In 1998, Angela Simmerman Sierra was in a devastating car crash. Thought dead, she was resuscitated and brought to a Colombian emergency room where, after four days, doctors decided her wounds were too severe to be mended and sent her home to die among her family.
A month later, she was still alive, but her ailments persisted. Simmerman Sierra had five fractures in her skull, and her left eye was blinded and extended from her body. She was in immense pain and could neither walk nor eat.
She has since made a full recovery solely, she says, using hypnotherapy.
Simmerman Sierra’s story would sound unbelievable were it not for vague remnants of the fractures visible above her temple, the slight stiffness of her left eye and the genuine tears she sheds upon recounting her ordeal.
These days, with her husband Tim Simmerman Sierra, she coordinates the Hypnotherapy Academy of America, a state-licensed hypnotherapy school located in Santa Fe. There, approximately 100 people from all over the world come to get certified as hypnotherapists each year. In turn, numerous patients receive treatments for everything from cigarette addiction to physical injuries.
The school is located in an unassuming complex on Camino de los Marquez, itself an unassuming road off St. Francis Drive. Its foyer is stocked with New Agey-looking books and just as New Agey-looking crystal pendulums, all of which belie the serious medical practice that occurs within and at medical institutions all over the world.
According to Robert Sapien, a doctor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at University of New Mexico Hospital and a hypnotherapy proponent, while it’s not common for medical institutions to have hypnotherapists on staff, “it’s getting more common.”
At UNM, some of the staff—including emergency nurses, palliative care nurses and “child life” surgery preparation providers—receive hypnotherapy training.
Those in “child life,” for instance, use hypnotherapy on children prior to medical procedures.
“It helps with visualization, decreases anxiety. With kids, you can do it so it distracts them. You can practice the procedure in their mind so it’s not unknown and stressful, or set the intention of how it’s gonna go, giving them a sense of empowerment,” Sapien says.
But can hypnotherapy heal?
“Absolutely,” he says, “but it really depends on the individual. I’d really like to see it as an adjunct to conventional care, so that all the modalities we use with Western medicine work even better.”
Despite hypnotherapy’s growing esteem, images of manipulation through hypnosis pervade in cartoons and criminal dramas alike. The Simmerman Sierras lament such pop-culture portrayals of their practice.
“It’s not the hypnosis; it’s the person’s mind that’s powerful,” Tim says. “Hypnosis can’t make you do anything you already don’t want to do.”
Rather, hypnotherapy helps people reach their own goals.
“In hypnotherapy, we teach students to speak the language of the subconscious,” he says. “The subconscious tells the body what to do.”
Hypnotherapy focuses on relaxing the conscious mind in order to reach the subconscious mind with therapeutic suggestions. The subconscious then translates those suggestions into something upon which the body can act.
Angela’s hypnotherapist, for example, had her use images of little angels repairing her optic nerve in order to help her actual optic nerve heal.
At first, the hypnotherapy, as well as listening to a tape of the session, would relieve her pain. In the long run, Angela credits hypnotherapy with her complete physical recovery.
This is all well and good, but it’s still a little far out—unless, of course, you try it yourself, as this SFR writer did.
For old-timey ritual’s sake, my consciousness was relaxed using a pendulum, which commonly is only used in self-hypnosis.
I held it before my face as Tim coached me to imagine it swinging back and forth. Before I knew it, and without any discernible movement (and certainly not a conscious one), the pendulum began swinging in a large ark back and forth. I was then told to imagine the pendulum going in a circle, a direction it soon followed.
Once I was induced into a nap-like calm, I was asked to focus on a series of pleasant associations: warm sun shining on my face, an event that made me particularly happy and accomplished, a positive feeling.
From what I understand, these positive images are then associated with aspects of one’s life that he or she wants changed. Patients are taught to make these feelings accessible when trying to attain their goals.
My middle finger and thumb had come to a rest together on my lap; I was coached to associate the warm feelings I had conjured with that gesture. Later that day, I was able to recall those same positive feelings each time I made the gesture with my thumb and middle finger, a physical trigger for a mental state.
What seems the most practical explanation for hypnotherapy’s efficacy is that it forces one to focus on positivity. Whose busy day secures 20 minutes to purely recollect happy thoughts without a buzzing consciousness butting in?
When Tim counted down to “wake” me from my hypnosis, it was like coming out of the most pleasant and recharging power nap: deep breath, sun pouring in, completely relaxed.
For the rest of the day, I was able to put aside the trials of my afternoon, the trillion errands I had to do.
For me, it’s easy to see the psychological applications of hypnotherapy. It’s perhaps harder to see how such a positive, meditative experience could be applicable to physical wounds—but it’s probably best to never have to find out.