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Help for Picky Eaters

The restaurant's breakfast menu said "egg and cheese" sandwich, and that's what I ordered. But when my plate arrived, there was a thick slice of tomato poking out on all sides of the English muffin. I couldn't simply pick it out, like I might an errant onion. The tomato's seedy innards had permeated every nook and cranny of my sandwich, rendering my breakfast inedible. To the embarrassment of my friends, I pitched a toddler-worthy tantrum and sent my plate back to the kitchen.

Tomatoes aren't the only food on my banned list. My food aversions extend far and wide: Bananas, cream cheese, mushrooms, zucchini, and yogurt -- along with anything else mushy, pungent, soggy, seed-filled, or remotely slimy -- top my no-go list. I've had food issues since childhood, and several decades later, they're wearing on me. Attending dinner parties and eating out are often stressful, and I have "explanation fatigue" from years of describing my food issues to curious (and occasionally offended) friends and family. I would love to get over my hang-ups, but the truth is, I don't fully understand them myself.

When a friend recommended hypnotherapy, I was intrigued. I'd heard the technique could help people quit smoking and lose weight. Whether it could change my relationship with food was anyone's guess, but it was worth a try. My research turned up Rebecca Johnston, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist in practice for nearly 20 years. Driving to our first session, I anticipated spending the first session in a trance. "Look into my eyes," she'd say, and an hour later, prompted by a bell or a whistle, I'd realize my inner self not only tolerated tomatoes, but loved them.

Instead, we talked at length about my health history, competitive personality, and long history of picky eating. The stories poured out: refusing to put milk in my cereal (even Rice Krispies) from age five on; the trauma of watching a tennis teammate vomit Gatorade and bananas; the uproar I caused during my family's yearly trips to Italy by not eating tomatoes.

Johnston and I decided to focus on tomatoes. Strangely, I told her, finely chopped tomatoes don't bother me, and I like cooked ones -- in a marinara sauce. She seized on this and suggested that a simple shift of perspective might help. Instead of fixating on the size of the tomato, I could focus on the flavor of the entire dish.

At that point, therapy transitioned into hypnotherapy -- which, it turned out, wouldn't involve staring, bells, or instant cures. "Hypnosis is simply a state of deep concentration," Johnston said. Once you're relaxed enough to tap into your subconscious, you block out noise, to-do lists, and the latest iPod jingle. Your brainpower goes toward the issue at hand. This deep concentration is a "natural state that's spontaneous in many people," she said. "It's similar to a runner's high."

Johnston inducted me into my first hypnotic state using what she called the "magnetic fingers" technique. Nervous and excited, I sat with my hands in my lap, index fingers extended, touching at the tips. She switched to a soothing voice and suggested that I separate my index fingers and focus on the tips. In the same voice, she asked me to think of a happy place or activity (I pictured my college friend's idyllic lake house in Vermont) and imagine magnets on the tips of my fingers attracting each other.

That's when things got freaky. I wasn't moving my fingers on purpose, but I could see them making small, jerky movements toward each other. When my fingers finally touched, I felt intoxicated, like I'd gulped a glass of champagne or run five miles.

When Johnston told me the magnets had fallen off my fingers, the hypnotic state ended. Only five minutes had passed, but I was suddenly aware of the power of my mind. My eyes welled up and I felt flushed. It was overwhelming. "Most of the time, our mind is focused on all sorts of things around us," said Johnston, "but if you focus your energy, you become open to making changes at a deeper level."

A few days later, though, when faced with a Caprese salad at a buffet lunch, I stared it down, took a deep breath, and then picked up only the mozzarella and basil, leaving the tomatoes behind. Old habits die hard.

At our next session, I told Johnston the tomatoes had defeated me again. She pointed to the concept of defeat as the essence of my problem. Tomatoes weren't an entity to be conquered, she said. By retraining my mind, I could respond to them with calm, rather than hostility. In other words, I had to make peace, not war.

With this goal in mind, Johnston guided me into my second hypnotic state. I focused on a point on the ceiling, breathed deeply, and freed my mind of background thoughts while she counted to three. She asked me to imagine an eating scenario in which I felt relaxed and in control. I pictured our rustic kitchen table in Italy. My family was sitting around it, and I could smell the fresh summer air. Without prompting, I saw a Caprese salad in front of me. I noticed how the white mozzarella contrasted with the green basil and the red tomatoes and focused on how the ingredients would meld together into a satisfying bite.

Johnston brought me out of the state by counting backward from three. When I opened my eyes, I felt like I'd just woken from a nap. I realized that she never said the word tomato while I was hypnotized; instead, she helped me visualize an entire enjoyable meal. My own subconscious had placed the tomato there.

To work up to enjoying a real tomato, we devised a schedule: I'd expose myself to tomatoes every day. Some days I'd cut one up and mix it in with my food. Other days, leaving it on my plate would be enough. By the end of six weeks I hoped to be over my fear.

My first triumphant bite was cut from a slice of a panini at a dinner party. My second was chipped off a tomato wedge in a salad. When I felt myself getting anxious, I used the technique Johnston taught me during our third session: I quieted my mind, repeated the mantra "go inside," and pressed my index finger and thumb together while holding a deep breath. As I exhaled, I let my fingers gently fall apart. I practiced at home, at restaurants (probably looking like I was deep in prayer), and over lunch at the office.

And it worked. Six months later, I can summon calm whenever tomatoes appear. I may not ever love them, but the war is over; our relationship has become one of peaceful coexistence. And perhaps on my next trip to Italy -- in the company of family, sunshine, and lots of other delicious food and wine -- tomatoes and I will take things to the next level.

Hypnosis: Here's How It Works
According to the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, hypnotherapy bears little resemblance to the sensational displays found in stage shows or on college campuses. Here's the truth behind three common misperceptions.

Myth: I won't remember anything that happens while hypnotized.
Truth: Most hypnosis takes place in a light or medium state of trance, in which the patient can communicate with the practitioner and has a clear memory of everything that was said or done.

Myth: I can't be hypnotized.
Truth: Most experts agree that approximately 80 percent of the general population can be hypnotized. If you don't want to be hypnotized, however, that can interfere with the process.

Myth: I'll lose control.
Truth: When you're collaborating with a trained, ethical professional, your mind will generally protect you from doing something you truly don't want to do. The practitioner merely makes suggestions that are consistent with the goals the patient is trying to achieve.

Text by Lena Watts

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