Anxiety and related disorders (PTSD, OCD, phobias, etc.) seem to be a growing problem, particularly in the West. In 2013, Mark Thompson reported in TIME magazine that a Pentagon study cited that “the rate of reported anxiety disorders among U.S. troops jumped 327% between 2000 and 2012.”
Since Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety-related disorder, this may not be a surprise. In addition, numerous other studies say that anxiety is a growing issue among both adolescents and adults. In the 20+ years I have been a counselor, I have seen a marked increase in anxiety disorders among teens, especially in the past 3 to 4 years. And these kids suffer enough to be unable to stay in class. Or in the lunchroom. Or in the hall. Symptoms range from a simple case of “nerves” to a debilitating attack that incapacitates the victim.
As defined by the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) symptoms may include shaking, trembling hands, shortness of breath, dizziness, heart palpitations, sweating, a choking feeling, nausea/abdominal distress, numbness and tingling, feelings of hot and cold, chest pain, fear of dying, fear of going crazy, and fear of doing something uncontrolled.
Modern medicine has a plethora of pharmaceutical treatments, that work to some degree, but that often comes with nasty, unwanted side effects. So, many seek relief with alternative methods that do not necessarily include medications with nasty side effects or the danger of addiction.
One treatment method is hypnotherapy, not to be confused with self-hypnosis. A licensed hypnotherapist is a trained therapist who induces a light trance and then helps the client find the root cause or causes of their anxiety. Then using guided suggestion, and other techniques, the therapist helps ‘clear’ the cause, often healing the symptomatic anxiety simultaneously. That means the painful and debilitating symptoms of anxiety lessen and often, eventually disappear.
In theory, anxiety symptoms seem to be a manifestation of a normal protective process, like the flight or fight response, in situations where that response is not necessary. Dr. Daniel Amen reports that increased basal ganglia activity in the brain is often abnormal in patients with anxiety.
Increased activity on the left side presents with irritability while increased activity on the right exhibits social withdrawal and conflict avoidance. To the person to whom this happens, this is extremely upsetting and often humiliating. Hypnosis is a therapeutic tool that can help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety.
First, the hypnotherapist, along with the client’s physician if necessary, needs to help the client be sure there is no physical cause to their anxiety. Many physical problems (hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, hypoglycemia, thyroid problems, and withdrawal from sedatives or stimulants to name but a few) can cause anxiety-like symptoms and need to be eliminated first.
In addition, many other psychiatric syndromes include anxiety. Is the client bipolar? Schizophrenic? Suffering from major depression? Once the therapist can reasonably ascertain that the client is not suffering from an untreated physical problem or another psychiatric disorder, then s/he can create a treatment plan using hypnotherapy.
Next, the therapist needs to find out how the anxiety manifests for the client. Clammy, cold hands? Sweating? Dizziness? Nausea? Feeling of doom? Trembling uncontrollably? Racing thoughts? Fatigue? Insomnia? This creates a map the therapist can use to help find the root cause.
Once the therapist knows enough about how the anxiety manifests, s/he can gently induce a trance. There are many methods to induce a trance, which is really a deeply relaxed state of subliminal awareness. In this state, peripheral awareness is reduced and and attention can be sharply focused.
What is a trance? Examples of normal trance states include driving some distance and upon arrival, not remembering the trip. You may arrive at your destination safely, but not remember any landmarks or anything else about the actual trip. Another common example is going to a movie or concert and leaving hours later, with no recollection of time passing.
I once went to a concert of Tibetan monks performing Tuvan throat singing. I was so enthralled, I sat through a performance and walked out 3 hours later, completely surprised at how much time had passed! Being entranced, or in a trance, is a normal state. The hypnotherapist consciously assists the client into this state of being, and then carefully works to find the causes of anxiety. Clients can hear, talk, move and remember trance states unless they choose not to.
That’s important: even entranced, the client can choose to respond and how they respond. They can also ‘wake up,’ if they become uncomfortable. Once they are in a trance, the therapist begins asking questions to lead the client deeper into their own subconscious, where the root cause of their anxiety is likely to hide.
The client can access, or remember, events, people or places that are long forgotten in their everyday lives.
For example, I once worked with a 58-year-old client who needed to quit a 45-year smoking habit. This client had just been diagnosed with oral cancer.
Once he was in a trance, I started asking about when and how he started smoking.
He muttered angrily, “She can’t tell me what to do! I’ll do what I want and smoke if I want to.”
In response, I asked what age he was at that time. He replied, “13.”
Then I said, “Who can’t tell you what to do?”
He made a chopping motion with his hand and answered, “My mother!”
Interesting, I thought. He is talking about an event that happened 45 years previous as though it is happening right now. Next, I asked, “Are you ready to move past and let that go?”
He immediately yelled, “NO! I’m not! She can’t tell me what to do! I’ll smoke if I damn well please!”
Since he went into the session wanting to quit smoking, I asked, “Do you remember asking me to help you quit smoking?”
He answered, “Yes, I do.”
“Do you still want to quit smoking?” I responded.
“NO! I do not! She can’t make me!” he yelled.
I said, “That was 45 years ago. You are, and have been, a grown man for many years. Are you ready to let go of that so you can quit smoking?”
“NO, I am not! I like it and no one is going to make me quit.”
It seemed we had definitely arrived at the root cause of his smoking. However, he was vehemently unwilling to let go and move in another direction. As the session continued, he remained surly and unable to move from his adolescent stance, despite my questions designed to help him find other alternatives.
Gently, I brought him out of the trance. He was rather sheepish once fully awakened. We talked, and he did remember his words and most importantly, his feelings about smoking. I suggested that he think about his experience and decide what he truly, deeply wanted to do about his smoking. It was possible to help him quit, but only if he WANTED to quit!
Hypnotherapy can help a client access their deepest feelings, and if they want to, help them move through events that have resulted in anxiety. It can be a multi-step process, as they learn to trust the therapist and relax into memories and feelings that they had buried.
Then they can learn to clear those events and choose any reactions they may have. They can choose to replace anxiety symptoms with other, less harmful, responses.
Clients become empowered by learning to recognize the onset of symptoms and choosing to switch their focus and actions immediately.