The internet is awash with stories of people who claim hypnosis has cured their eating disorders, but does it really work? Lifestyle Writer Rachel Hosie tried it to find out:
“You’re not a binge-eater, are you?” my colleague asked when I announced I was off to try hypnotherapy for binge-eating.
“Well, kind of, yeah,” I replied. “I find it hard to stop eating once I start and I think about food ALL the time!”
“Yeah, but so do I,” she said.
In fact, most of my friends would admit they constantly think about food, especially the female ones. But does that mean it’s normal or healthy?
Given the fact that I am neither obese nor super thin, most people wouldn’t suspect I have any issues with food.
Whilst I’d never want to be someone who only eats to stay alive and sees food as fuel, I have for years wished thoughts about the food I consume didn’t so consume me too.
My weight fluctuates all the time – I’ll probably be three different dress sizes over the course of a year – because I can’t keep a stable relationship with food.
Once I start saying yes to chocolates as they go round the office, I’ll fall into a downwards spiral and my weight will balloon until I reach a point where something snaps. Then I tend to go on a mission to lose the weight again, but it’s not easy.
Having such an up and down relationship with food is not rare and there are various approaches for tackling it, one of which is hypnotherapy. I was keen to give it a try.
Many people have claimed hypnotherapy has mended their broken relationships with food and cured them of eating disorders, but I for one was sceptical.
I headed off to see Bonita Rayner-Jones of Harley Street Hypnotherapy Associates. On the company website, they say: “Binge Eating Hypnotherapy will work on increasing self-esteem, eliminate ‘trigger’ times so when you are in situations where you may have binged in the past you find you don’t.
“We will also work with the ‘unconscious’ mind to remove any positive connection it has with binge eating, breaking this connection to allow you to feel in control and move forward in life.”
It all sounded great but I hadn’t a clue what it meant.
After arriving at a grand building home to various medical organisations and spending a few minutes in a waiting room full of women and just one man, I make my way up to Rayner-Jones’ office.
I sit down in an armchair across from Rayner-Jones who, with her sing-song voice and long blonde hair, somehow wasn’t what I was expecting.
My hypnotherapy session lasts about an hour and a half. For the first hour, we simply talk about me, which feels rather self-indulgent but enjoyable.
It’s all about reaching ‘psychological well-being’, Rayner-Jones tells me, which is where we have a clear state of mind, no addictive habits and good mental health. For some people this takes multiple sessions, for others one is enough.
80 per cent of clients that come to Rayner-Jones for binge-eating in particular are women, she tells me. I’m not surprised.
We talk about why I want to stop binge-eating, she asks questions that make me think and are hard to answer, and she leaves me to talk. There are silences that make me feel uncomfortable, which I then fill.
Rayner-Jones tells me she’s not a “positivity guru” but people do tend to leave feeling more positive. “It’s got to be a motivation for the self,” she says.
“When we’re grounded and our heads aren’t so clogged with the self, our minds become clearer and we feel more free in what we can do. That’s confidence.
“When we’re more settled in ourselves, we get a better feeling of what we actually fancy eating. Having a quiet, clear mind is what hypnosis originally came from. That’s where people make sense of life.”
And when we have a clear mind, we’re more susceptible to being guided to a goal, she explains.
I realise I definitely do not have a clear mind. My head feels cluttered, busy and constantly whirring at a million miles an hour. Could this be affecting my eating habits?
Rayner-Jones tells me we need to think about eating like we do about going to the toilet – we only go when we feel we need to, and sometimes that urge comes but actually it’s not convenient, so we don’t act on it.
And apparently that’s how we should eat too. But for me – and many people – the trouble is that eating is so damn enjoyable, unlike going to the loo.
We talk about my upbringing, my relationship with my mother (classic) and how my attitude to my body has changed over my life.
I tell Rayner-Jones that I consider myself to be a generally very happy person so don’t think I’m comfort-eating to cheer myself up.
She seems to imply this constant happiness isn’t real and that I should allow myself to feel grumpy, sad and angry. “Don’t worry about having to be positive all the time. LIfe isn’t always positive. It’s more about what’s real,” she says.
I explain how I don’t feel good when I try on clothes in shops because I don’t like how they look, and Rayner-Jones tells me that this is getting real with myself.
“You only ever live in the feeling of what flows through your mind – don’t be afraid of any experience you have,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of looking at a scale and seeing what the number says.
“Getting more real will be really helpful for you. It’s OK to see things as they are and not through rose-tinted spectacles. Healthy individuals function when they’re not afraid of any experience.”
She explains that I need to change my relationship to my thoughts. If I have negative thoughts, I need to stop worrying about them.
“Somebody’s going to feel good being slim if they have thoughts that being slim is good. Somebody’s going to feel good being a medium-weight if they have thoughts that being a medium-weight is good. And the same goes for being bigger.
“It’s a subjective thing. It’s not reality. It’s just a body that has more fat than another. Generally, people have fewer health problems around a medium-weight. The rest is just crap we’ve made up from culture and our upbringings.”
I agree with this perhaps more than anything Rayner-Jones has said so far.
“It’s about getting happy with looking like you. Dissatisfaction kicked in at some point for you and it’s become a permanent state.”
Brutal, but probably true.
And this is where we move on to the hypnosis part of my session.
Rayner-Jones passes me a foot-rest and a blanket to put over my lap. I put on some headphones, and close my eyes.
A soundtrack of calming music plays that both reminded me of being in a spa and of a sci-fi film. Over the top of that, Rayner-Jones speaks to me.
She’d told me that some people go into a deep trance, others just a light one. To be honest I don’t think I went into a trance at all. I felt weird and very conscious the whole time.
I definitely felt relaxed and a little woozy, but I was always aware – of the sound of the cars outside, of how I was sitting, of whether I should be perfectly still or move a bit. I wanted to open my eyes but I didn’t.
The hypnosis started with Rayner-Jones instructing me to make every part of my body – starting from the top and working down – feel heavy and relaxed. I was then told to imagine being somewhere relaxing, like I was floating, before a situation was created that saw me finding a stone inscripted with the word ‘confidence’.
Rayner-Jones then went on to talk about how I’d soon find I just didn’t want to overeat because it was almost too much effort.
But my mind drifted and I found myself thinking about what I wanted for lunch afterwards.
I’m not sure if it was obvious that I hadn’t fully relaxed and gone into a trance, but Rayner-Jones gave me a recording of the hypnosis and instructed me to listen to it every day for a week.
For the rest of the day and a few days afterwards, I did make better food choices. But before long I’d slipped back into my old ways.
This may be partially because I didn’t actually find time to listen to the recording every day for a week and it was harder to relax at home – on one occasion my flatmate started building shelves in the room next to mine, which really was not conducive to being hypnotised.
So unfortunately my eating habits haven’t really changed as a result of my hypnotherapy, but I certainly came out of my session with a briefly improved mindset.
I imagine that for someone as wrapped up in her own head as I am, it would take rather a lot of hypnotherapy to make a real difference, but if someone was really open to the prospect, it might just work.
Until that day, don’t pass the biscuits. (But really do.)