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Can hypnotherapy cure my phobia of engine sounds?

I’m standing in a fourth-floor room at Christopher Paul Jones’ Harley Street phobia clinic, rocking back and forth as the world-renowned hypnotherapist asks me to tell him how old I was the very first time I felt the rage that rises in my chest every time a motorbike roars past me in the street.

At the beginning of our session, I described to Jones what I long assumed to be the trigger for my phobia of engine sounds: having my phone nicked by two motorbike muggers in Shoreditch several years ago. But half an hour later — standing in front of him with my eyes closed — I find myself reaching for an earlier memory, around the age of 13, when a motorbike crashed into the side of our car on a family holiday in Italy.

“I’m going to ask your unconscious mind for a yes or no signal,” Jones says softly. “If it was to find new ways to feel safe and protected without holding onto fear and trauma, would it be willing to do that now?”

I focus hard on letting my subconscious rather than my conscious do the talking, as Jones and I practiced earlier in the session, and find my body slowly rocking me forward onto my tip toes. “Good,” says Jones, smiling because he can see how alarmed I am to feel my body rocking towards him of its own accord. “Let’s unpack that.”

If you’re wondering why I’m here, you clearly haven’t seen me in the moments after a motorbike has revved up close to me from behind. Spoiler: it’s not pretty — and it’s not only made me something of a laughing stock among my friends, but an unsustainably anxious pedestrian as I go about life in our wonderfully chaotic, engine-filled capital city.

The good news is I recently discovered that my affliction has a name: misophonia (“hatred of sound”), and according to a study by King’s College London, as many as one in five people struggle with it significantly. Perhaps you have it yourself, if you suffer a negative emotional reaction (in my case: pure rage) when you hear someone eating loudly or clicking their pen on repeat.

Jones, one of the UK’s leading hypnotherapists who claims to count Hollywood A-listers among his successful clients, doesn’t solely deal with misophonia cases like mine. His USP is curing any phobia, whether it’s a fear of spiders, public speaking or his most common case, a fear of flying — the most famous being a woman who cried all the way down from Scotland for a BBC documentary (presumably it made better TV to fly her down there), had one session with Jones and flew back a healed woman, supposedly feeling totally neutral about the previously horrifying fact that she was flying in a tin can through the sky. (Another client claims she was healed so much she actually wished her next flight would last longer).

I watched the episode myself and felt sceptical, though admittedly rather jealous. Could I too be healed in one session? Which is how I came to find myself sitting in Jones’ calming blue Harley Street therapy chair one spring afternoon, delving into the psychology lessons I wished I’d had at school.

“Fear isn’t something you catch like a cold; it’s actually something we do,” is the first of Jones’ teachings that takes me by surprise. What? Surely I’m not choosing to feel scared every time a Harley Davidson screams past me on my pedal home from work?

But as Jones continues, the psychology makes sense. If everything I’ve ever done really is stored in my subconscious as Jones says, then of course my subconscious still associates that noise with the mugging and the car crash — and of course it tenses up as a way of protecting me. My phobia isn’t random or silly: it’s a safety mechanism; a survival response to a set of triggers. Jones’ job, then, is to find those triggers and help me remove the emotional charge that comes with them.

Unfortunately, the process isn’t as straightforward as Jones swinging a pocket watch in front of my eyes and telling me I’m-not-scared-of-motorbikes-anymore, as a friend theorises the night before. But in some ways, that classic hypnosis stereotype isn’t entirely unjustified. Jones, a snake-phobe himself in a past life, did ask me to follow a moving light with my eyes (a supposedly mainstream psychology technique called eye movement desensitisation) and he did repeat positive phrases at me during the session, but not in a bearded-man-telling-me-I’m-sleepy way; in a practical way that involves giving me some nifty little tricks to use whenever I do come across the noise in the future.

Parts of Jones’ tried-and-tested method do feel a little woo-woo for me at times, like stroking my own arms and speaking from my subconscious. But other parts feels closer to classic talking therapy. Can I remember a time when I didn’t feel this way? Does my mind still link engine noises to mugging? And (the hardest one): can I teach Jones how to feel that anger I feel himself?

Jones smiles knowingly at this one, aware of just how difficult it is to describe my aversion to engine sounds like it’s some sort of a 10-step process anyone can learn. So I’m strangely taken aback when I step out onto Oxford Street just 90 minutes and find myself smiling too — smirking, even — at those same motorcyclists I’ve spent the last two hours moaning about.

The reason I’m smiling this time is because I have a trick up my sleeve: Jones has spent the last half-an-hour training my brain so that every time I clench my fist I’m taken to a more carefree moment last summer, laughing to the point of crying with friends in the sea. At this stage, it’s hard to tell whether I’m smiling because of the memory itself or the fact that I’m proud of myself for remembering to use the new superpower he’s taught me. But in many ways I suppose it doesn’t matter. The trick works. I’m smiling at the sound of an engine, not looking to punch the person nearest to me in the street.

A few days after my session with Jones, I remark to my sister about how lovely it is we’ve not seen a single motorbike for half a day. She tells me we’ve passed at least 10, some growling so loudly she feared for my stress levels. Astounded and strangely determined not to be fixed of years of anger so quickly, I return to Jones — can my motorbike phobia really be cured in one session? He assures me it can. “You can love dogs all your life but if a dog suddenly rips your hand off, you learn to hate dogs pretty quickly,” he explains. “The brain works incredibly quickly with enough negative stimulus. So it also works incredibly quickly with enough positive stimulus, too.”

Another hypnotherapist, Rachel Farnsworth, tells me she fixes the majority of clients traumas or phobias in the first session, from one who cured herself of 20 years of panic attacks in two hours to another who used hypnotherapy to healed her psoriasis, having tried every medication and talking therapy under the sun. “The subconscious is very powerful,” she says. “Hypnotherapy is just about learning about yourself and then empowering yourself to feel like the sparkly diamond of potential that you are, rather than an onion wrapped in trauma.”

I cringe slightly when Farnsworth brings up trauma. It’s become something of a loaded word since the therapy boom of recent years and I’d certainly never have described my mugging or car crash incident in that way until now. But trauma or not, Jones has helped me to acknowledge that both incidents were still triggering emotional responses in me. Given that those responses were coming up almost daily, tackling the association my subconscious has made with them is probably no bad thing.

The question now is: what to tackle next. Jones says it’s common for clients to stumble across other traumas once they’re in the room with him, and I quickly find myself listing other phobias I’m yet to tackle: my fear of spiders (standard); my misophonia for train announcements (yes, really). I might want to trim my nails a little before the next session though, or my poor palms might struggle to survive the summer. (christopherpauljones.com)