes sometimes occur in a short period of time.

Hypnosis can provide direct access to unconscious material and utilize a persons creative resources in a way that more traditional forms of talk therapy and cognitive-behavioral strategies can not, while at the same time incorporating those approaches in the treatment of emotional, behavioral, and certain medical problems.  It is a safe and effective technique that can be used in the treatment of a variety of problems, often with rapid results.  It promotes healing by utilizing the mind/body connection in a powerful way.  I have applied hypnotic procedures in helping people with anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress, eating and sleep disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, smoking cessation and weight control, labor pain and delivery, chronic pain and migraines, hypertension, noxious side effects from chemotherapy treatments, rapid healing from surgery, academic performance and test taking, writer’s block, public speaking, and sports performance.  There is a large and growing body of peer reviewed research on the efficacy of hypnosis in the treatment of these and other problems.  Hypnosis was endorsed by the American Medical Association in 1958 and the American Psychiatric Association in 1961.  It has been used in various evolving forms as far back as the ancient Druids and Egyptians, coming into greater prominence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

After taking an initial history of Jane’s problem and an assessment of her psychological condition,  we agreed to begin by teaching Jane self-hypnotic techniques to moderate her anxiety.  Should that be insufficient in helping her drive over bridges, we would do an unconscious exploration looking for events or experiences associated with her phobia.

I developed a personalized hypnotic induction for Jane so that she would be able to access a comfortable trance state.  Trances are naturally occurring phenomena of everyday life.  Daydreaming, wherein you realize at some point you hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on around you is an indication of being in a mild trance.  Driving home and realizing you hadn’t paid attention to how you got there is another example of how you can be absorbed attending to what is going on in one part of your mind, while another part of your mind is paying attention to where you are driving. 

So trances, for clinical hypnosis purposes, involve developing a receptive state of attention, inner absorption, and an openness to suggestions.  Normal defenses, critical/analytical thinking, and distractions are minimized.  Working in trance, one is better able to utilize the imagination, one’s creative resources, and experiences that have been stored away in a part of the mind beyond one’s conscious awareness, in the service of resolving problems, as well as, for personal growth and reaching one’s potentials.  Such experiences may be emotional, sensory/motor in nature, traumatic, and fragmented as an unconscious partial memory for which no narrative yet exists because of the way such experiences have been encoded in the brain, but which nonetheless influence one’s actions.

With Jane, who turned out to be a good hypnotic subject (four-fifths of the general population is hypnotizable.  I started using a form of systematic desensitization intensified by being in trance.  While in trance I taught Jane relaxation techniques to help her alleviate her anxiety, then having her imagine herself approaching and crossing bridges and responding with relaxation responses as soon as she began to notice her anxiety increase.  This provided some moderate relief.  She reported being able to drive over small bridges but not without anxiety and the Tappan Zee Bridge proved too much.  With time short, she agreed to an unconscious exploration of the problem to see if there was a significant psychological foundation to her problem that she needed to work through.

Productive unconscious explorations are fascinating experiences both for the subject and the clinician.  They are not always successful, but when they are, results can be dramatic, as they were for Jane.  One of the typical ways of performing an unconscious exploration is to first set up ideomotor signals so that unconscious responses to questions regarding the origin of a problem can be witnessed.  Since the unconscious is deemed to be non-narrative, nonverbal signals, like fingers floating up, are developed to answer questions phrased so that a person can answer them with a simple “yes,” “no,” “I don’t know,” or “I don’t want to say.”  When a question is asked, the subject in trance is not to try to answer the question but let the answer come from the part of her mind that is beyond her conscious awareness; so that one doesn’t lift up a finger but instead notices which one floats up all by itself, entirely on its own. .

While in trance, Jane signaled at an unconscious level that there had been a traumatic experience that was related to her phobia and with further questioning it was established that the event occurred around the age of 4.  Having received permission from Jane’s unconscious that it would be safe for Jane to become aware of this event, I instructed Jane to allow the material(whether through images, sensations, thoughts, or feelings)  to float up into conscious awareness, and when it was there in her mind, while remaining in trance, describe in words what she noticed.

The story, abbreviated here, was that during a family vacation to Manhattan, when Jane was 4, she and her parents visited the Statue of Liberty.  At that time the arm and torch were still open to sightseers.  While standing against the railing around the torch, Jane’s father picked her up, holding her over his head, high above the safety of the railing.  Jane became frightened and asked her father to put her down.  He did not respond, continuing to hold her up, ostensibly for a better view, and ignored her increasingly insistent and anxious pleading.  Finally, he put her down, angrily.  Jane was surprised by the recovery of this long lost memory especially the intensity of her feelings and the unresolved emotional conflict created by her father’s actions that intensified her feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness, and fear.  Hypnosis allowed Jane to  revivify and  re-experience the emotions that had been stored away for so long.  She discovered how angry she was at her father, while at the same time feeling, and being made to feel, ashamed that she lost control. 

Out of trance, we discussed the meaning of this experience.  While she endured some discomfort during the revelatory process, she was fascinated, surprised, and relieved by it.  It helped her understand how this unconscious memory had been influencing her.  In brief, Jane came to see that her father failed to respond to her need for a sense of safety and comfort, that he didn’t understand her fear when she was safe in his hands, that her anger was a legitimate expression of her desire to gain control by getting him to respond; that this conflict with her father was associated with being in an open and very high place; that while a child she couldn’t control her father but now as an adult she could control her car and that her car would be just as responsive to her on a high bridge as it was in her driveway. In the following week, Jane reported that she had driven over the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Bear Mountain Bridge and was ready to conquer Tampa Bay.

A word of advice.  If you are interested in utilizing hypnosis seek help from a licensed health professional with advanced degrees as opposed to a lay hypnotist.  Look for someone certified in clinical hypnosis (not hypnotherapy) by the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, which has the most rigorous standards for training.  Anyone can learn to facilitate a trance and provide rudimentary and general suggestions, but when something unexpected happens of significant emotional intensity or psychological import, it is the years of training and experience of a clinician that one needs to rely upon.

Identifying information about this person has been changed to protect her privacy.

Bruce A. Levi, Ph.D.

Licensed Psychologist
ASCH Certified and Approved
Consultant in Clinical Hypnosis

14 November, 2003

Bruce A. Levi, PhD
Licensed Psychologist - Psychotherapy, Clinical Hypnosis, Training, Supervision & Consultations
Treatment for Individuals, Couples and Families

20 Bay Street,
Westport, CT 06880

29 Birch Hill Road,
Weston, CT 06883

Ph. 203.246.3309