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Why hypnosis can cure social anxiety

Why do you think we have emotions? Wouldn’t live be simpler without them? Do we have emotions to give middle class people something to talk about or to provide soap opera writers with script material?

Of course not. As with everything else in human makeup, emotions exist to keep us safe and alive and able to thrive.

Emotions motivate movement

Embedded in the word “emotion” is another word: “motion”. Emotions are there to make us move. Either towards something or away from it.

We all have deep basic needs – for warmth, security, love and connection and, of course, food and shelter. We have needs for status, significance, attention and to feel safe in our lives. We need stimulation, to exercise our creativity to learn and produce in the world. Some emotions drive us toward experiences that would help meet these needs and ensure our survival. And other emotions serve to drive us away from experiences or situations which, we feel, would prevent us meeting our essential needs.

But what happens when we get directed the wrong way by our feelings?

You are pulled towards social contact by your needs, and away from it by social anxiety

The “motion” in “emotion” has us moving either towards what we feel we need or away from what we feel we don’t want. Think lust, love, anger, greed, hunger – all feelings that motivate us towards an experience. And think about feelings that drive us away from something – fear, terror, disgust.

Hopefully, our emotions get it right and drive us toward what is good for us and away from what is bad for us. But sometimes they don’t.

The social phobic both wants and doesn’t want social contact. They are pulled and pushed in different directions by their feelings. If social contact was bad for us, it would be great to be terrified of social events because it would be life saving. But a socially anxious person instinctively knows they need social contact at the same time as fearing it; they are pulled and pushed at the same time by their emotions… tricky! And it gets worse.

We avoid what we fear – but also fear what we avoid

One problem is that the more you avoid something, the more the fear around it increases. It’s as if your “emotional brain” draws conclusions from your behaviour: “She’s avoiding this situation all the time, so it must be genuinely dangerous. So I’ll ramp up her fear of this situation even more to make sure she won’t go near it.”

On the other hand, people can switch off their fear around stuff they should fear simply because they have made themselves go towards it. I’m thinking of the old-time circus lion-tamer calmly putting his head in a lion’s mouth, and of those perennial favourites, the human cannonballs, getting themselves fired from a cannon. Not hobbies I’d recommend. The point is that even dangerous acts like these can start to feel “normal” to your emotional brain if you voluntarily and repeatedly do them (the “emotional brain” concludes “This must be safe, else why are we doing it?”).

So yes, we avoid what we fear, but we can also come to fear something just because we avoid it so much.

A number of approaches have been tried over the centuries to overcome the difficulties this presents. None are as successful as hypnotic therapy. Consider, for instance, what happens with “exposure therapy” and “cognitive therapy” in the context of dealing with fears like shyness and social anxiety.

Exposure therapy: A step too far?

The understanding that emotions are physical drivers away from or towards something is extensively used in exposure therapy. (1) This approach typically has you gradually having more and more contact with what scares you. So the spider phobic might on week one see a drawing of a spider, on week two see a photo of a spider, on week three see a toy spider, on week four touch the toy spider, week five has them seeing a movie of a spider and week six an actual live spider. This can be very effective if the person can be induced to remain calm through the gradual exposure (sometimes known as “systematic desensitisation”). (It would be easier and faster to use hypnosis and the rewind technique.)

The idea is that spiders need to start to feel a “normal” part of experience, and this is done through forcing oneself to go towards rather than away from; classic behavioural therapy, and probably what the lion-tamer did to get the nerve he needed…

Another kind of exposure therapy takes a less gradual approach and is known as “flooding”. Yikes! This might see the spider phobic being put straight in a room full of spiders, with the idea that fully experiencing your worst fear – and surviving it – will put an end to that fear.

So does it work?

Therapy for the therapy

Yes, it can work – provided the person undergoing the therapy is taught to relax deeply. But (you knew there was a “but”) I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had to treat to help them recover from the effects of this kind of therapy when it’s gone wrong. These are the ones who didn’t get better, the ones who couldn’t get past the photo of the spider on week two, the ones who were deeply traumatised by being thrown in at the deep end of having to speak in front of a hundred people when they were still chronically shy.

There has to be, and fortunately is, another way.

The beauty of hypnosis when treating fears

Hypnosis, used sensibly, is the perfect way to expose someone in a safe and relaxed way to a situation they had been avoiding. As far as your emotional brain is concerned, if you have relaxed deeply and felt spontaneous at a party a few times while in hypnosis, this is a sufficiently strong indication that this situation is not dangerous, and that this kind of social event can now be “retagged” as something you can potentially go safely towards – before you’ve even been to an actual party. Someone who hasn’t left the house for years can “leave their house” in hypnosis and “experience it” before they go out the door in real life. The exposure therapy is fully within their own control, in sync with a relaxed mind and body.

When they then “do it for real”, it will already feel more familiar and therefore not as threatening. The previously dreaded social event may even, dare I say it, turn out to be relaxing and fun.

It’s important to understand here that we are talking about more than just what a person believes.

Feelings and thoughts can be at odds

You can fully believe something is good for you and still fearfully flee from it. You can fully believe something (or someone) is bad for you but still be emotionally driven towards it (or them). Cognitive approaches to dealing with fears often come unstuck over this, as fears aren’t driven so much by “faulty thinking” as by more primitive emotional conditioning geared towards survival. It is much easier to access, and modify, these primitive drivers through the use of hypnosis than through reasoning.

When we help someone with social phobia it’s generally obvious the phobia has gone the moment they open their eyes, because calm, disassociated hypnotic exposure to the previously feared trigger while feeling completely relaxed has transformed their response. They know it wasn’t “real” – but nonetheless a new positive blueprint for responding with calm and being in flow when in social situations has become established in their subconscious. Being socially relaxed is the new “normal”.

The new 10 steps to overcome social anxiety course has a hypnotic download for each step of the way. This is partly because social skills can be developed and honed during hypnotic rehearsal but also because we want people to experience hypnotic “safe” social experiences before they go into these situations for real. In this way the horrible away from feelings of fear can gently be replaced with the happier toward feelings of pleasure and positive expectation when it comes to socializing and meeting new people.

Notes

  1. See: Wikipedia entry: Exposure therapy
  2. See: Wikipedia entry: Flooding

The importance of self-care

This post is prompted by some sad news – the death of a musician I was a big fan of over the years. (Indeed I foisted a CD of my own music onto him upon a brief encounter in Stoke Newington many moons ago.) Most shockingly he was around my age, and the only thing I’ve been able to learn around the circumstances of his death is the rather oblique fact that he didn’t look after himself very well. I touched upon how musicians can be affected by the stress of their profession in my last post so won’t repeat any of that here – especially given that it may not be relevant in his case – but as the issue of self-care has been cropping up repeatedly in recent months, I wanted to say a few words on it.

In fact, I did a talk at a lovely local networking group a couple of weeks ago, and the conversation turned to exactly this. The group of women there had all set up small businesses – in many cases, remarkably juggling such commitments around bringing up small children – and some commented that the brief guided visualisation I conducted as part of the session was the first time they had relaxed in months! Not unusually, some of them felt guilty when they took time out for themselves, and I suggested that if they didn’t do this, how could they best serve their clients?

Unfortunately we live in a culture where hard work is fetishised, with predictable consequences – burn-out is endemic, people spend less time with their loved ones, and everyone suffers. You are not being selfish if you take time out each day to properly nurture yourself – and by that I mean things like taking time to cook a nutritious meal instead of grabbing a take-away, spending quality time with people (preferably with phones off!), talking a walk in nature, meditation (there are plenty of guided visualisations on Youtube if you’re not sure where to start)…these are just some examples, but basically anything that encourages you to slow down, breathe, and properly interact with the world around you. Do you ever notice how much calmer you feel around someone who is calm themselves? Well, you can be that person!

And if you need a little support and encouragement along the way, there are many therapists – including myself of course – who are ready to help you. Many therapy centres have open days if you’re not sure where to begin, possibly enabling you to try a few different things before deciding what works best for you. Many therapists (again including myself) offer free consultations, so you can ask questions and decide whether they are the right person for you. Some people are put off by the potential cost, but when an hour with someone who can help you costs about the same as a night down the pub, it may be better to consider this an investment rather than an expense. A good therapist can not only help you work through issues which may be holding you back, but will teach you skills and strategies you can take away and use to better the rest of your life – and who can put a price on that?

I’ll end by sharing my favourite form of self-care – sitting in my lovely garden with headphones on, listening to music I love. And so it seems appropriate to close this post with a track by the wonderful musician who prompted me to post it. RIP Ben.

All about mental health

I’ve been focusing strongly on mental health so far this year – including starting a NCFE Level 2 Certificate in Awareness of Mental Health Problems – and just wanted to update on a couple of events I’ve recently attended. Firstly, it is such a positive sign that such discussions are even taking place, and people are feeling increasingly emboldened to be open about their struggles. I’m no fan of celebrity culture, but upon seeing Mariah Carey reveal her struggle with bipolar disorder yesterday I applauded her bravery. This – and similar revelations by those in the public eye – will bring courage to many who may have struggled with the same symptoms but not known what to do about them…or possibly even that there was a name for them. For far too long sufferers have been ridiculed in the media due to ignorance, and such attitudes have prevailed. This has resulted all too often in sufferers receiving advice along the lines of ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘move on’ – hardly helpful to those already struggling to manage their symptoms, which are often down to factors outside their control in the first place.

So it’s especially encouraging to see the business world starting to grasp the nettle, given that I’m increasingly seeing executives seeking treatment as they start to buckle under the strain of a culture where being a workaholic is seen as some kind of positive attribute. In reality, it inevitably puts strain on their relationships with their families and other loved ones – especially if they resort to coping mechanisms such as drugs, alcohol, or gambling. So it was with interest that I ventured to the recent Minds@Work event – in their own words, ‘a community of like-minded professionals coming together to break the stigma of depression and anxiety in the working world.’ Handily they have put all the talks up on their website, including stories from two gentlemen whose mental health had impacted upon their careers – and how they had overcome this adversity. There was also an excellent demonstration of best practice from insurance firm Legal & General who not only employ 60 Mental Health First Aiders, but have a great campaign underway called ‘Not A Red Card Offence’, engaging famous sportspeople to help shift the stigma (the power of celebrity again). Impressive!

The next event was close to my heart: a Mental Health Workshop run by the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA). As a professional musician myself, I have seen firsthand the impacts of a lifestyle which is often romanticised by the media. Long days composing, rehearsing, or touring – followed by longer nights performing – take their toll upon health and relationships; not to mention the near impossibility of earning any reasonable income from one’s talents (did you know a band/artist earns only 0.001p from each play on Spotify, for example?) So this event was intended to provide a taster of skills based on neuroscience and cognitive behavioural psychology to empower musicians as they progress against such unfavourable odds, courtesy of Music for Mental Wealth. It was good to see some of the techniques I use with my own clients gaining wider traction; and I’m optimistic that increasingly these sorts of conversations are becoming not exactly easy to have, but at least less difficult.

So if you or anyone you are close to is feeling the strain of a mental health issue, please know you are not alone. Practical help is available from a number of local sources and support groups, and your GP should be able to advise in the first instance. Although medication works for some people, it shouldn’t really be seen as a long-term solution – a qualified therapist can help you get to the root of the issue and teach you coping mechanisms as appropriate. In some instances this may entail making some lifestyle changes, but we’ve all heard the old adage – no-one on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more time at work.

If you’d like to see whether hypnotherapy or coaching is right for you in response to these (or any other) issues, I offer a free no-obligation 15 minute phone consultation – see my main page for details. And if you are fortunate enough to work for an employer who runs well-being events, I also undertake corporate sessions – feel free to put me in touch with your HR department. In the meantime, thanks for reading; and let’s all do our best to support anyone we know – or suspect – may be struggling with their mental health.

Photo by Lesley Malone – https://tangentialism.org/ 

I’m interviewed on Radio Sydenham!

I did a live radio interview about hypnotherapy on Radio Sydenham today, a great little community station operating from the depths of Sydenham Library. I did some myth-busting about hypnotherapy, and talked about the process and the benefits. You can hear the interview in full here (I’m on at the start of the show, for about 15 minutes).

Time for a change? Here’s how to make it a success!

Raise the subject of new year’s resolutions in January, and you’re likely to get some mixed reactions – from guilty confessions along the lines of falling by the wayside or off the wagon, to those who find the prospect too daunting to even bother anymore. So how can we tackle making changes effectively, new year or not? Fortunately, there are a few ways we can make that first step off the starting block a little easier.

First of all, there’s the bite size approach, where the elements of a task are broken down into manageable chunks. Let’s take the example of writing a book: once you’ve nailed the subject (or a vague narrative, if you’re writing fiction), how are you going to fill those empty pages? A sensible approach would be to break it down into chapters, then work out how many words a day you can realistically get down – they don’t have to be perfect, as you can take care of the editing and refining later. Of course you need to take your other commitments into account, and possibly sacrifice something else – such as time in front of the TV – to fit it in. But even if your goal is only a few hundred words a day to begin with, once you’ve made a start, you’re off!

Which leads me onto the next crucial element: making something into a habit. Research shows that we are far more likely to succeed at something once we incorporate it into our daily routine – basically sidestepping our brain’s tendency to question it. Even if you can only find a small gap in the day to begin with, the important thing is keeping it regular. This has the added bonus of gradually making the process easier, and helping it become a more natural part of your life.

And to enhance that natural process, we can use a little extra cleverness. If you’re a morning person, it makes sense to make the most of your early bird tendencies and set the alarm half an hour early – rather than try and incorporate your new habit later in the day when you may be more tired. And if you really want to give yourself an extra push, take advantage of moments in the day when you can take time out to visualise yourself going through elements of your task – and succeeding. Your brain will respond accordingly!

Finally, the best bit – reward yourself. Track your progress, set yourself achievable milestones along the way, and be sure to celebrate once they’re achieved – perhaps with friends or family who are supporting you. For many, sharing their goal is a magic ingredient of motivation; but if you’re flying solo, then give yourself an extra treat for your strength and determination. Above all, cut yourself some slack and don’t abandon everything if you hit a setback – pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep your eyes on the prize.

A qualified hypnotherapist can help you with all the above stages if you need a little extra support on your journey. Good luck!

(Published on The Hypnotherapy Directory, 3 January 2018)

Stress busting with hypnotherapy

How can hypnotherapy help with arguably one of the greatest challenges facing us as a society in modern times?

It’s important first of all to put in perspective – some stress can be good in terms of a motivating factor. It can help us overcome challenges, keeping us on our toes and ensuring that we meet our responsibilities. After all, it serves an evolutionary purpose – the fight/flight mechanism helped our ancestors survive when encountering predators. However, our brain has not evolved nearly as fast as our way of living has, meaning that the same response is triggered in response to a traffic jam as to a sabre-toothed tiger! So we need to learn ways of managing this.

Breathing techniques are the most immediate tools we can teach our clients, enabling them to learn to activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system – it’s natural calming down mechanism. We can also teach them self-hypnosis to practice in between sessions. This is important for several reasons – not only does it make them make time to relax, but the more the mind and body get to practise relaxation, the better they get at it. Our neural networks work in much the same way as our physical bodies do – they automatically take the most familiar route, so let’s make it a good one!

It’s also important to identify any fundamental human needs that may be being neglected – obvious ones like sleep, nutrition, and exercise to socialising and play (yes, play!) As stress tends to come from different directions it’s not always easy to identify a single cause, but this process can still help people take a step back and look at their life in a fresh perspective.

Hypnotherapy can also help people return to the source of their stress, as it often originates from an early age. Trying to meet the expectations of parents and other significant people in a person’s childhood is a common cause – and these stress responses have magnified in later life with an increase in responsibilities. Breaking patterns formed in childhood can, however, improve how a person responds to stress in the here and now.

Hypnotherapy is deeply relaxing in itself – some people say afterwards it is the most relaxed they have ever felt in their lives. As the festive season approaches, it may well be the perfect time to see just how much ease and calmness it can bring.

(Published on Hypnotherapy Directory, 20 October 2017)

Quit smoking – for good!

What makes a successful smoking cessation programme? With Stoptober approaching, I’ve published an article on the Hypnotherapy Directory looking at helping smokers to quit permanently. 

Stoptober runs each October, encouraging participants to stop smoking. The premise is based on evidence showing that after 28 days without a cigarette, smokers are up to five times more likely to give up smoking for good. With this growing campaign providing external support, now is the perfect time to take the plunge and explore how hypnotherapy can help.

A successful smoking cessation programme must tackle not only the obvious elements such as busting cravings and adopting new healthier habits, but potentially more tricky areas – such as those relating to triggers like stress, or taking a break at work. Smoking can also be perceived as part of a person’s identity, and this may require some gentle disentangling.

Smoking is not a nicotine addiction, it is a habit – hence why nicotine patches and nicotine gum are successful in less than 10% of those who use them. Once a person stops seeing themselves as a slave to addiction, they are more likely to be able to come up with positive solutions and ways they can help themselves effectively break free of this habit. This can be one of the most transformative moments in a hypnotherapy session as the former smoker starts to realise their own empowerment, breaking free of both the conscious and unconscious ties that bound them to cigarettes.

Many smokers worry that they will put on weight by replacing the smoking habit with eating, so it is important to ensure that such concerns are addressed and dealt with. Replacement behaviours can be safely tested and reinforced as part of a hypnotherapy session, reassuring the former smoker that they really have quit the habit for good.

Smokers are rarely short of reasons why they want to give up the cigs, and a qualified hypnotherapist will reinforce these incentives whilst giving them hope and practical tools to beat the habit. The cost of a smoking cessation programme is small in proportion to the outlay on cigarettes, so those looking to quit now really have nothing to lose – and everything to gain.

Beating exam stress

Here’s an article I wrote for the Hypnotherapy Directory on helping young people cope with exam pressures. 

It’s that time of year when teenagers across the country are feeling the heat… and I’m not talking about the arrival of British summer. The pressure on young people to excel at exams as the stakes increase is reflected in an ‘A star or bust’ approach, where students feel a failure if they cannot gain top marks across the board – and indeed, this can impact upon their university placements in such a competitive academic environment. While the temptation can be to cram, it has been proven that a ‘spacing’ strategy is considerably more effective; and a bite-size approach to revision has become increasingly recognised as the best way to work with the brain’s natural capacity to learn.

This has the added benefit of ensuring that other vital needs can be incorporated into a programme of study. It can be all too easy for meal times, exercise, social interaction, and a sensible sleep pattern to go out of the window once students feel they must study 24/7 – especially as anxiety can further impact upon all of these elements. As students are used to timetabling lessons throughout their academic lives, it may be useful to maintain this continuity by designing timetables for study periods with them to ensure that these human needs are not neglected, helping them to stay mentally and physically healthy throughout this pivotal time. This also helps them retain a sense of control as the pressure rises and exam time approaches.

However as anxiety is complex, there can still be a sense of overwhelm, resulting in ‘brain fade’ – or simply blind panic. This is where hypnotherapy can be incredibly beneficial, teaching students self-calming techniques and other practical means of coping. Using hypnosis to encourage students to visualise a calm and confident persona right up to the moment that they leave the examination room can help them face and overcome their fears. Many young people respond extremely well to using their fertile imaginations to see themselves in this way; thus starting the process of helping them overcome their limiting beliefs, feel positive about their skills and knowledge – and making success a reality for them.