My phobia is especially baffling because overall, I’m not a scared kind of person. At times, I can be downright fearless. One of my biggest passions is traveling around the world. Some of my favorite adventures include swimming with sharks (without a cage), helicoptering around waterfalls, and zip-lining thousands of feet in the air. How could I metaphorically take the wheel in so many different areas of my life but literally not be able to get from Point A to Point B? There is no deeper sense of shame than not being able to be fully autonomous and rely on yourself.
Finding A Practitioner
Since my goal has always been to eventually buy a house in the suburbs with my husband and start a family, I decided to try something radical to conquer my fear of driving once and for all. I had read that hypnotherapy could be used to treat phobias, so I searched for a medical professional through the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis who might be able to help me. ASCH provides referrals to licensed health and mental health care professionals who use clinical hypnosis in their practices. In addition to offering certification programs, this interdisciplinary organization provides practitioners with ethical and treatment guidelines. To be eligible for membership, the provider must have at least a master’s degree and a valid license to practice in a health-related discipline, as well as undergo formal training and engage in continuing education.
Given the intimate nature of hypnotherapy, it was important to me to find an accredited therapist with whom I had a great rapport. I spoke to three medical professionals before connecting with Traci Stein, a clinical psychologist. She immediately made me feel at ease, as if I were talking to an old friend. “Beware of people who say they are hypnotists but have little to no training,” she told me. “It’s important to ensure that the person treating you for a particular issue is also licensed and otherwise qualified to treat your concern even without hypnosis.”
Hypnotherapy can get a bad rap from being used for entertainment purposes. We’ve all seen the silly and unrealistic depictions in films likeGet Out, where the patient appears to lack any control and is being held in a trance against their will. I later learned from Stein that this couldn’t be further from the truth, since patients are required to be fully conscious, active participants. Regardless of the stigma associated with hypnosis, I went into the process as open-minded as possible because I was willing to try anything to reclaim my independence again.
“Hypnosis can be very helpful for addressing behaviors that are deeply entrenched but unhealthy, such as smoking and overeating. It can also reduce anxiety, shed light on and shift dysfunctional relationship patterns, and help people overcome procrastination,” Stein says.
Stein says that hypnosis can be thought of as a tool to enhance someone’s attention to a therapist’s voice and decrease attention to outside thoughts that could disrupt the goal of the hypnotism. “Patients are highly focused and more receptive to positive suggestions because they are viewing the situation from the perspective of a detached observer,” she says.
In a 2016 study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine discovered that distinct areas of the brain show altered activity under hypnosis, finding changes in brain areas associated with focused attention, somatic and emotional control, and the awareness of a person’s internal and external environments during guided hypnosis sessions.
During my first phone call with Stein, she asked me some questions about my previous driving experiences and had me rate my fear level at every stage of the process (sitting in the car, pulling out of the driveway, parking, etc.). I was surprised to learn that a minor accident I was in as a child could have subconsciously triggered the phobia. She told me that people develop coping mechanisms to serve a purpose (in my case, stay safe from perceived danger) but over time, as we grow, they no longer serve us and we need to acquire new tools.
Before our first session, I listened to audio files that Stein had recorded to help train my body to respond more quickly to her voice and the hypnotherapy. “I’ve found that like most things, with hypnosis, practice makes perfect. Think of it as developing the ‘muscle’ of your mind in a specific way,” Stein says. Listening at home also helps to reinforce the positive messages of the hypnosis session in between appointments and in an ongoing way.
Once we met in person, she asked where I am happiest, unencumbered by worry. Glancing at the seashells on the coffee table in front of me, I replied, “the beach.” Stein then explained that she would begin the hypnosis with imagery based on my happy place, bring me back to alertness, and then dive into the driving scenarios.
I stared at a spot higher than my line of vision until my eyelids felt heavy and involuntarily closed. Stein painted a beautiful picture of my dream world, where I felt soft sand crunch beneath my feet and heard the sound of crashing waves. In the trance, her voice got further and further away. I was cognizant of what she was saying, but it’s as if I was in a cocoon. My breathing rhythmically slowed, the worries of the day dripping out of me like an IV. She asked me to press my thumb to my index finger, which would serve as a symbolic anchoring gesture. She explained that I could do this at any time during my driving to recall this sense of tranquility.
Before I knew it, at least 10 minutes had passed, and Stein told me to imagine myself confidently walking toward my Jeep Grand Cherokee, keys in hand. She reframed what would normally be anxiousness about driving into excitement. As I drove along my route in my mind, I encountered obstacles that would usually stress me out, including obnoxious drivers and parallel parking into a tight spot that requires lots of maneuvering. In this state, I was able to see them for what they truly were and shrug them off. When I turned off the ignition and closed the door, I left my baggage where it belonged, deep in the recesses of my subconscious.
“I would suggest that someone give it one or two sessions past the initial consult to see if hypnosis feels helpful,” Stein says. “However, if a problem is really longstanding or if the person is conflicted (especially unconsciously), about whether or not they truly want to make a specific change, this may require more sessions and possibly a shift to a more conventional psychotherapy approach.”
Getting Back On The Road
Over the next few driving outings, I notice some significant changes. My phobia, which was once equivalent to having someone screaming in my face, is now just a measly whisper (“are you sure you want to drive?”). Not only am I much calmer but I’m also able to listen to constructive feedback and be more aware of my driving mechanics. The most exciting development as a result of this experiment is that I have a strong desire to get in the car and drive now.
“I’ve definitely had cases where the person was both highly hypnotizable and really motivated to make the change. These factors, plus having positive expectations about hypnosis all led to very profound and rapid results,” Stein says.
I am still far from being a great driver. On the third drive after my hypnosis, I didn’t have time to practice mental rehearsal and visualize a successful trip, which is key to establishing a positive new habit. I had to rush to visit one of my relatives, who had just been discharged from the hospital. During the route to their house, I had to squeeze my SUV past a double-parked van, and the panic came temporarily flooding back.
So, I still have a long road ahead of me, including getting parallel parking down pat, going for car drives solo, and learning to drive on the highway, which I was never able to attempt until now because the thought made me too anxious. However, at least now I know that I have the tools necessary to begin to conquer those roadblocks, so to speak.