Stress and anxiety

Anxiety and stress are chronic problems of modern times, inherited from our ancient forefathers.

'Anxiety-inducing' is certainly a phrase that comes to mind when thinking of these tumultuous times. Whether you are prone to anxiety or a naturally carefree person, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being affected by the uncertainties and stress that continue to surround COVID-19. Before we get into how hypnotherapy can help combat anxiety and stress, let’s look at the definition of these related states.

Anxiety can be defined as a feeling of unease about an event or situation for which the outcome is uncertain. Over the years, I have heard my clients use a range of words to describe their experience of this emotion, such as: 'apprehensive', 'worried', 'afraid' etc. They relay a sense of 'foreboding' and being 'on edge'. 

According to WebMD: “Anxiety is a normal emotion. It’s your brain’s way of reacting to stress and alerting you of potential danger ahead.” 

But what is a reasonable amount of worry and what is an unhealthy level? A small amount of 'the jitters' is fine and even expected. Most of us would have experienced that familiar stomach flutter before a job interview or presentation, or a major milestone such as our wedding day. 

Anxiety may become a problem when it persists, and the feelings are overpowering. 

As WebMD states: “Excessive anxiety can make you avoid work, school, family get-togethers, and other social situations that might trigger or worsen your symptoms.”  

So, what exactly is the 'stress response' and how does it work?

Mammoths vs. deadlines

As Harvard University (HU) explains on its Harvard Health site, a stressful situation “can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes”. This is known as the “fight-or-flight” response. This is a primitive survival mechanism that was useful in helping us react swiftly to predators back as early humans – but it’s very much still with us as modern Homo Sapiens. “Unfortunately,” explains HU, “the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties.”

The fight-or-flight response is like a relay race in which multiple parts of the body compete. Picture a stressful event like a gunshot sounding at the start of the relay. The amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emotional processing, takes off on a sprint from the start line. 

It 'passes the baton' (sends a distress signal) to the hypothalamus – the command centre of the brain – which then sets off at pace, handing over to the sympathetic nervous system, a component of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS is responsible for bodily functions that we aren’t aware of, such as breathing. “These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream,” says HU.

The circulation of epinephrine triggers multiple physiological changes, including an accelerated heart rate, which pushes blood to vital organs, elevating the pulse rate and blood pressure. This explains why we can hyperventilate when experiencing stress

Man with head in hands at deskHave you ever felt extra alert when in a stressful situation? That’s because more oxygen is sent to your brain. Your senses become heightened. These changes would have allowed you to fend off predators long ago. In addition, epinephrine activates the release of glucose, which explains the spike of energy we feel when stressed, giving us zing to either fight or flee.

Your body also prepares for that epic battle with a mammoth (today, things like looming deadlines or your response to a COVID-related news bulletin) by diverting blood from areas such as your digestive system (who needs to eat when you’re facing a sabre tooth tiger?) to the major muscle groups, which explains symptoms like shaky legs. 

How hypnotherapy helps us combat stress 

There are many powerful ways that hypnotherapy can assist us in combatting stress. A qualified hypnotherapist will educate clients about stress-busting techniques including proper breathing and energy conservation (versus overload), as well as self-management and social tools such as assertiveness. Several other techniques are used by a hypnotherapist – before even reaching the actual hypnosis phase! Below are just a few examples.

Quick symptoms review

In this approach, the physical symptoms of anxiety are deconstructed and the ANS response explained. Drawing the client’s attention to their symptoms helps them develop self-awareness, allowing them to identify and better manage stress. 

Quick alternatives technique

This technique involves aiding the client to logically question their anxiety and identify evidence for the threat. For example: “I get anxious when I drive on the motorway.” 

  • Rational alternative one: “I am a competent driver who has been driving for many years.”
  • Rational alternative two: “I have not been drinking or using substances that would impair my driving.”
  • Rational alternative three: “I am obeying the speed limit and following guidelines such as keeping a safe following distance, as are many other drivers around me, so I can reach my destination safely.”

Stop and consider

This approach is an effective method that involves proactively thinking about stress triggers. Your hypnotherapist will guide you in how to use this technique, which involves pausing at the start and end of each day to contemplate and plan upcoming events and reflect on what has been learned from completed events.

Before you even experience your stress triggers, spend time conducting a realistic appraisal of them (see technique above) and remind yourself of techniques to overcome these obstacles. 

There are several other pre-hypnosis techniques that your hypnotherapist will guide you through. And now we come to the in-hypnosis phase, which entails a mix of behavioural, cognitive, analytical, metaphorical, and regression techniques. Let’s delve into two of these.

Two women in therapy sessionBehavioural method

This powerful in-hypnosis technique involves several steps including directing suggestions while the client is in a calm, relaxed state to help them achieve healthier behavioural responses. 

The therapist may also utilise breathing techniques and Hypno-desensitisation, which involves staged exposure to reduce the anxiety response. According to Hypnosis and Desensitisation for Phobias: A Controlled Prospective Trial (Cambridge University Press; I. M. Marks, M. G. Gelder, and G. Edwards): “During treatment by desensitisation, patients are relaxed while they are asked to visualise situations which evoke progressively more fear.” 

A form of behavioural therapy based on the theory of classical conditioning and developed in the 1950s, the objective is to firstly, remove the fear response of a phobia, and replace it with a relaxation response.

Other effective behavioural methods include what’s known as 'ego strengthening'. According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI): “Ego strengthening stands as the bedrock upon which other techniques are structured. Much ego strengthening takes place indirectly, and its effects are often perceived as improved therapeutic alliance, heightened insight, increased clarity of thinking, and/or improved self-esteem on the part of the patient.”

Cognitive

In this multi-layered component of the in-hypnosis phase, the therapist can draw upon multiple approaches such as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). The goal of REBT is to create significant, sustainable behavioural and emotional change. This is achieved through a process in which the client’s sabotaging beliefs are rigorously questioned.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is another technique. An evidence-based technique, ACT has been shown to help people take greater control of their stress and anxiety. Instead of focusing on the cause of stress, ACT centres on helping people live their best life in the now and is a powerful trauma resolution tool.

In the next article, we will delve into other ways that hypnotherapy helps to combat stress – the mammoth of modern times.

Do you experience chronic anxiety? Have a look at our stress symptom checker below, comprising physiological, physical, and cognitive symptoms. If you answer “yes” to one or more of the questions, you may be prone to anxiety. It is wise to have regular health check-ups to rule out any conditions or health problems that may be contributing to or exacerbating these symptoms.

  • I often feel on edge.
  • I frequently experience feelings of numbness. 
  • I find it hard to concentrate and am often restless.
  • I spend a lot of time dwelling on my problems and negative past experiences.
  • I often experience a feeling of dread and imagine the worst-case scenario.
  • I regularly experience a churning sensation in my stomach as well as other physical symptoms such as insomnia and changes to my digestive processes.
  • I suffer from uncomfortable physical sensations such as a fast heart rate, sweating, hot flashes, rapid breathing, and dizziness.
  • I experience one or more of the following sensations: tingling, headaches, nausea, and trembling.
  • I suffer from muscle tension and pain and/or a tight chest and palpitations. 
  • I avoid activities that I previously engaged in and find it hard to relax.
  • I am quick to anger and become easily flustered.

Email me via my profile page and we will work on identifying your emotional triggers and work with you to live the healthy and fulfilling life you truly want. We will work together to find that inner peace you are seeking enabling you to finally be free and enjoy life once again. 

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Rochester, Kent, ME1 1AX

Written by Colleen Rawlings PGCert., D.Hyp C.H., CNHC (reg.)

Rochester, Kent, ME1 1AX

I am a Clinical Hypnotherapist, based in Medway, Kent. I have a particular interest and understanding of food cravings and weight management. Working with me, you can experience a more positive and motivational mindset that enables, empowers and positively influences you to change your eating behaviour.

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