After six years at the National Institutes of Health, biochemist Emily Wang was inspired to start her own hypnotism practice thanks to a class that allowed her to have a painless birth with her second child.
The final push was her daughter, who suffered from severe allergies and eczema. With the aid of more advanced hypnosis training, Wang said she was able to find the root cause of the problem and guide her daughter to release it.
“Two weeks later she started eating dairy, and I was crying,” Wang said. “I said, ‘If I could help her I could help anybody.’”
Today, Wang has an office in Rockville, seeing about 15 patients each week. Sessions cost $100 per hour.
Despite decades of controversy, hypnosis might have finally broken into the mainstream. There are no less than eight hypnotherapy practices in Montgomery County, and mental health professionals also use hypnosis, according to the WhitePages and other online directories.
For Marcia Proctor, who works at Relaxing Alternatives Wellness Center in Gaithersburg, business is good. Her practice has rebounded since the height of the Great Recession. On average, she sees 15 to 20 clients per week, and also trains future hypnotists. She declined to disclose her prices.
“If you can help the people in your lives make a change for the better, that’s a good thing,” said Proctor of Germantown. “I’m never going to get rich doing this, but I love doing it.”
Although hypnosis is not regulated in Maryland, Virginia, or Washington, D.C., there are professional organizations with criteria for membership.
Anyone can join the American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists, a worldwide organization that provides support to businesses. Members are included in an online directory available to people seeking hypnotists. The association did not return calls and emails for comment.
The National Guild of Hypnotists requires certified members to have at least 100 hours of training. Membership in the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis is limited to licensed health care professionals, who have at least a master’s degree.
“Let the buyer beware,” said Melvin Gravitz of Silver Spring, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University who has been using hypnosis for at least 40 years. He also is past president of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis.
When used properly, he said hypnosis can be effective for problems that include anxiety, chronic stress, memory retrieval, phobias, smoking cessation and weight management. He also recommends seeing a licensed health care professional. He said it also can be useful for certain sexual dysfunctions, such as people who are afraid of sexual situations, or for fertility, when doctors have ruled out medical causes.
Retired Lt. Col. Clifford Dunning, 73, likes to use hypnosis in family therapy, saying it facilitates more productive sessions. A professional counselor, Dunning has offices in Kensington and Falls Church, Va.
He decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps when he was in the eighth grade, following in the footsteps of his father, a naval officer. During his 20 years in the Corps, Dunning served with the Military Advisory Command in Vietnam, as an instructor with the Special Forces School at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Reconnaissance Battalion Commander.
“When you get to studying and doing things other than killing people, you start to realize there is more,” he said.
The military paid for his first psychology degree, a Ph.D. in leadership and human behavior, after he received a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and a master’s in personnel administration. He has since become licensed as a professional counselor in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
He likes to use visual imagery — “visualize the cigarette as yucky, disgusting” — and defines hypnosis as a state of deep relaxation where the mind achieves heightened alertness.
“Hypnosis is just the power of positive suggestion to help you regain control,” Dunning said. “Anything that has ever become was first imagined.”
The National Guild of Hypnotists was founded in 1950, but did not have more than a handful of members until the mid-1980s. Since then the Guild reorganized, and the industry has become a distinct profession, said Dwight Damon, president of the National Guild.
“Back in the ’50s, the people who were really teaching were basically stage hypnotists,” he said.
With the advent of television, stage performers were losing venues, so many of them started teaching, he said.
Today, training is available from organizations such as the Guild, or hypnotists like Laura West.
West, 63, sees 15 to 20 people each week in her Germantown home, and plans to open an office in Rockville. She became a believer after using hypnosis to quit her three-pack-a-day smoking habit.
“One of the biggest crazes right now is the virtual Lap-Band,” she said.
Lap-Band is an adjustable device intended for weight loss in patients with obesity. It is surgically inserted into a patient’s stomach to reduce its capacity, so users feel full faster and longer, according to its website.
Before hypnotic “surgery,” West explores the why her client overeats, and they discuss healthy habits.
During the “surgical” session, West plays the sounds of going into surgery, and the patient visualizes riding on the trolley into the surgical room, where the band is placed on the upper part of the stomach.
“After they have the band, I treat them as if they have had the actual surgery, and they will have a more restrictive diet,” she said.
One of her clients, who weighed 380 pounds to start, lost 20 pounds in four weeks.
Smoking cessation and weight loss are the bread and butter of many practices, but Gravitz cautions that weight loss is complex, affected by genetics, amount of food and kind of food.
“No means of treatment is 100 percent effective,” he said.