Paul McKenna: It's All In The Mind
Hypnotist Paul McKenna has made millions from helping people beat their vices, but does it really work? Celia Walden goes under his spell to try and conquer her caffeine addiction.
'I Can Make You Thin." The sentence can scarcely be heard above the cacophony of hailing coins. And yet this is what Paul McKenna is telling me, with a straight face, that he can do.
If you carefully follow the programme that his new weight-loss book and CD propagates, the world-famous hypnotist and motivational speaker believes that, without either food restrictions or exercise prescriptions, you will end up a healthy size. Using neurolinguistic programming to reinforce his message, McKenna claims to have reprogrammed the brains of thousands of people into believing that they can control food, rather than allowing it to control them.
“To be honest my clients are female-heavy,” he laughs. “No pun intended. If it weren’t so sad it would be funny that, in the late 20th and early 21st century, a vast proportion of the Western world are either fat or starving themselves. People drink, gamble, take drugs and shop, but food is our drug of choice right now. It’s a dangerous one because it is relatively inexpensive and easily available.”
He says that in an independent study of his programme, 71 per cent of people lost weight and kept it off for two years. When 20 people tested it for GMTV, 90 per cent of them lost weight.
McKenna, who studied neuroscience at university in Louisiana and the UK, has written 10 best-selling books on subjects as varied as confidence, smoking, stress and how to be rich, earning him sales of £17 million in the UK alone. He also tours both sides of the Atlantic giving self-help seminars.
This venture, he says, is the one he feels most passionately about. His own family, he admits, had a tendency to overeat, something he rebelled against from a young age, refusing “to clear my plate the way I was told to”.
“Nowadays it’s not uncommon for people in high-pressure jobs to use food as a crutch in a similar way to smoking,” he says. Food provides a mild euphoria, he explains, releasing endorphins and reducing stress, which is why so many of us make our workloads bearable by continually snacking, guzzling sugar-free sweets, chewing gum or drinking litres of coffee.
Guilty of this last vice in particular, rather than having any desire to lose weight, I ask McKenna whether he might be able to use the principles of I Can Make You Thin to cure me of my caffeine habit.
Minutes later, I am standing up, feet slightly apart, trying to resist being pushed over by McKenna, who is pressing my right shoulder back with a gentle, but unrelenting force. Using Aikido, a Japanese martial-arts technique, to reduce emotional overwhelm, he asks me to conjure up a professional situation in which I am confronted by a seemingly impossible task.
“How high are your stress levels now?” he whispers. When I tell him 9/10, he exerts a stronger pressure. “Now imagine the same situation, but not reaching for coffee, and just managing it,” he commands. “How high are your stress levels now?” I hear myself reply 6/10, without knowing how I have reached that figure. Resisting the pressure of his hand forces me to steel what Yogis call “the core” – the very place stress attacks first.
A few minutes later I’m down to 5/10, able to picture sitting down to work at my computer without a vat of black filter coffee perpetually moving from hand to mouth. Suddenly McKenna says we’re going to stop it there. “It’s important for people with creative jobs to hold on to a certain amount of stress because it also acts as a driving force.”
Next is a quick blast of hypnotherapy. I’m slightly apprehensive as he tells me to lie back and close my eyes, keen not to wake up neighing like a sheep, or worse still: unable ever to enjoy food or drink coffee again. “Relax,” he tells me, his voice halfway between a seductive murmur and a gentle imperative.
“I’m going to try to see the world through your eyes. As you listen to my voice…” and then suddenly I’m somewhere else, not so much floating as buried beneath layers of something soft and duvet-like. I can still hear McKenna semi-chanting the basic truths that we all know but reject every day (“you do not need another cup of coffee in order to function” etc), but, my mind has become super-absorbent, accepting these facts as though I am hearing and understanding them for the first time. I’m fully conscious – aware of a car alarm outside and a builder shouting from nearby scaffolding, but very sleepy.
All of a sudden McKenna’s diction speeds up, his voice losing its mellifluous quality as he counts down from 10 to one and instructs me to wake up.
Still bleary-eyed, I make my way back to the office, bypassing Costa Coffee without so much as a glance. For two or three days I feel markedly less stressed, the kernel of tension in my belly all but gone. I’m down to one small coffee in the morning with breakfast. By the following week, however, I’m pretty much back to my usual five a day.
McKenna stresses that hypnotherapy is not a magical solution; it will often take more than one session for a message to become ingrained – although the seminars, costing £300 and attended by 500 people at a time, claim to bring results after a single day. Should either fail you, he has devised an ingenious idea: an I Can Make You Thin app, available to buy on iTunes, which can give you a blast of support from your iPhone. McKenna is so pleased with it that he is contemplating making an app for every area he works in.
“A lot of what I do with people depends on their motivation – the willingness of that person to change,” he tells me. “The rest is timing. If you get that right, it really does have the power to transform a person’s life.”
March 2, 2010