Joseph Pond, from Arizona, tells Stephanie Bell how hypnotherapy is helping people in Northern Ireland overcome trauma and why he loves life here with his wife, Belfast Poet Laureate Sinead Morrissey.
I wasn't expecting to take part in a hypnotherapy experiment when I interviewed Joseph Pond, but it proved a powerful insight into the way in which this popular form of treatment works.
The hypnotherapist starts by explaining how we perceive events in our lives and puts me on the spot by asking if I would picture something that had happened to me which is still upsetting.
He then asks me to pinpoint where the picture is in my mind's eye, which was easy as it was right in front of me.
Then he asks me to picture something else that hurt from my past, but which I felt I had dealt with and put behind me.
Again I have to tell him where the picture is in my mind. I'm surprised to be able to see it clearly at the back.
He then throws in a random question asking me if I have a pet and what sort of pet it is.
Somehow that took my focus away from the previous thoughts and when asked to again picture the first experience and where it now sat in my mind, I could see it had shifted to the back.
It took just a couple of minutes but it really did bring home his point of how simply we can change the focus of our thoughts, which is at the heart of how hypnotherapy works.
Joseph is part of a group of local therapists which has just launched a new National Board of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) and Hypnotherapy in Northern Ireland.
The board is the largest hypnosis-based trade association in the province and aims to promote standards of excellence in NLP and hypnotherapy training by offering accredited courses.
It's also an attempt to validate the profession in the eyes of a still sceptical public and quash misconceptions which surround the industry.
Joseph explains: "We were never regulated before so anyone could call themselves a hypnotherapist. We wanted to establish a professional body that clients would recognise as a mark of excellence and have faith in the training and what we offer.
"We also want to raise the profile of hypnotherapy as a lot of people still have an old-fashioned notion of it from back the days of the old Abbott and Costello movies where in a famous scene Dracula hypnotises Costello.
"We want to counter some of the misconceptions.
"It is not about dominating someone's thoughts but helping them to open up and give people new options."
Most of us associate hypnotherapy with helping people to stop smoking and lose weight, and while this remains an important part of the work, Joseph and his colleagues have also been helping people to overcome serious trauma, mostly related to childhood sexual abuse and the effect of the Troubles.
It's a side to the business which many don't realise and which he is keen to highlight, showing that this ancient therapeutic art is an invaluable tool in the modern era.
In fact, hypnotherapy is so highly regarded for its curative ability that it is now available on the National Health Service everywhere in the UK except for Northern Ireland.
So, far from controlling minds, Joseph is keen that people realise that he and his colleagues are helping minds to heal.
He says: "There is still a stigma and we want to change that. People still think hypnotists can control someone's mind. I can't control – and no hypnotist can control – anyone else's reality.
"We usually have clients on a one to one basis and I can't go inside their heads and make them relax, they have to be willing to do that. When someone is haunted by something like the sound of an explosion it is not tremendously difficult to do an auditory switch and change that.
"We can help them to shift back the hardware and replace it. Nature doesn't like a vacuum. It's about healing and guiding through the senses and through our experience we have had great results.
"If someone can't stop smoking or lose weight, part of the hypnosis process is getting into their unconscious mind and helping them to see that the problem is about how they look at things.
"We are all constantly running a tape recorder at the back of our minds and what we tell ourselves most of the time is negative or limiting in some way.
"That process of constantly speaking to ourselves is co-creator of our reality.
"That's the level of disillusion we are at and our problems are at. We can help by changing how people process and remember something, especially a Troubles related incident or institutional sexual abuse, which a lot of my clients have experienced.
"When something is straight ahead of you in your mind's eye it is difficult to see anything else other than the trauma and that trauma then can affect all aspects of your life.
"We can help shift that picture from the front to the back of the mind so that it doesn't dominate.
"What I do doesn't mean the person might not need a psychotherapist or medication. I wouldn't assert that I am an absolutist. We can heal them by guiding them through the senses and we've had great results."
Joseph (45), practices from his home in Whiteabbey which he shares with his wife Sinead Morrissey (42), who is Belfast's Poet Laureate, and their two children, Augustine (7), and Sofia (5). He is originally from Arizona in the US and met Sinead while both of them were teaching in Japan. They married in Japan in traditional Kimono consumes in 1995 and returned to Northern Ireland in 1999.
Joseph, who is also a qualified acupuncturist, ran a successful clinic and health food shop in Botanic Avenue for some years.
It was while practicing acupuncture that he became interested in hypnotherapy and NPL, as he explains: "I have been an acupuncturist since 2002. A lot of my clients needed to make dietary changes and I noticed that some were able to make the changes easily while some found it hard.
"That really got me wondering what the difference was and paying attention to clients and their different personalities.
"I trained in 2007 in hypnotherapy with Paul McKenna and in HLP with Richard Bandler. Then I took time off to raise my children from 2007 until 2010. I worked as a therapist with the MS Society and then started my own practice."
Joseph has helped dozens of people with smoking addiction and weight loss but is most proud of the healing process hypnotherapy is giving to many people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress syndrome – something which he believes more of us struggle with than we realise.
He alludes to painful experiences in his own life which allowed him while training to put hypnotherapy to the test in the most insightful way by going through the process himself to discover if it helped heal his past hurts.
He says: "I think a lot of people throughout the world experience PTS as a result of childhood challenges, maybe even some minor incident when they were two or three which affected their childish assumptions of reality.
"When I was learning all this stuff I got hypnotised to see if it would help make changes in me.
"Afterwards I felt 100% better. I felt liberated.
"I could see the pain was still there but it helped me to change how I think about it.
"I had the choice to dwell on it or not and when I have my clients that's what strikes me most, the fact that they don't feel they have that choice, and yet they do.
"Hypnotherapy is about giving the choice back to the client. I could make myself depressed if I want to but for me when I experienced it, it was a wake-up call for me and when I realised I had a choice it didn't have the same hold over me."
Taking time off to raise his children while his wife pursued her dream of becoming a celebrated poet proved a superb learning curve for Joseph as he got to observe in the very young just how easily we can develop negative thoughts about things.
He explains: "Watching my own children grow and paying attention to how phobias and fears can develop has been the most valuable learning period of my life.
"I've seen things in my children's own consciousness which have been absolutely invaluable and I feel very blessed to be able to have done that." Growing up in Arizona, Joseph could never have imagined that he would one day call Northern Ireland his home.
He loves his life here and tries to visit family in America as often as possible.
It was after the Good Friday Agreement when he and Sinead returned home from Japan to set down roots and raise their family. He says: "When I went to Japan to teach I expected to meet a Japanese woman and not once did I consider that I might meet someone from Northern Ireland.
"The UK was just not part of my world as a child growing up. I grew up with Native Americans and Northern Ireland is a completely different world for me which I could never have dreamt of.
"We arrived here in the middle of January which was a shock because of the cold but I love it now. I feel more at home here than I did back in the US.
"Things seemed pretty optimistic when I arrived and I have seen many changes in the time I have been here. The truth is that the US and the place I came from are more dangerous than Northern Ireland.
"Here the violence was largely targeted but where I grew up in the '80s there was lots of gun violence and drive-by shootings."
He is rightly proud of his wife's achievements but not in the least surprised. Sinead was a 22-year-old with a passion for being a poet when the couple first met in Japan where she was teaching English. She is now one of our most famous poets, who this year added the prestigious TS Eliot prize for her collection Parallax to a growing list of top awards.
She is also currently Belfast's Poet Laureate and in this role has worked extremely hard bringing poetry into the community for all ages to experience and enjoy.
Joseph says: "Sinead is one of the people I most admire in the world. She has always been driven.
"When we first met and she had this passion to be a poet I had no real sense or idea that she would become as successful as she has and I am extremely proud of her."