My biggest fear is public speaking. Standing in front of a crowd of people – no matter the number – makes my heart pound. I hyperventilate, sweat, shake; completely fall apart.
For obvious reasons, I avoid any form of public speaking at all costs.
At the beginning of the year, however, I realized my usual tactic of avoiding anxiety-inducing situations was no longer an option. One of my modules at university was assessed via presentation and, unfortunately, there was no escaping it. I had to present.
I was completely distraught. I emailed my tutor immediately, desperate for reassurance. Surely they wouldn’t make me present? Not with my history of mental illness and a doctor’s note to confirm it. After emailing back and forth for weeks, it was decided that I had to at least try and present like everybody else. If that failed – and I insisted that it would – then we’d look at other options.
I decided to try everything possible to try and overcome my phobia. Years of therapy and medication were useless to me as soon as public speaking was involved. Any breathing techniques or coping mechanisms I had developed were meaningless. I felt completely hopeless.
There was one route that I hadn’t really allowed myself to consider. Hypnosis. Immediately I picture a person on stage, counting down from three, snapping their fingers, and sending their volunteers to sleep. I’ve always been incredibly skeptical of this process. I mean, surely the volunteers are faking it? Playing a part just to put on a show.
It’s safe to say, therefore, that when I booked a consultation with a hypnotist to discuss my anxiety, I wasn’t expecting much.
I told her that I was completely skeptical, but after years of panic I was willing to give anything a go. She explained the process to me. There would be no magic tricks or tacky productions; she would simply talk to me and play soothing music until I was in a relaxed state. She was also completely honest with me – hypnosis doesn’t work in every case, but she firmly believed she could help me.
I was totally unprepared for my first session. As I sat in her big brown chair, a total cliche, she told me to stare straight ahead and focus on the wall. Simple enough. She played her soothing music and started speaking to me in a gentle voice. Still good. When she had me close my eyes, however, I was in complete shock. I felt like I was falling deeper and deeper, like Alice down the rabbit hole. I became unaware of my surroundings, and all I could focus on was her voice and the music. The unfamiliarity of the situation caused me to panic and, just for a second, there was a battle between mind and body. One wanted to fight this strange sensation, while the other wanted to fall deeper and deeper into relaxation. It felt like mere minutes, but in reality, I spent over an hour in this trance. I was completely still, and my body felt heavy. Movement felt impossible, and the hypnotic spell she had me under made me never want to move again.
“Think of your happy place and imagine yourself there.”
Memories of Whitby beach flooded my mind, the place where I spent almost every weekend of my childhood. I pictured the dark sea; the water, murky, almost black, is more appealing to me than the crystal-clear water lapping at the sand in Hawaii. I imagined myself barefoot, shoes and socks forgotten behind me as I buried my toes in the sand. I could feel each grain on my skin. The air around me transformed; from the warm, homey scent of the hypnotist’s office to the salty sea breeze of Whitby, and I could feel the gentle wind blowing my hair around my shoulders.
“Who are you with? Picture them in your happy place.”
A lean figure stood at the water’s edge, a Cocker Spaniel at his feet. The dog’s fur, a sleek ebony gloss, was matted with sand, and he would routinely shake his body to rid himself of the sandy second coat.
“Whenever you feel anxious, I want you to visit your happy place.”
Her words became blurred, muffled, as though her voice was travelling through water. I vaguely remembered her words from the consultation; some people listen attentively, some people fade away into a world of their own, and some people simply fall asleep. While I can recall snippets of her hypnotic speech, my relaxed state made it difficult to cling on to her voice with any traction. Eventually, however, her words became clearer as she started to wind down the session, bringing it to a close by slowly counting to three.
“One. I want you to take notice of your surroundings. What can you hear?”
The rumble of a car engine. A door slamming shut. Soft voices muted by distance.
“Two. You are becoming more alert. You are becoming aware of your body. Feel yourself coming back.”
Head slumped to the left. Cheek rested on shoulder. Parted lips. Arms, soft and limp, lay on each side. Hands settled in lap.
Was movement possible now?
“Three. I want you to slowly open your eyes.”
My eyes opened. The room (or maybe it was my eyes, I couldn’t quite tell) was covered in a blanket of grey. I remember trying to blink away the dark tinge to allow my eyes to adjust to the light. She told me that I should take it easy for the rest of the day. I should avoid talking about the session just yet in order to let the hypnosis ‘settle’ in my subconscious.
I left her office in a daze, barely acknowledging my sister who was there to take me home.