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Hypnotherapy for Anxiety

In my hypnotherapy practice I work with more people with anxiety disorders than any other issue. In this post I’ll look at some UK statistics, explain what anxiety is, what can happen when it gets out of control and, most importantly, what you can do about it.

Many of my clients have experienced anxiety for much of their life without receiving any therapy. A look at mental health statistics for the UK reveals that this isn’t surprising – though the figures may well be to many. Research shows that:

I know that many of the clients I see have no idea that what they are experiencing is very common. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything fundamentally “wrong” with you – nor does it indicate a sign of weakness or flaw in your character.

In fact, our brains have evolved to react this way to anything perceived as a threat. Of course our ancient ancestors were concerned with very different threats to the kinds of things we perceive as threatening today. They were more likely to be faced with predators and aggressors, whereas common anxieties today include talking in front of a group of people or socialising and fear of failure, or what others will think of us – yet our physical response is the same. This threat detection and defense system is referred to as the “fight flight” response – stress hormones are released triggering a chain of physical reactions, gearing the body up for a burst of physical activity which may be useful if you have to fight or run from a sabre- toothed tiger, but not so helpful if you need to give a presentation or going out on a social occasion. It seems the evolution of our brains hasn’t quite caught up with changes in our lifestyle!

So anxiety is a normal and indeed appropriate response to protect us from potential threat. It’s usually associated with anticipation of a threatening event and is a powerful force that enables us to act quickly, cope, perform efficiently and even perform incredible feats of human endeavour. Anxiety becomes abnormal when it’s sustained over time and has a negative impact on normal function. It would be quite normal, for example, to experience some anxiety on starting a new job – and this can help to improve our performance – however if you feel so anxious that you’re unable to concentrate, remember instructions, feel overwhelmed and these feelings persist, then it would be considered abnormal.

My dad used to work as the site manager at a local school and if the burglar alarm went off he was required to go to the school along with the local police. I remember one occasion when he was called out on Christmas day. On arrival at the school he found that a poster had come loose and was wafting in a draft, the movement triggering the ultra-sensitive burglar alarm system.

Abnormal anxiety can be compared to this very sensitive burglar alarm that signaled non-existent danger. This abnormal anxiety response can affect every area of life including work, relationships, social life/leisure and personal care. Prolonged anxiety can also have a negative impact on health, for example digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and ulcers. Prolonged anxiety often leads to depression as a result of avoidance of social activities (and the isolation this leads to), loss of work and deterioration in relationships, for example.

Symptoms of anxiety may be divided into emotional, physiological, cognitive and behavioural. This is quite a comprehensive list and not necessarily all symptoms will be present.

1

Emotional

Feeling uneasy, off-balance; feeling overwhelmed; feeling a sense of impending doom; feeling helpless and out of control; having feelings of unreality as if in a dream; feeling detached from your surroundings.

2

Physiological

Increased heart rate, chest pain and pressure; constipation, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, cramps and loss of appetite; shortness of breath and choking sensations; frequency and urgency of urination; loss of libido, amenorrhoea and premature ejaculation; sweating, flushing, dry mouth, dizziness and fainting; muscular tension, cramping, tremors and spasms.

When the physical symptoms escalate they can result in a panic attack, fear of which can exacerbate the cycle.

3

Cognitive

Confusion, poor memory, poor concentration, loss of perspective, thinking distortions including catastrophic thinking and negative self-evaluation, obsessive thoughts, fears of loss of control/not coping/injury/death.

4

Behavioural

Withdrawn and immobile or overactive, restless and agitated; excess/decreased consumption of alcohol/drugs/food; rituals to alleviate anxiety.

Although there’s no quick fix it is possible to learn skills and strategies to help you to cope more effectively with the challenges life inevitably presents us with; and even to overcome your anxiety completely. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve suffered from anxiety; age is no barrier! But you do need to believe that change is possible. So many people say to me “I’ve always been this way” or “that’s just the way I am”. Your character isn’t fixed though and I encourage you to consider the idea that “up until this point I’ve been…but I’m now choosing to be different”. I’ve recently been working with a gentleman in his 70s who had suffered from social anxiety, low mood/depression, insomnia and nightmares his whole adult life. After just a couple of sessions he is sleeping well with no nightmares, he no longer feels depressed and his anxiety is much reduced. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve had that problem, as long as you’re committed to changing.

I’d like to introduce a few ideas that I use when working with clients in my hypnotherapy practice to help them overcome anxiety:

1

Compassionate imagery

Is there someone in your life who loves and cares for you unconditionally? Place your hand on your heart and take a few deep breaths, then imagine looking at that person’s face smiling at you. Notice their facial features and how they look at you in a kind, gentle, caring and compassionate way (close your eyes if it’s easier). Imagine the sound of their voice – what would they say to you that would be comforting and reassuring? Imagine this compassionate person speaking to you in a gentle, caring manner – being aware of the pitch, pace and tone of their voice.

2

Special safe place imagery

Imagine yourself in a safe, special place; this can be somewhere you enjoy going to – perhaps somewhere you’ve been on holiday or somewhere from your childhood, or it can be somewhere you’re creating in your imagination which is just for you. It’s important that you choose somewhere that is safe, comfortable and relaxing for you to be. Re-create this special safe place in your mind as vividly as you can – focusing on what you can see, hear, feel, even what you can smell and taste if appropriate!

3

Breathing

The breath is a powerful pathway to relaxation, so take some time to focus in on your breath, paying attention to the sensations of breathing – the movement of your ribcage, your belly, perhaps your shoulders as well. Notice the temperature of the air you’re breathing and the sensation of air on the tip of your nose or top lip as you breathe in and out. Your mind will wander – that’s completely natural and is just what minds do – so just gently and kindly bring your attention back to the breath. Don’t try and change your breathing or stop it from changing – just observe it passively.

4

Progressive relaxation

There are many different progressive relaxation techniques – one of the easiest methods is to imagine tensing then relaxing parts of your body in turn. Begin with your right leg and foot – imagine tensing it and holding (but don’t actually tense it) and then after a few moments relax. Then focus on imagining tensing, then relaxing your left leg and foot – move through your whole body like this working up to the face and head.

5

Using shape and colour

Tune into your body and notice where you feel anxious – if this feeling was a shape or an object what would it be like? Give it a colour, size, shape, texture, density, perhaps even a sound as well. Get a really clear representation of this shape or object in your mind and then change it to its opposite and notice the difference, e.g. if it’s hard, make it soft; if it’s spiky, make it smooth, etc.

6

Overcoming distorted thinking patterns

Do you have a tendency to view things in black and white terms? Be mindful of whether you use words such as never, every and always – for example, “this always happens to me,” or “I’m never going to be good enough.” If your performance falls short of perfect, do you see yourself as a total failure? If you tend to think in terms of good or bad, success or failure, take some time to consider the middle ground.

Are you over-generalising? Do you tend to see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of negativity and defeat – for example getting rejected following an interview, an indication that you’ll never find a job. What might be a more helpful and supportive way of looking at this?

Is it possible you’re assuming what other people are thinking or even feeling about you? For example, perhaps you feel awkward in social situations and assume others think you’re boring, or judging you in some other way? If you do this, you’re imagining that other people have your thoughts, which is very unlikely. Other peoples thoughts are to do with them – they are nothing to do with you! How else might the situation be interpreted? How would someone else see this? As kindly and gently as you can – think or write about alternative perspectives, pointing out where your thinking may be unhelpful.

7

Mental rehearsal

All of the anxious people I’ve worked with have very vivid imaginations – they’re all very good at imagining the worst-case scenario. If this applies to you, imagine yourself coping well in potentially challenging situations – what would that look like, feel like, sound like and what thoughts would you be having then? When imagining the worst-case scenario it’s common for people to stop at that worst point. Instead of stopping at the worst point continue to imagine yourself beyond that point – coping well and the situation being resolved. Get your imagination to work for you, instead of against you…everything starts with the imagination – so start mentally rehearsing your ideal outcome today.

I hope this has given you some food for thought and some hope that, if you are a sufferer there are many ways to approach and treat your condition. Read more about me and my hypnotherapy work here.

I’m a hypnotherapist providing a friendly, professional service in Devon, working from Buckfastleigh. I offer a free initial consultation, so please feel free to contact me
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