23 Feb 2020: I had the great pleasure and honour to speak on the topic of anxiety and panic attacks at the Sunday Times Life Lessons Festival recently. The hall was packed, and this confirmed just how many people are impacted by anxiety and panic attacks in our current time.
Anxiety disorders can be debilitating. Panic is, in many cases, part and parcel of the anxious condition. Social fears are also very common and burden the lives of many - it is one of the most widespread anxiety conditions. For many other people, anxiety is not that specific. Through a habit of suppressing anxious feelings and thoughts, as well as avoiding situations that cause fear, these people have unwittingly broken the link between the feeling and its original cause; thereby the anxiety has become 'generalised'. This means anxiety is now pervasive and has become tightly interwoven with everyday life. Anxious thinking, emotional and physical tension, as well as feelings of dread and apprehension, have become interlocked with daily activities, preventing proper functioning and disrupting sleep.
What causes anxiety and panic attacks?
Several factors can be the cause of anxiety disorders; I will talk about three key ones here.
The first is catastrophic thinking. Anxious people often envisage terrible events happening. Often these are events that have a relatively low probability of occurring. So the perceived danger is exaggerated - it is usually neither mortal nor imminent. However, the person reacts emotionally and physically as if a real threat, a real imminent danger, was present. Automatic thoughts and images of a violent nature can spontaneously occur.
The second factor is anxiety expectancy. Here, the person is apprehensive of a stress reaction. The person is scared of having the accompanying physiological reactions, which can be very uncomfortable and, in the case of a full-blown panic attack, downright painful. So, the expectation of a bout of anxiety in itself can induce panic.
The third crucial factor I want to mention here is avoidance. Research shows a strong correlation between the level of anxiety expectation and the likeliness of avoidance. This is a vicious cycle. Avoidance allows escape, but it reinforces anxiety, and the anxiety becomes more ingrained. Also, through escape, there is no opportunity to learn experientially if those fears are exaggerated or unrealistic. Through this, anxiety and hopelessness become more and more entrenched.
Can hypnotherapy help manage anxiety?
Hypnosis integrated with psychotherapy can help effectively with various anxiety disorders, as well as panic attacks. In therapy, we look at the underlying unhelpful thinking patterns as well as the triggers that are at play. Sometimes it is additionally worth taking a look into the past and determining what event caused the 'danger prevention system' to stop working properly. Whilst we can do this in talking therapy, the added benefit of hypnosis is that we can then change these patterns by addressing deeper layers of consciousness and experientially exploring new patterns in the safe environment of imaginal exposure.
In addition to identifying the person's unique thinking and behaviour patterns, triggers, and situations, we are also looking closely at the individual physiological symptoms; specifically if panic is a significant component of the person's anxiety disorder, as this can then be powerfully used to break the vicious cycle of panic. In hypnosis, we can first bring on the symptoms of panic and then ingrain that, even though very uncomfortable, there is no immediate danger and that the panic attack is a 'false alarm' of the 'danger prevention system'. We can then - while still in hypnosis - explain how the physiological symptoms are a chain reaction: e.g. tight chest muscles leading to fast shallow breathing, in turn leading to a dry mouth and the sensation of a lump in the throat, eventually leading to increased heart-beat leading to heat, sweating, etc.
Training of relaxation and breathing techniques is also crucial. It is essential to practice these at times of minimal stress to be able to use them when in a high state of anxiety.
In therapy, we will also analyse, dispute, and modify catastrophic thinking, as well as go through a process of re-estimation of the likelihood of the feared events to occur in reality. Again, the experiential level of hypnosis comes to the fore - the client can run through the events as if they were happening right at that moment, like in a vivid dream, and then get a handle of the physiological and emotional reactions.
If you are suffering from anxieties and/or panic attacks, it is well worth searching out an experienced hypnotherapist to help you free yourself from the boundaries, restrictions, and pain these disorders bring.