Got High Anxiety?

Calm Down With Hypnosis

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

It was ten days before my wedding, and my mother and I were talking long distance. I was giving her a preview of the evening's highlights: my ten-year-old niece's speech about acquiring an aunt instead of an uncle from my lesbian marriage, and the non-mushy love poetry. Then I mentioned that my brother had composed a song for me to sing.

There was a pause. "Are you sure that's such a good idea?" my mother asked. "Won't you be nervous?"

Thanks, Mom.

For the previous year, I had been chipping away at my anxiety about singing in public. Every week I'd dragged myself to a local piano bar to belt out a tune. I had overcome my fear -- at least enough to find the prospect of singing at my own wedding reasonable, even attractive. Until that moment.

The worry that soaked my mother's well-meaning query seeped into me. By the time I hung up, tears had sprung to my eyes. That afternoon when I practiced the song, I was trembling again.

"How about hypnosis?" my sister Dotty, a certified hypnotherapist, suggested. "Sure," I replied. Almost 20 years earlier, I'd used this method to banish migraines from my life. I knew people used hypnosis to control anxiety as well as pain, although I wondered whether the technique would really work in just a week and a half.

Dotty asked me to describe places that I found relaxing and to recall situations where I had felt calm and proud. Then she crafted a script aimed at reminding my subconscious of moments when I had glowed.

Because my sister lives 3,000 miles away, she e-mailed the script to my partner, Karen, and gave her a crash phone course on how to read it.

On our first attempt, my mind rode the slow lava of Karen's voice. She told me to sink into the chair, to feel it support the back of my thighs. As she suggested, my eyes grew heavy and closed.

Karen directed me into an imaginary elevator. "You're on the 10th floor. Feel yourself going to the ninth." Gravity drew down my arms, my shoulders. "I could open my eyes," I thought, "but I don't want to."

In the basement, the doors opened and I stepped out. "You may see a path," Karen's voice murmured. There it was, winding through a meadow that looked as if someone had dipped small brushes in pots of bright paint and flicked them, splashing wildflower sprays. When I came to a lake, the voice told me to imagine singing the song exactly the way I wanted it to go.

I saw myself in the glass-domed room we had chosen for our celebration. I could hear the rustling waves through the open windows behind me, could feel the breeze caressing my bare shoulders. I was wearing the black vintage dress in which I would dance later. My hair crowned my head like Audrey Hepburn's, and a rhinestone choker encircled my neck. My dress, my neck, my earrings sparkled. My eyes did, too, as I began to sing in my mind.

"In every fairy tale I was told as a kid, no matter what the pro- or antagonist did, once the happy couple was united, the bliss they shared together" -- I gazed upward, fluttering my eyelashes, and let a smile drift onto my face -- "went unblighted." I heard my voice: solid, smooth, a little vibrato at the end to make it float.

I performed the whole piece like this, in slow motion, enjoying every instant -- the sounds that emerged from my mouth, the gestures, and thoughts. I ambled through even the longest phrases. My voice wafted effortlessly out of my body and rang in all the right places.

Every day I repeated the imaginary performance, practicing the entire song before returning from the lake in my mind. I enjoyed these forays into fantasy but wondered whether the bliss from these trips would spill over into reality. Would the directed daydreams make a difference when it counted -- when I stood in front of a hundred guests at my wedding?

The evening arrived. After we cut the cake, I took my place in front of the microphone. "We gather at this beautiful place by the sea," I sang, noticing that my right arm had lifted and motioned toward the ocean outside. It was steady; there was no tremor. As the waltz section began, Karen swayed back and forth, and I realized she was mirroring me. Resonant tones rose from my mouth. The pitch climbed, but I wasn't doing any work.

I glided along on the melody, relishing every word, every musical phrase. At the last line, my arms stretched in front of me, bent loosely at the elbows, palms up. As they spread, my face erupted into a broad smile with the applause.

My performance, it seemed, had entranced us all.