How Hypnosis Helped Me Sleep

A few hypnosis sessions helped one writer finally remedy her insomnia

by Linda Yellin
how hypnosis helped me sleep
Photograph: Illustration By Aad Goudappel

My brown eyes are one of my most identifying traits. So are the dark circles underneath. If you, too, have insomnia, I don’t need to tell you why they’re there. You’re probably reading this at 3 am.

Over the years I’ve tried warm milk, warm baths, valerian tea, eye masks, no reading in bed, no TV in bed, sex before bed, no sex before bed. Nothing worked, so I tried Ambien, which did work, but I didn’t want to keep taking drugs. It was time to think outside the box springs. Especially after my buddy Mike in Chicago told me he’d quit a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit with hypnosis. Insomnia is a habit, right? I decided to see if hypnosis would break it.

Women are twice as likely as men to get insomnia, say researchers. “When we sleep, we actually sleep better than men, but we wake up more often,” says Kelly Glazer Baron, PhD, a clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern University in Chicago, whom I contacted for more information. “Insomnia relief takes effort. Hypnosis can be part of the arsenal.”

New York City certified hypnotherapist Melissa Tiers explained to me how it all works: “Being in a hypnotic state is close to how you feel in a movie theater. When you become absorbed in a film, you don’t say, ‘Hey! There’s an actor! And I can hear the dialogue over all the shooting—nice work, sound crew!’ ” Once you suspend your disbelief, you bypass your tendency to stop and evaluate what’s going on. You can become so engaged in a scary scene that you jump—even if the plot is ridiculous.

When you are hypnotized, you enter a similar kind of mental state. You are more suggestible than usual, and that provides an opportunity for you to rewire unconscious patterns, like that annoying one that keeps you up all night worrying you’re going to be up all night. A hypnosis session plays out in three steps, Tiers told me: induction, the focusing of attention, which puts you into a trance, which in turn leaves you open to a suggestionbased on an image or phrase relating to something you’d like to change.

So was I a good candidate for hypnosis? Well, I can certainly get lost in a book or film, which is a very good sign. But Baron brought up another factor: “Do you have good visual imagery? Are you able to envisage something in your mind and re-experience emotions based on that picture? Some people don’t dream in pictures, but those who do have the imagination to respond to visual suggestions.”

Phew! My dreams are Cecil B. DeMille productions.

Here’s how I managed to find my perfect hypnotherapist, Melissa Tiers.

I started with my usual go-to place: the Internet. I typed insomnia and hypnotists into a search engine, and up popped more than 400,000 results. Perfect: I could entertain myself on wide-awake nights by sorting through them. A YouTube video from JustBe​ wanted to knock me out right on the spot; those guys seemed pretty confident they could do it, considering they issued me several warnings, including, “Only listen if it is safe to sleep now.” I wondered if using my computer counted as operating heavy machinery.

Preferring to trust my subconscious to a fellow human, I stumbled onto an online coupon deal for two sessions with a New York hypnotist I’ll call X. Ten days later, I met X at his office. I wasn’t nervous. Baron had told me, “It’s a misconception that you lose control of your body or your thoughts when you’re under hypnosis.” Which is good to know when you’re walking into the office of a stranger you found online.

X immediately informed me I’d need at least four sessions, which would cost an additional $600. After gulping, I sat in a big lounge chair so comfy I could have fallen asleep immediately. X spoke through a mic into the headphones I was wearing, even though he was sitting right next to me. He instructed me to go deep into relaxation as I counted upward, and said I probably wouldn’t get past number 4. When I hit 24, he changed tactics. At one point, he explained in his voice-over how helpful my sessions would be. Instead of relaxing my mind, he was leading it to wonder, Is he hypnotizing me into signing on for that extra $600? When the session was over, X said I had trust issues and would need five sessions. He also offered to sell me a CD for $20. Good-bye, X. Too bad your technique wasn’t on a par with your comfy chair.

I discovered Tiers on the site for the New York Open Center, the largest holistic learning institution in the United States. Six years ago, Tiers helped a man recover from a phobia that had afflicted him for 10 years; it took her two sessions. The man’s psychiatrist called afterward and asked, “What did you do?” Since then, 80 percent of her clients have been referred by psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists. Tiers has helped people with sleep issues for more than 10 years.

“Morning people don’t need an alarm clock,” she says. “They wake up, and their internal dialogue says, ‘It’s Monday! Let’s go!’ At night they get into bed and say, ‘Oh, I’m tired. Zzzzz.’ Poor sleepers operate in reverse. Mornings, it’s hard to get moving. Their minds rev up at night.”

Tiers had just described me to a Z.

So off we went. The game plan: First, I’d be armed with a sleep program, a list of techniques for turning off the inner babble that tells me I can’t sleep. Then I’d learn to hypnotize myself and hopefully never need the exercises again.

Technique number one—bilateral stimulation—was easy. Tiers asked me to think of something that made me anxious and rate it on a scale of 1 to 10. I thought of my lousy cable service and said 8. She had me spend a minute passing an apple-size ball (anything tossable works) from one hand to the other. Then I took a deep breath and checked in on my anxiety level. It was a 4. Another round of ball passing, and I was down to a 2. She explained that by stimulating both sides of my brain, I was spreading out my neural activity and stopping the fear signals in my amygdala, the area that processes emotional reactions. Already I wanted to nod off. Don’t ask me how it worked. I just know it did.

For the second technique, expanding my peripheral vision, I stared at a spot on the ceiling—something I’m good at—then widened my gaze out to the sides, up and down, while still staring. The technique forces your awareness outside your head and away from the noisy chatter inside.

Next, Tiers taught me EFT: Emotional Freedom Technique. This combo package of acupressure and self--hypnosis involved tapping acupuncture points with my fingers while acknowledging that I don’t sleep well, accepting myself and choosing to let poor sleep go. Dr. Oz featured a segment about EFT on his TV show, so I figured it must be good.

After EFTing, I got to sit in another big, comfy chair. Tiers asked how I felt right after I took an Ambien; my hypnosis was designed to help me achieve that just-took-an-Ambien feeling. She had me count down, opening and closing my eyes on each count, feeling heaviness behind my eyes, down my torso, in my legs.

As I imagine all that heavy drifting, she explains, my mind will make a hypnotic suggestion to my body. And it does; my head feels sleepier. Good job, mind! Next, she directs me to press my thumb and forefinger together as if I had an Ambien button that would shoot me another dose every time I gave it a go. Counting down from 50, I squeeze away and want to zonk out before I hit 40.

My homework: Do three rounds of EFT before bed and if necessary follow that up with some ball passing and spot staring. Then install my Ambien button. Code for: self-hypnosis.

That night I easily dozed off after my EFT sessions and woke up at 2 am when nature called. I did some EFT tapping, accepted myself and fell back asleep, waking only when my alarm went off.

I followed that pattern for the next few days, but on the fourth night . . . relapse! I returned to Tiers for a second session. We tweaked my countdown. Now after each number I visualized a wave of relaxation rhythmically rolling through me from head to toe. She taught me to slow down my thoughts by, well, thinking them slowly. Just for good measure, a week later I went back for a third practice round, and since then I’ve been the poster child for snoozing. I hum in the mornings. I’m kind to old people and little children. I smile at bus drivers. Sleeping has changed my life.

I Am Woman. Hear Me Snore.

Next: Natural Sleep Aids and Strategies

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First Published Fri, 2012-09-28 14:11

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