Anxiety and cognitive hypnotherapy
Anxiety can be a very lonely and isolating experience. Often new clients believe that they have to live with the condition for the rest of their lives. This simply is not true.
In these modern times, anxiety seems to be an agony suffered by so many. To outside eyes, it can appear almost invisible, but to the people, it affects it can feel like a constant battle, emotionally and physically. It's so much more than just worry. Anxiety can feel like an emotional and physical prison that keeps people trapped in an ever-shrinking world. Life can become a vicious circle of overthinking, fear and shame... lived out to the thud of a beating heart.
What is happening when we feel anxious?
I would say that the majority of clients just don't know where the anxiety has come from. They sometimes tell me that they have always felt anxious. Or they can be leading a completely normal life when they are suddenly poleaxed by a panic attack. For many, anxiety is something that has become the norm for them and, as a result, their lives and their worlds start to shrink.
It may seem hard to fathom, but this is an indication that their brains are working too effectively - fighting to protect them from a perceived threat.
This perceived threat may be something big and traumatic, but often it can be something relatively small that happened when we were younger. Because, at this moment in our life, we were too young to really understand what the bigger picture was, what was really happening, our brains have reacted on information that has been misunderstood. The flight or fight response has been triggered and our bodies flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. This prepares us to either run away, or fight, or freeze. Blood is moved to our extremities and we breathe quickly and shallowly, pumping oxygen to our muscles.
We react instinctively, not thinking at all, but rather 'doing' - taking ourselves away from the threat or moving aggressively towards it. Sometimes we just want to vanish and not be seen. In this moment, because the blood has been diverted to our extremities and away from our 'thinking' brain, the left prefrontal cortex, we have no words to describe what's happening, no way to analyse. We just need to act and act quickly.
In our ancient past, this moment of fight or flight was our survival mechanism and meant to last for a short period of time - enough time for us to escape or destroy the threat. Once we had survived, our brains stored the memory as a snapshot of all our senses in that moment and used it as a tool to help us notice patterns of similar danger in the future.
How does the fight or flight response feel?
Humans are here, now, because we are excellent at survival. The rapid fight or flight response and subsequent storing of events in our unconscious 'take action' memory mean that we have been able to sense danger, react and survive. Whether it was a charging bear, a hostile tribe or a poison berry - we reacted, survived and stored the memory so that we could use it to escape future dangers.
Of course, in these modern times, there are not that many charging bears or hostile tribes. We have advanced so quickly that our brains have not quite caught up with the world we now live in. Danger can now mean speaking in front of a group of people and feeling judged, or having a boss who intimidates us or having a general sense of uneasiness day to day - a sense that something is not right.
Because of the release of adrenaline and cortisol, our hearts beat faster, we breathe shallowly, our muscles tense and we sweat. This can make us feel nauseous, give us headaches, make us feel dizzy. Sometimes, when the feeling is particularly rapid and intense, we can describe this as a panic attack. We can feel trapped, afraid, feel that we are going to die.
Our brains are working too well, too often, because the dangers it perceives are everyday events which have been misunderstood as threats. And when the patterns of threat are seen every day, the survival response can be triggered every day. Our analytical brains try desperately to regain control, throwing gripping hooks into the future - trying to make sense of everything and yet unable to do so. Our bodies maintain a high level of stress hormone and it begins to take very little to push us over the edge. It's like having a bathtub full of water, brimming to the edge. Even a couple of drops more water, or stress, can make that level overflow.
How can cognitive hypnotherapy help?
Cognitive hypnotherapy works on various levels to break this closed loop of behaviour, drain the bath of water. On a deeper level, we work to follow the feelings experienced, all the way back to that first event, the first time the client felt that tightness in their chest or whirring tension in their head. And when that first moment is discovered we work to change the perception of that event, to give a new and more analytical understanding. On a more surface level, we teach simple, practical skills to bring the body and mind back online, back to a feeling of safety and calm.
Research into the neuroscience of anxiety shows that information surrounding a traumatic event is collected by all our senses and that snapshot of a moment - the smells, sounds, images, textures - is sent to the brain, reaching the amygdala milliseconds before reaching the cortex. The amygdala is the seat of our limbic system, the ancient brain that reacts rapidly, instinctively to trigger the survival response, releasing the hormones we need to live another day. Only later, when our cortex, our thinking brain comes online are we able to analyse what really happened. You may have experienced this yourself - perhaps leaping away, shrieking, from a mouse or snake, only to discover it was nothing of the sort and perhaps chuckling to yourself in relief as your body calms down?
Much of the time, putting into words what we are feeling is very difficult. Because our left brain, and with it our centre of speech and analysis, has shut down in the moment of danger, the words are simply not there to describe how we feel. Cognitive hypnotherapy works with those feelings, with their position in the body, so that you don't have to know what they mean or where they come from, initially. Over a relatively brief period of time, the client's brain can process what is really going on, in a safe environment. The issue is considered from a new perspective and life can move on, safely and calmly.
The constant hypervigilance, the awareness of potential danger, the pattern matching can finally end.
Creating healthy habits for a healthy life
It's easy to slip into a lifestyle where everything appears to have, potentially, a danger. We can find ourselves shrinking away from really living life because of the constant 'what ifs'. What if I fail? What if they don't like me? What if I'm not good enough? What if it doesn't work out?
This negative default mindset is a leftover from our past where we had to be cautious; we had to remember which berry was poisonous, which tribe was hostile and which animals would eat us. By noticing and remembering the threats, we survived. By imagining the future and pattern matching with threatening events from the past, we could avoid future danger.
But those times are gone. The lives we lead are not fraught with danger, but our brains haven't quite caught up with that concept. And so, everyday events become threats. We stay in our comfort zone because it's what we know and what is safe. This comfort zone can get smaller and smaller over time.
We can change that default setting into a far more positive approach by creating healthy habits, by looking for and being aware of the good in our lives. And the more we notice the good, the more we can feel safe, positive and able to move forward. We can begin to be aware of the positive 'what ifs' - what if this works out well? What if they really like me? What if I do better than expected? What if I succeed and learn?
There is no need to be crippled by anxiety. Once our brains can process and understand that they have been working on outdated or misunderstood information, then they will work to help us live the life we want to live, in the way we choose to live it. There are no rules set in stone telling us that we have to live life in a certain way. Cognitive hypnotherapy helps clients to create healthy life skills, healthy habits, but more than that, it works to dehypnotise clients from those everyday trances of fear, 'stuckness' and anxiety. Every client is an individual who, although they might be experiencing similar symptoms, has a unique reason for why they are feeling that way. Each treatment is unique and individual for that client.
We don't have to live with anxiety. We can choose to live with growth, positivity and a greater understanding of where we want to go and how to achieve that. We can't control what life brings our way, but we can learn to choose our response and live life well. Cognitive hypnotherapy works with the client to help this happen.
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About Sarah Ariss
Sarah works in private practice as a cognitive hypnotherapist, specialising in working with clients experiencing anxiety and depression. Having studied at the Quest Institute at Regents University in London, Sarah now works from Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire as part of a consortium of therapists serving the local area.… Read more
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