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Hypnotherapy: building resilience and overcoming anxiety – Part 1

Blog from Mark D. Leahy, Clinical Hypnotherapist:

Today’s blog focuses on what hypnotherapy is, and how it can help with anxiety. Part 2 will explain about building resilience, and how hypnotherapy can help, along with my top tips.

I have recently spoken about building resilience through hypnotherapy in this webinar that you can watch now.

Hypnosis and hypnotherapy are great tools to support us in developing resilience and helping us overcome our fears and anxieties.

So, what are hypnosis and hypnotherapy, and how do they work?

Hypnosis is a naturally occurring, altered state of awareness. Hypnosis itself is not a treatment, but it enables a mental state that can facilitate a variety of treatment strategies. Almost everyone will have experienced this altered state of awareness – and probably many times – though they are unlikely to have called it hypnosis. For example, have you ever caught yourself daydreaming and not noticed routine things happening around you? Have you ever been absorbed, reading a good book and not noticed someone speak to you, or not noticed how much time had passed?

Experiencing hypnosis can be similar: it is a narrowing of the focus of attention and is usually underpinned by a pleasant feeling of deep relaxation. You might say that a trance state is to consciousness what a telephoto lens is to a camera.

Hypnotherapy is a form of therapy in which the use of hypnosis forms the core aspect of the treatment. It’s a form of therapy used to readjust and to reprogram the subconscious mind.

How does hypnosis work? There are many theories as to how hypnosis works and research suggests that, when we enter hypnosis – this altered state of awareness – positive, beneficial suggestions can be directly “embedded” into the uncritical subconscious part of our mind, bypassing the more critical faculties of our conscious mind.

This altered state of awareness, or consciousness, is largely characterised by a state of suggestibility, showing an increased ability to produce positive changes in motivation, habits, lifestyle, health, perception and behaviour as well as modifying physical sensation – often used in pain relief.

Let me be more specific in explaining how it works: let’s assume that the brain works like a very sophisticated computer. The upper part of the brain has two separate sides which we call hemispheres. In computer terms it seems that each hemisphere is programmed differently.

The left side is our logical side and seems to be responsible for our logical, rational, critical, analytical, abstract and mathematical type functions – the important thing is that it’s not programmed to understand emotions.

The right hemisphere is our emotional side and is programmed to be responsible for our emotions, feelings, instincts, intuition and imagery – and aids in the understanding of such things as metaphor.

When we enter a hypnotic state, there seems to be a shift in brain function from left to right – so, using the computer analogy again, we sort of “log on” to the right hemisphere.

What Is Anxiety?

In a nutshell, anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress. It’s a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come. For example, going to a job interview, or perhaps giving a speech – or the prospect of losing your job. Excessive anxiety may be triggered by either a single big event, or a build-up of smaller stressful situations — for example, a death in the family, work stress or financial worries.

Anxiety is, therefore, a normal, albeit unpleasant, part of life. Furthermore, whereas stress is something that will come and go according to the external factor causing it, anxiety is something that can persist whether or not the cause is clear to the person experiencing it.

What is important is the recognition that anxiety is normal and exists due to a set of bodily functions that have existed in humans since we lived in caves and fought off sabre-toothed tigers! I’ll explain this in a little more detail:

Back then, we were equipped with an internal alarm system designed to protect us from the dangers surrounding us in the wild – commonly known today as the “fight or flight” response. This system would make us hyper-alert by giving us a boost of adrenaline that would increase the heart rate and boost the amount of oxygen going to our limbs, so we were better able to fight or run from danger.

The typical “butterflies in the stomach” feeling is, quite simply, this mechanism kicking in, but instead of being used to avoid immediate danger, it is often wrongly and inappropriately activated in a person during normal, everyday situations when stress has built up, often unknowingly.

So, one way of thinking about your anxiety is to imagine your stress levels as being like a bucket of water. If we keep adding stressors to the bucket (even tiny ones like the school run or commuting to work), over time it fills up until one day it overflows. This analogy can be a useful way of looking at anxiety because it explains why sometimes it can seem to come out of the blue, with no significant trigger. So, what we need is a leaky bucket with lots of holes in to let stress out and reduce your overall stress levels. Each one of these holes could be something positive that you do to manage your anxiety, such as yoga, exercise, reading or maybe listening to music.

How can hypnotherapy help?

Hypnotherapy can help us manage our levels of anxiety in several ways – in its most fundamental and simplest form hypnotherapy uses suggestion. By repeatedly suggesting to the client, whilst they’re in a hypnotic state – often subtly by the use of metaphor – that they will behave in a certain way – maybe ditching old, unhelpful habits or developing new, healthy habits, the conscious, critical part of the brain – that left hemisphere – is effectively side-stepped and we work with the right hemisphere – that creative side that is responsible for emotions, feelings, instincts, intuition and imagery.

Let me give you a few examples:

Hypnotherapy can help us learn how to relax better – it is impossible for an anxious mind to exist in a relaxed body. By learning to relax – and I mean to really relax – physically, psychologically and emotionally – we start to gain more control over certain aspects of ourselves – and when we can do this, we can manage and control our anxiety. So, developing the ability to physically relax is a first and big step to overcoming anxiety.

Secondly, hypnotherapy can help in changing negative self-talk to positive self-talk. Self-talk is that thing we all do at times – that little voice inside our head telling us we’re not good enough; that we’re always getting it wrong; that we’re a failure. And this can be hugely damaging. Hypnotherapy can bolster our self-confidence. It can help us believe in ourselves. It can help us trust ourselves – and we all know what it’s like when we’re confident – we feel like we can achieve anything!

Hypnotherapy can help us to visualise and experience positive outcomes as if they’re actually happening: by visualising and experiencing the outcome we want – say for example at a job interview or on the sports field – or even delivering a business presentation successfully, we are rehearsing it. We are rehearsing success, and the more we practice it and expect it, the more likely it is to happen. We can go into almost any situation with total confidence and perform optimally.

To read about building resilience, including my top tips, visit Part 2 of this blog