I get a lot of calls asking if hypnotherapy can relieve anxiety. The short answer is “yes,” but to what extent depends on the type of anxiety and the cause, as well as the willingness of the patient to commit to the process.
In hypnotherapy school, we were warned that, if “anxiety” was diagnosed as a disorder by a psychiatrist, we should avoid offering a “cure.” We were even told to refer to anxiety as “anxiousness” just to be safe that we weren’t encroaching on the psychiatric profession, which is extremely protective of patients, especially those whose psychiatric problems may be physical in nature.
What is anxiety?
But the fact is anxiety is a spectrum - and it is unique to everyone who experiences it. Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. Experiencing it occasionally is a normal part of life. However, people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations to the extent that the anxiety negatively affects life. Relationships, job performance, and getting a good night’s sleep can all suffer.
Examples of anxiety disorders include: agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (which is worry out of proportion to circumstances), social anxiety disorder (social phobia), specific phobias and separation anxiety disorder. Substance-induced anxiety disorder is characterized by symptoms of intense anxiety or panic that are a direct result of misusing drugs, taking certain medications, being exposed to a toxic substance or withdrawal from drugs. It’s possible to have more than one anxiety disorder.
How do I know if I have anxiety?
Common anxiety signs and symptoms include: feeling nervous, restless or tense; having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom; having an increased heart rate; breathing rapidly (hyperventilation); sweating; trembling; feeling weak or tired; trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry; having trouble sleeping; and experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
When do I see a doctor?
See your doctor if: you feel like your worry is interfering with your life; if you self-medicate with alcohol or drugs; if you think the anxiety is related to a health issue or if it was triggered by an event; if you have suicidal thoughts or behaviors (seek emergency treatment immediately.)
When would I use a hypnotherapist to reduce anxiety?
Hypnotherapy can be used to more quickly facilitate results of psychiatric care – whether that's through a psychiatrist or psychologist. Some psychologists are also hypnotherapists.
For example, let's say you have anxiety over the illness of a spouse. This is clearly related to a situation or event. Perhaps you are afraid of losing a loved one, or even of your own death. Though drugs can ease anxiety in this case, they don't address the root cause. Why are you afraid of losing your loved one? Do you feel that you'll be alone? Do you feel you won't be able to function without this person? Or does it remind you of a previous trauma – like losing a parent? In any case, hypnotherapy can speedily neutralize emotions surrounding trauma and help create new pathways in the brain that draw upon inner emotional resources to better handle the situation.
What if the anxiety is more genetic in nature? For example, some people may have hormonal imbalances, or they may have some other neurological defect - like auditory processing disorder, which creates uncertainty of perception in an environment, thus triggering anxiety. Again, the drugs soothe symptoms, but they don't teach strategies for coping with anxiety when it appears. Let's say someone with severe auditory processing disorder feels anxious listening to unfamiliar people in unfamiliar environments. A psychologist could introduce strategies of handling the situation socially, but a hypnotherapist would 1) neutralize the client’s relationship to the long history of anxiety in that situation, and 2) help the client make the strategies second nature. Drugs may help the client enjoy a baseline of stability, but when things are extreme the anxiety often reappears. Therefore, strategies are essential for regaining comfort and confidence.
How does hypnosis reduce anxiety?
Because hypnosis induces a state of trance, it automatically stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic is freeze, fight or flight. Anxiety – regardless of the cause – stimulates the sympathetic. Over time, the continual stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system creates a constant state of anxiety and can lead to illness. The parasympathetic, on the other hand, helps the body rest, digest, feed, and breed. Stimulating the parasympathetic creates an automatic antidote to anxiety. So, it's important to do self-hypnosis, as well as receive hypnotherapy sessions. Developing a practice of self-hypnosis gradually teaches the brain to respond differently and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system more often - leading to better digestion, better sleep, and less worry.
The second way that hypnotherapy reduces anxiety is by finding and addressing root causes. For example, what if your anxiety is triggered by PTSD? Hypnotherapy can regress a client back to the initial trauma and create a new relationship to it, so that the client draws upon positive inner resources, rather than project the old trauma into the present life. By reducing the emotional charge to a previous fear, for example, a client gains self-confidence while maintaining the ability to handle new fears. After all, the client needs to function in the real world. It's not fear and anxiety that are the problem; it's inappropriate, damaging fear and anxiety.
One of my favorite anecdotal examples is of a client who had had IBS since a traumatic surgery several years before he began treatment with me. He had been experiencing symptoms four times a day ever since that surgery. With hypnosis, we reduced the symptoms to about once a week. We decided to take a break and let him take note of the remaining causes of symptoms. It turned out that he had a very anxious relationship with time. When life put him under time constraints, the IBS would return. So, we regressed to a period in his life when he became aware of anxiety in relation to time. Creating a new relationship to time pressure reduced his symptoms even further. Plus, he developed a strong practice of self-hypnosis, which he used to prevent future symptoms.
If you want to learn more, check out my video on how hypnosis works as well as the video on chronic pain. Chronic pain shares much with anxiety in that the brain can create a habit of negative thinking, just the way it can make pain a habitual experience, even when there's nothing triggering it.
Want to learn more?