Hypnotic Approaches To Anxiety, Fear & Panic Attacks
by Del Hunter Morrill, M.S., C.C.H.
If there was ever an “age of anxiety,” ours would be it. All of us experience mild anxiety, regularly, but for some anxiety escalates to forebodings of disaster and even into full-blown, debilitating panic attacks. There are some for whom anxiety develops progressively over time; for others, it attacks suddenly. The discomfort is often compounded by fear of the anxiety or panic, itself.
Surprisingly, very little has been written about this important subject in books about hypnosis. Many hypnotherapists won¹t even touch the problems of anxiety and panic attacks. This is an important and regrettable omission, because hypnotherapy can be a powerful ally in helping people developing a sense of power and confidence in spite of the normal anxieties that are a normal part of daily living.
Causes of Anxiety and Panic
Extreme anxiety and full-fledged panic attacks can be triggered by single events or a series of events. They can arise out of one's own experience or from the experience of others. Some years ago I experienced a sudden onset of panic that made it impossible for me to travel to and from work in New York City . This lasted for about two weeks. At the time I was bewildered as to what in the world could have caused this panic. Later on, I discovered that my panic came from a combination of my own experience and experiences reported in the news. I knew someone, personally, who had been raped right outside a workshop I was involved in, without any of us being aware of it. When a series of rape incidents was reported in the newspapers, these distant, impersonal events suddenly became very personal, triggering my terror. In my case, after two weeks, my panic left as quickly as it had come.
Anxiety and panic can be triggered by accidents, illnesses or the deaths of friends or family members - incidents that suddenly thrust people before their own contingency. I still vividly recall the image of my own mother on her deathbed. I looked at her and saw myself; I knew that my own life would have its end as well. I was aware, suddenly, that there was no way I could be sure of just long my life would be, or how it would end.
For some individuals anxiety attacks, such as the ones I suffered, have a sudden onset and may leave as mysteriously as they began. In severe cases of anxiety or panic - those that don't go away - symptoms are readily apparent, while the true causes remain unknown. There appears to be no particular incident or condition to cause the panic attacks; therefore, the cause, hidden from the person in their panic, remains a threat because it is unresolved. The fear response occurs when there is, seemingly, nothing to fear; in fact, soon, one's panic is over the fear of the panic returning.
Some panic attacks are triggered by seemingly innocuous incidents that symbolize some event or condition earlier in the person's life. A carpenter became anxious and even panicked whenever he had to go near a roof - a very limiting experience for a homebuilder. Regressing him to the source, he recalled that he had been working on a roof a few years earlier and had slipped. Although he quickly caught himself and his conscious mind shrugged off the incident as unimportant, the “unconscious“ imprint remained, leading to his fear of falling. Once he was aware that his anxiety came from such a simple incident, his panic disappeared, altogether.
The Benefits of Hypnotherapy
Hypnotherapy is effective in helping people with either mild or severe cases of anxiety. In mild cases, simple reprogramming can give people relief. In more severe cases, it is necessary to discover the source of the anxiety before any reprogramming can be fully effective.
Hypnotic suggestions replace catastrophic thoughts or over-anxiousness with truthful statements about the nature of the symptoms and the realization that physical sensations can cause no harm. Hypnosis can slow the heartbeat, create a sense of balance and relaxation through deep breathing, free the throat to swallow, overcome sensations of temperature changes and stomach upsets, and promote clear-headedness.
Hypnotherapy is frequently an important adjunct to counseling. Some counseling techniques use de-sensitization procedures to help the client eliminate anxiety by gradually helping them face and deal with experiences without apprehension. Using hypnosis at the subconscious / unconscious levels of the mind from which the anxiety is arising can accelerate this process, considerably. The client most often experiences their anxiety leaving them, and doing so naturally, without much conscious effort on his or her part.
Whether in the recent past or in the distant past, some events leave negative psychological imprints. Sometimes they are forgotten or unrecognized for the detrimental effect they produce. Such negative imprints can be left by traumatic incidents, or by minor events that were misunderstood when they occurred. Hypnotic, or altered state procedures can seek out these causal events involved in the initial development or onset of the problem. Age regression is one of the most beneficial techniques available to people who suffer anxiety because it can be so effective in uncovering causes. Hypnotic procedures using age regression simply help the client to go back in their memory to the time and place where a problem originated. In the case of anxiety or panic attacks, this can be something that occurred only a few weeks prior to coming for assistance or it can be in childhood. . For some, it can go back even further in their existence.
A woman was becoming increasingly anxious whenever one of her family members left the house. When she came to me for therapy, we used age regression to help her recall an incident when she very young. Her mother had died after a long illness and was being carried out of the house. Well-meaning adults, trying to explain the concept of death, told her that when her mother was taken out through the door, she would not return. Once my client remembered this scene, her anxiety was released by understanding the connection between her own experiences as an adult, and her experiences as a child, when loved ones go out the door.
In this instance, a simple understanding of the situation was all that was necessary. Sometimes, however, hypnotic suggestions that alleviate a client's presenting symptom or change a long-term habit is enough for the client to feel truly relieved. In other cases, additional techniques, used at the unconscious level, may be needed to help release the hold such a memory has on the client. When suggestions to “reprogram” don't bring about the desired results, it is as though a rejection from deep within the subconscious self is giving signals that more must be done. This is why regression to the cause is such an invaluable tool for permanent healing of an issue.
A Case Study of Releasing Anxiety
A client came to me filled with such acute anxiety, including panic attacks, that she was having trouble functioning in her work and relationships. This condition had been troubling her for some years, but was increasing in intensity and constancy. She had no idea what had triggered this, only that it had come upon her quite suddenly. She had been told by doctors that she would have to “live with it” and was given medication to alleviate the symptoms. She had friends who had either experienced panic or had acquaintances who were experiencing it; they told her, “You will have it all your life.” This, of course, added to her terror. Without intending harm, her friends and acquaintances had unwittingly communicated powerful messages that she had taken seriously - Thus, a “hypnotic spell” had been impressed on her. These messages stayed with her in the form of images on her mind - images that created the expectation of a hopeless situation and of continuing torment. Comments that had been made innocently had become expectations that limited her possibilities for balance and calm.
After a comprehensive intake interview, it became clear that one of my first responsibilities was to relieve her of the “hypnotic spells” which she had received from others, including the “spell” of the fear of anxiety itself. During the first session I saw her, she did not respond to traditional approaches, including counseling and direct hypnotic suggestions. I had not used anything else up to that point, because her anxiety level was quite high. I didn't wish to exacerbate it by using methods of investigation. By the time we'd had a few sessions, her trust was such that I decided to pursue the deeper causes of her anxiety. She needed help to enter into a state where she could reach the more subconscious aspects of her mind. However, due to her anxiety level, whenever we approached the deeper issues, her panic would begin to rise, rapidly. Therefore, I felt that the best way to proceed this was to speak to some aspect of her personality - that is, to the part of her that was so anxious. At the same time, I hoped we would uncover a past event that had caused the anxiety, or was exacerbating it. It was important, I felt, to do this as quickly as possible, before her anxiety experiences took over the session again.
In her imagination, I had her create a safe place of comfort and peace. The place she chose was a meadow surrounded by trees, to which she could return at any time. Using this setting, I suggested that she take a path through the woods until she found a wall blocking the pathway. She was to open a gate set in the wall; and when she went through that gate, she would meet the “Anxious One.”
Here is the dialogue that took place:
She goes through the gate to the other side. I ask her to tell me what she IMMEDIATELY sees. “It's the Devil!” she replies.
My instinct is to tell her that the devil is wearing a mask, and that, without thinking, she is to tear the mask off. She does so and sees her father.
“He¹s scary,” she says. “He seems overpowering, and I feel helpless.”
I ask her to look around; she will see someone or something in that place that is as powerful, or even more powerful, than her father is.
“It's Mom,” she says.
“How does it feel to have your Mom there beside you right now?” I ask.
“I feel her love and I feel more safe.”
I ask Mom to speak to the father (the devil). Mom says, “It is enough! It is over!”
“What is happening now?” I ask.
“He's leaving. Mom is a strong person, like I want to be.”
“Would you like to receive your Mom's STRENGTH and POWER?” She says “Yes.”
Believing that it is just as important for the transference to be agreed upon in both directions, I ask, “Is she willing to give it to you?”
She answers, “Yes.”
I ask Mom if she is willing. She says, “Yes.”
I have them take hands, with Mom looking into her daughter¹s eyes, and suggest that she begin to merge her mom's strength and power into her own. When the merging is completed, I ask my client what she is feeling.
“I feel stronger.”
I ask, now, where she feels that strength. She says it is in her heart. I remind her that the heart is where COURAGE lies. She is pleased to hear this.
I have her take that strong feeling and let it spread out from the heart down over the belly, because, I tell her, “that is where her POWER lies.” She does so, and is very pleased with the results.
I remind her, “You now have your mother¹s strength, courage and power as a part of you. You can use these all the time now. Your father's negative spirit is no longer with you. Anything he has said and done is merely thoughts, now, just memories, and they cannot hurt you anymore. They have no hold over you. Are you in agreement with this?”
I bring her forward to this time. Just before coming out of the hypnotic trance I invite her to talk more about her father and why he has had this hold on her. She says that during her younger years she was never able to do anything right around him and was always terrified of him. She felt she had a voice to speak back to him.
I use this information to “command” that the old hypnotic spell, put on her by her father, is broken! The “spirit” that had hold of her was her father, even though he was still alive. She had allowed him to “hypnotize” her into believing that he still had a hold on her. Also, any other “spells” that we might not be aware of, which have caused or increased her anxiety, are broken. I follow this with a meditation in which healing light cleanses her, fully, surrounds her and protects her.
In our next sessions, we pursued the past by going to the 'Land of Memories' . We entered the Hall of Records, locating the room holding her own past. Although I will not be writing in detail about those sessions within this article, they proved to be highly beneficial in continuing her healing. My client continued to benefit from the use of several hypnotic techniques that helped her explore her past and the causes of her present anxiety and panic. Her anxiety was dramatically alleviated and, much to her relief, she has been able to return to her work and personal relationships with confidence.