Hypnotherapy and the many faces of anxiety.
Or: How to approach anxiety from a different angle
Picture by Fenzy
Anxiety has many faces. In my head, I see anxiety as a very tall dark silhouette with 3 faces constantly rotating. I have a lot of imagination!
You can wake up one morning and see the face of psychological anxiety sitting on your bed with its baggage of obsessive thoughts. You can also get hit hard by its physical side, with a nasty sidekick of adrenaline and cortisol that triggers the freeze/fight/flight system: increased heart rate, nausea, dizziness, full blown panic attacks are a few examples of what you may experience. Alternatively, you may have experienced being followed around by the behavioral aspect of anxiety, as you engage in avoidance or compulsive behaviors. This aspect of anxiety may even make you snap at the people around you or give you trouble sleeping. Anxiety knows how to play dirty.
There are many forms of therapy that can help you change your relationship to anxiety. You may even have tried a few of them throughout your life. Today, I would like to propose to you somewhat of a different approach: a different path on the journey towards a healthier relationship with anxiety. The path of hypnotherapy.
Hypnotherapy is a form of therapy that, despite being shrouded in mystery, has been around for a long time. Its slow rise to the rank of “mainstream therapy” may surprise some, considering how efficient it is at treating a wide variety of conditions, including anxiety. However, it is also to be expected, as Hypnotherapy targets the deep part of our mind -or unconscious mind- : something that cannot be touched, something that is difficult to “see” or “hear” and yet, like gravity, still exists. In our very conscious, rational, physically oriented societies, the unconscious mind is often forgotten. Which is quite unfortunate considering that most of our habitual and automatic behaviors are stored at that level. This wonderful, forgotten world is where hypnotherapy goes to change the way you think, feel and behave over the long term.
If you want to know more on how hypnotherapy works, have a look at my other blog post here. If you want to know more about hypnotherapy for anxiety...keep going!
When it comes to targeting anxiety, a clinical hypnotherapist can use many approaches. Let me guide you through a few trade secrets!
1. Anchoring: a handy, discrete and efficient coping strategy
Anchoring is a technique that links a behavioral response with a trigger. Those responses are based on past experiences, and can be either positive or negative. For instance, seeing a syringe may bring back to mind a negative medical experience and trigger a panic attack. Alternatively, hearing a much loved song on the radio may send you back to a fond memory of the time you used to listen to it over and over and over again! The anchoring process itself happens unconsciously: you did not consciously choose to anchor that song at the time. And you definitely did not choose to anchor that syringe. And this is the very reason why it works so well with hypnotherapy as hypnotherapy works at the unconscious level.
You can both “deactivate'' negative anchors, and activate positive ones. Depending on the circumstances and the clients, I will often activate positive anchors of calm, control, safety or confidence. Anchors are very handy as they can be used to prevent the freeze/fight/flight system kicking in and stop panic attacks.
2. Hypno- desensitisation
This is a technique I would use when clients present with specific fears or phobias. Let’s imagine you are afraid of dogs. Amongst that general fear, there may be different levels of fear that you can rate along a scale: seeing a dog on tv (2/10), seeing a dog at the end of the street (7/10), having a dog licking your hand (9/10), and so on...
In the state of hyper attention that hypnosis induces, the clinical hypnotherapist would help you re-create each one of those situations in detail, all the while giving you suggestions of calm, safety, and confidence. Once the first situation feels unthreatening, the second one is re-created, and then the third one, and so on. This can be a really fast process, with some people going from 1 to 10 right away, and others taking several sessions to reach and deactivate the most fear-triggering situation.
The whole process is based on the idea that, by avoiding a certain situation (here being in contact with a dog) you actually never give yourself the chance to find out that you actually have the resources to cope with it. In that way, the fear keeps on increasing,,until it becomes such an overwhelming entity it can no longer be faced. Hypnotherapy helps you decrease the power of that entity in a safe and controllable setting.
This is a technique that is well suited to clients presenting with anxiety that can be linked back to a specific triggering event. The brain is a computer, and as a computer it codes information. When that event happened, the brain coded its memory in a specific way: with words, sounds, pictures, feelings, smells, tastes.
Let’s do a small experiment here: after that sentence, close your eyes and remember a (happy!) memory
I am sure you saw something, maybe you heard something, maybe you felt something...all of those aspects of that specific memory are encoded into your brain in a certain way: let’s say 1234567890. That bar code allows you to find but also re-create that memory in your mind. But what would happen if we changed the code? Let’s say 1364259870. Now your brain will have a hard time finding and reacting to that memory wouldn’t it?
This is exactly what we do with that technique: we change the code by changing certain aspects of the memory: the order of the events, the colors, the setting and so on. The memory remains but the emotional charge is lessened, sometimes to a great extent. I remember working with a client who had a fear of water following what felt like a near drowning experience while surfing as a child. After two sessions she was back in a swimming pool rediscovering how much she enjoyed swimming.
Hammond, DC (2010) Hypnosis in the treatment of anxiety- and stress-related disorders. ExpertReview of Neurotherapeutics, 10(2), 263–273.
Hudson, L (2009) Scripts and strategies in Hypnotherapy with Children. Crown House Publishing.
Kirsch, I (1995) Hypnosis as an adjunct to cognitive- behavioral psychotherapy: a meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 63(2), 214–220.