At a hypnotherapy conference a while back I heard a talk by Dr Josie Fraser from Bradford University, on hypnotherapy and stress. Dr Fraser made the important point that not all stress is harmful. Our bodies are well-designed to deal with short-term stress, such as occurs in the natural world when one animal is attacked by another. At such times, our adrenal glands produce adrenaline and cortisol, hormones which assist our response to stress. Cortisol backs up the effects of adrenaline by increasing blood sugar, and closing down processes that are not immediately needed, such as digestion, the immune system and inflammatory process (healing of wounds). In the short term this saves energy and assists survival. However, in the prolonged stress situations that can occur in modern life, lowered immunity and healing ability are serious problems. Dr Fraser’s research measured the secretion of cortisol in stressful situations. She found that people who had been very lightly hypnotised produced less cortisol, as well as showing reduced heart rate and blood pressure. This effect was achieved even with short recorded hypnotic suggestions. Hypnotherapy with a “live” therapist, tailored to the individual client, could be expected to have an even more powerful effect.
In previous posts I’ve discussed several components of fear and anxiety, such as physical sensation, thoughts, and imagination. In this one I’ll be looking at a further aspect of the problem, namely “meanings”. By this I mean what our fears mean to us, what they tell us about ourselves.
An example will make this clearer. Suppose someone is anxious in social situations, becoming “tongue-tied” and embarrassed when meeting new people, especially people whom they find attractive. This will often set off a train of thought in which you imagine the other person to be thinking that you are pathetic or ridiculous. You might even imagine them mocking you to other people, damaging your reputation. All of these imaginary ideas might lead you to form certain negative beliefs about yourself. Beliefs such as “I am an unpopular person, an odd person, a misfit, who will never get anywhere in life”. The most common distressing belief that people have about themselves is that belief that “I will always be like this, I was born this way.”
Once we create a belief about ourselves, it tends to feed upon itself and become a permanent feature. This happens because our memory and attention are selective. Suppose we believe we are a social misfit. We will notice evidence that agrees with this idea, and ignore evidence against it. Likewise we remember things that agree with our beliefs, and forget things that disagree with them. in this way, a negative self-image persists long after the events that originally created. Challenging and testing negative beliefs is an important part of effective counselling.
A phobia is an extreme fear of a particular thing, activity, or situation. The word “phobia” is simply the Greek word for fear. Years ago psychologists used to give specific names to every different phobia, such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders), acrophobia (fear of heights), and claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces); however this kind of specific naming is now seen to be misleading. The fact is that every client is different, so for example we cannot apply the exact same therapy to every client who is afraid of spiders. To create an effective therapy programme for each client, the therapist needs to assess the client individually, analysing how the phobia affects them.
In previous news postings I’ve examined how fear and anxiety develops, looking at the different components of which they are made up. Specific phobias are built up in the same way as any other fear. First there is an instant physical reaction, the “flight or flight reaction”, with racing heart, a tingling or nauseous feeling in the stomach, muscle tension, sweating and so on. This is an instant reaction to the feared thing or situation, bypassing the rational intelligence. For this reason it only makes things worse to tell a phobic person that they are being silly, and that there is really nothing to fear. Such well-meaning advice is aimed at the rational mind, but this has already been sidelined by the phobia. In fact, this advice generally makes matters worse, because it reminds the person that their fear conflicts with their own values, their image of how adults should behave. They don’t need to be told that a small spider cannot harm them- they know this already!
People with phobias often know a lot about the thing they are afraid of, because their attention is focused on it constantly. For instance, people with a spider phobia will notice small spiders that another person wouldn’t even see, or would forget about as soon as they had seen it. They will know where spiders live, and at what time of year they come indoors.
Phobias can develop for many reasons, and the reason is often unknown in specific cases. Once the phobia develops, it is usually kept going by the person’s own habits. People with a phobia always take care to avoid the thing they’re scared of. If they’re forced to encounter it, they get away as soon as possible, and remain tense and anxious until then. Therefore, they never get the chance to become familiar with the thing or situation they’re afraid of. Gradually becoming familiar with the feared thing or situation is the key to overcoming phobias of any kind. This can be achieved more easily if the person learns to calm their physical “fight or flight” reaction. Hypnotherapy is of great help in learning to calm and control these reactions.