Alexander's wolves: Treating anxiety with hypnotherapy
It was ward round in the secure psychiatric hospital where I worked as a therapist. The medical team greeted the patient, Alexander, as he came in and sat down. After a few pleasantries, the psychiatrist asked Alexander if he was still seeing the wolves – a persistent delusion which was a symptom of his schizophrenia.
“Oh yes”, he said, pointing to the floor, “There’s one just there”.
Immediately and instinctively, all the professionals in the room lifted their feet off the ground, and we shrank back in our chairs! Such is the power of suggestion.
We all knew there was nothing there, and yet our subconscious prompted us to action. Our fight-flight response was triggered by the suggestion that there was a wild animal in the room.
What is the fight-or-flight response?
In order to ensure our survival in a dangerous world filled with predatory animals and spear-wielding cavemen, our brains evolved a system of rapid response to any perceived threat. When this is triggered, our brain releases a cocktail of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Our heart rate and breathing increase, to send oxygen to the muscles; there is a release of glucose into the muscles for a boost of energy; and the stomach will empty. And our brain will be urging us to run away. Fast.
This is why, when we feel scared or anxious, we experience symptoms such as a racing heart, tense muscles, breathlessness, jelly-legs, nausea, sweating, or trembling. We may feel the need to leave the situation or hide away. This response is super quick. After all, we would not survive long if we stopped to consider whether that is actually a panther springing toward us, or just a shadow.
The brain’s default position is ‘act first, ask questions later’. Of course, we very rarely come across a wild animal in our day-to-day lives. Nevertheless, our fight-flight response can be triggered by any perceived threat, for example, a job interview, a near-miss while driving, or the thought of attending a party.
How does this link to anxiety?
For some people, particularly those under a lot of stress, the fight-flight response becomes over-sensitive and is triggered very frequently in response to everyday occurrences. This can cause generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic attacks, or phobias. Like a smoke alarm, we need the fight-flight response to keep us safe, but we don’t need it going off every time we turn the toaster on.
Anxiety symptoms in themselves, while deeply unpleasant, are not harmful. However, over time high levels of cortisol can cause health problems such as diabetes, heart attack or stroke. Feeling frequently anxious can cause headaches, tiredness and irritability. You may feel restless or ‘on edge’, or maybe you struggle to concentrate.
Moreover, for many people, an anxiety disorder can severely impact on their life. They may withdraw from certain activities or avoid public places, feel incapable of forming relationships, or even feel unable to leave the house. Others may develop OCD, or be plagued by negative thoughts; suffer a loss of self-confidence; or have low self-esteem.
How can hypnotherapy help with anxiety?
When you first meet your hypnotherapist, they will talk to you about the triggers and causes of your anxiety, and how it affects your day-to-day life. The therapist will use this information to tailor your treatment to your specific needs.
At the start of your treatment, you will be guided into a pleasant state of deep relaxation, allowing your brain and muscles to relax and calm – the complete opposite of being in fight-flight mode. This in itself is hugely beneficial.
Then, once you are fully relaxed, the therapist can harness the power of suggestion. Remember those wolves? It was the suggestion that changed our behaviour. The therapist will use this ability of the subconscious, giving you positive suggestions to remain calm and stay in control of your anxiety. Through hypnotherapy, you will increase your confidence and self-esteem and feel able to cope with whatever life throws at you.
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