You are the definition of reinvention! From opera singer to standup comic to a doctorate in psychology. What drew you to your current career?
I was a good working comic, not great, but good. I was staff emcee at the Melrose Improv in Hollywood working with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano (no one famous…). When you are a comic, you only work about 30 minutes a day, so I got bored and began volunteering in my community at a shelter for sexually abused teens. I absolutely fell in love with it. This experience woke up the healer in me, allowed me to heal my own adolescent clergy abuse, and prompted me to go back to school and earn my doctorate in psychology to specialize in sexual abuse prevention and recovery. That is still my mission.
I was 44 when I went back to graduate school. Many asked me: “How old will you be when you finish your degree and start your new career?” My answer was always: “The same age I’ll be if I don’t!”
I wanted to turn pain into purpose and inspire others to do the same. This is why I wrote YOU-TURN: CHANGING DIRECTION IN MIDLIFE: Over 40 Stories of People Over 40. It is never too late to live a life you love. While comedy was like a great party, it was time to leave after 10 years. What I do now is much more fulfilling and meaningful to me. I love watching people grow and attain their goals.
You have also developed an expertise in helping people through therapeutic hypnosis. What led you to this specialty?
When I was working on my doctorate in psychology, I was introduced to hypnosis. Before then, my knowledge of hypnosis was limited to what I’d seen in comedy clubs: stage hypnosis (hypnosis performed in front of an audience, to entertain).
I was unaware of therapeutic hypnosis as an accepted, legitimate, and effective treatment modality for pain control, addiction, weight management, sports enhancement, sleep disorders, fears, phobias, and more. I saw very quickly that combining hypnosis with other psychotherapies I’d studied could allow a more rapid method of healing. There is, unfortunately, a great deal of trauma and pain in the world—I really wish I did not have such great job security!
What misconceptions do people have about hypnosis?
Many people feel they will be out of control or that the hypnotherapist can control them and can “erase” certain memories. I cannot control anyone unless I have a weapon (and I do not generally pack heat). Hypnosis allows one to enhance their own self-control. For example, in stage hypnosis, the subjects WANT to squawk like chickens or be hams. Hypnosis only works when one has a realistic goal. I cannot MAKE anyone stop smoking if they do not want to. If they are only coming to me under pressure from their significant other, I tell them to save their money; it will not work. Only when they WANT to stop will it work.
Hypnosis cannot “erase” a memory. While many TV shows and movies portray this, it is not factual. Hypnosis can certainly speed up the healing, acceptance of loss, discovery of responsibility, and forgiveness of the self or others, as well as help glean valuable lessons from a break-up, a death, or some other loss.
What are the benefits of hypnosis?
There are as many benefits that enhance life goals. Hypnotherapy can help people increase self-esteem and confidence, break habits, speed recovery from addictions (typically as an adjunct to 12-step or similar programs), heal from trauma, reduce depression and anxiety, overcome test anxiety and sleep disorders, quell public speaking fears, stop bedwetting, reduce pain, and more.
I also work with a lot of creative artists: writers suffering blocks, performers who deal with ageism or audition nerves, celebrities coping with stress, for example. I also help professional athletes to reduce anxiety, increase focus, and get out of a slump.
Hypnosis cannot possibly harm anyone. Some confuse it with brainwashing or mind control. Hypnosis only works because a client wants it to. At worst, it is a relaxing “massage for the mind.”
How does hypnosis work?
Hypnosis has been around for centuries; the ancient Greeks and Egyptians had sleep temples where they practiced what we now call hypnosis, which is Greek for “sleep.” One is actually in between wakefulness and sleep in a trance, where the brain waves slow down to an alpha state. This is the ideal time to “reprogram” or “rewire” your brain and to visualize your goal. With repetition, the new neural pathways (“I’m enjoying being a non-smoker again”) obscure the old undesirable ones (“I can’t imagine coffee without a cigarette”).
A certified hypnotist has been trained to first and foremost get very clear about the patient’s goal(s), history, triggers, motivational level, etc. We all work differently, but I take a great deal of time in the initial session to explain it scientifically, so clients will know what I’m doing to them, and be empowered to continue it on their own. I then induce them into a trance; I bypass the conscious mind (the intelligence department) and drop suggestions into the subconscious (the behavioral department) while the client is in the trance. Part of my job is to listen for cues in the intake so I know how the client processes information. This allows me to choose the appropriate words and images for maximum impact with that individual.
You could say that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. All self-talk is self-hypnosis. It only works because a person allows it to work. Again, I cannot make someone change.
Does one have to “believe” for it to work?
Not necessarily. Many skeptics come into my office and leave stating: “I didn’t think I could be hypnotized.” Frankly, those people tend to drop into a trance like stones. Generally, they have believed the myths about hypnosis, i.e., that they will lose control or that they are too smart to be hypnotized. We also find the more intelligent patients go deeper.
That being said, nothing works for everyone. Nothing in mental health is guaranteed. But hypnosis works for a large number of people. It is not “hypno-magic”; it is hypnotherapy, and the patient must do their part to heal. We don’t have magic wands. Many people expect that, and are disappointed. It is a process, and a beginning. Like any other form of therapy, it is the distillation process of the patient’s insights that allows for change, although hypnosis can hasten the healing.
How long does it take?
It depends on the issue. With smoking cessation, I offer a powerful 2-hour session. It really should not take any longer, because as far as I know, most of us were born non-smokers. I simply help people return to their natural default setting. Other issues can take longer, e.g., a morbidly obese patient generally needs 8-12 sessions; test anxiety 3; nail-biting typically one session; public speaking 3, sports enhancement 3-4; trauma recovery 6-8. Each individual case is different.
Many clients do well after one session and come in for a “tune-up” every year or so. Many like to come each week, like standard therapy. Again, each case is different, and I always ask prospective clients: “How fast do you change?”
How do you help women in midlife become unstuck, with the help of hypnosis?
We work together to uncover the underlying limiting beliefs that block success. Our life force/energy/passion naturally flows unstoppably, like a river. Negative, limiting beliefs act like boulders to dam up that flow. We work to remove those boulders and allow the life force to flow freely and beautifully. It is natural to be a non-smoker, to love your work, to sleep well, to eat reasonably, etc. We learn to abuse these things. And the good news is, whatever we’ve learned, we can un-learn.
Our thoughts create our beliefs, and our beliefs drive our behaviors. So to change any behavior, you change the underlying beliefs.
Can you give us examples of the types of people and problems you’ve helped?
It is indeed my honor to see someone become a non-smoker after 40 years of smoking; to lose 80 unnecessary pounds; to release an unfulfilling relationship; to pass the Bar Exam; to win a major title in golf; to win an Oscar. It is particularly thrilling to watch people reinvent themselves when they have felt “frozen and fearful.”
Many people chose careers to please their parents, their mates, society, or their culture. I work to help clients listen to their own inner voice to discover who they are, what their passions are, regardless of money or prestige or any other success markers. It is a beautiful process to watch someone experience an epiphany and transform from an attorney of 25 years to an art gallery owner; or the medical doctor who sold his practice and became a writer; or the middle manager in corporate America who became a high school teacher. I help people recognize their transferrable skills and create a life that excites them.
While I work with most people in person, I have treated many others whom I’ve never met one on one. It is more impactful to get that connection in person, but the work can certainly be done over the phone or via Skype.
What resources do you recommend for those who might want to learn more about the power of therapeutic hypnosis?
I am biased as an alumna, but Hypnosis Motivational Institute in Tarzana, CA (outside L.A.) is the best school and resource for hypnosis in the country. The site is loaded with resources and information, and a great place to find a qualified hypnotherapist in your area. Further, the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) is a professional organization that only accepts licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, dentists, and other health professionals. Finally, the Milton Erickson Institute is a motherlode of information. Erickson was a medical doctor and is considered the quintessential hypnotist.
The best book to read to understand how the mind works (other than my own, of course!) is The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Dr. Joseph Murphy. It is a classic.
What should one look for in a hypnotherapist?
Make sure you choose a certified hypnotist. This means they’ve been screened for proper training and ethics. Shop around. Talk to several and choose one who “clicks” with you. Some are more comfortable with a hypnotist who also has psychology training, either a bachelor’s or master’s or doctorate. Some feel more comfortable with a marriage and family therapist or a licensed psychologist. Education and credentials are great, but I have known many brilliant hypnotists who never finished high school, and I’ve known idiots who went to Harvard and everything in between. Education is what you make of it. Experience is the best educator, I find.
Contact Nancy B. Irwin, PsyD, C.Ht. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-235-2882
Therapist, Clinical Hypnotist, Speaker, Author
Dr. Nancy Irwin is a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist, clinical hypnotist, speaker, and author. A reinvention expert, she knows a thing or two about change.
Originally from Atlanta, Dr. Nancy was trained as an opera singer. In 1985, however, she answered another call, and moved to New York City to become a stand-up comedian. In 1994, she moved to Los Angeles when she heard Hollywood was looking for more blondes.
As a comic, she only worked about 30 minutes a day, and became a volunteer for Children of the Night, a shelter for sexually abused teens. This experience woke up the healer in her, and prompted her to leave the world of entertainment and pursue a doctorate in psychology at age 44. She quips: “The road from comedy to mental health is very short indeed.”
To inspire others with her message that it is never too late to live a life you love, Dr. Nancy went on to write the nonfiction book YOU-TURN: CHANGING DIRECTION IN MIDLIFE: Over 40 Stories of People Over 40, a collection of over 40 stories of people over 40 who made successful transitions in their personal and/or professional lives.
A trauma expert, Dr. Irwin is a frequent media guest, having appeared on Anderson Cooper, The Doctors, and more. She is on staff at Seasons Recovery Center, a luxury rehab center in Malibu, functioning as a primary therapist and clinical hypnotist. She also has a private practice in West LA, specializing in reinvention, sports enhancement, creative artists, addictions, and sexual abuse recovery and prevention.