Who controls your mind? You do – but only up to a point. The mind is a complex bit of machinery – so there’s only so much ‘talking down’ that you can do when trying to calm anxiety.
I was talking to a new client a few weeks ago and she asked a brilliant question. It was during one of the free consultations I offer before I start work with someone, and I love these chats because they’re a great way for me to get to know the client.
They’re also a fantastic way to work through any preconceptions that you may have about clinical hypnotherapy. You’d be surprised how many people still think I’m going to whip out a stopwatch and tell them to look into my eyes!
This particular client – a woman in her late 30s who was struggling with self-confidence issues at work – wanted to know if it was possible to ‘talk yourself down’ from an anxiety attack.
More specifically, she wanted to know if there were tricks and tools that would improve your chances of diffusing your response to a stressful situation.
In a roundabout way, it’s a question I get asked a lot.
How the mind receives your ‘running commentary’
Most people talk to themselves – a lot. From the second you wake up, you start waffling away. You might be asking yourself about how you slept or whether you remembered to add new toothpaste to the shopping list.
Sometimes the things you tell yourself can be positive, such as: “It’s a beautiful day today – I’m going to make the most of it with a walk at lunch.” We call this voice your inner coach.
Other times, though, we say things like, “God, I slept so badly I’m going to be rubbish at work today.” That voice is your inner critic.
As you may have guessed, having a powerful inner coach is better than having a powerful inner critic.
Your mind tends to receive whatever you throw at it without question. For that reason, your thoughts tend to have a significant effect on your moods. If your default setting is “inner critic”, your mind tends to receive an endless loop of negative comments. And that can make you miserable.
Does changing the way you think change the way you feel?
Generally speaking, yes. During hypnotherapy, I often help people to work on their inner voice so that, going forwards, they dial down the grouchy Mr Negative and turn up Mr Positive and his powerful can-do attitude.
Consider this. The old you used to tell yourself:
- You’re so bad at this.
- No one likes you.
- You look a mess.
And so on. Now imagine how different life would feel if you told yourself:
- You’ve got this.
- Who should we try and make friends with here?
- You look great!
By getting into a repetitive pattern of positive thoughts, it can dramatically change how you feel about yourself. And this self-belief can lead to amazing things.
So can you calm anxiety by thinking about it?
Here’s where things get a little more complicated. On one level, yes, you can absolutely help yourself to calm down by thinking about it. You can look at your breathing and tell yourself to breathe more deeply and more slowly.
You can try and think positive thoughts, such as: “This will pass. I have been here before. In just a few minutes, I’ll feel better.”
You can also give the anxiety the attention it craves. This may seem counterintuitive, but if you close your eyes and focus as hard as you can on the anxious feeling in your body, it will very often lose its intensity quite quickly.
It’s as if your anxiety has been shouting, “Look at me!” and your natural reaction was to look away. If, however, you give it your attention for a moment, it’s often the case the anxiety does the equivalent of thanking you for your time, and then moves on.
Some people call this “riding the wave.” You’re staying with the anxiety until it reaches a peak, and then enjoying the relative calm on the other side.
How hypnotherapy can help you get rid of anxiety
So in the example above, you have seen three ways to think your way out of an anxiety attack. You’re using thought processes to tell you to manage your breathing; you’re giving yourself positive, comforting affirmations; and you’re also using the mind to indulge the anxiety for a moment and “ride the wave.”
On a scale of 1-10 for effectiveness (10 being best), I’d say these three can collectively score around a five or a six.
That’s pretty great, right? Three things you can try today, for free, and see how they work for you.
So what do I do during hypnotherapy for anxiety that aims to push this score up to a nine or a 10?
To answer that, we need to take a quick look at what is happening in the mind during an anxiety attack. I’ll keep this really simple, but what is basically going on is that a part of the brain called the amygdala has been activated and is now priming you to fight or run away.
If you want to know more about this ‘amygdala hijack‘, check out the blog in the link.
Understanding the amygdala
The reason you are feeling anxious is because your amygdala has assessed your current situation and perceived it as a threat.
Or perhaps it is getting worked up about something that you are anticipating doing in your immediate future – such as walking through a dark passage.
Based on a mixture of primal survival instincts and learned behaviour (such as once being attacked in a dark passage), the amygdala goes into overdrive.
And contrary to everything I said a little earlier, you cannot talk your amygdala down.
That’s because the amygdala does not respond to logic or reason. So telling yourself, “The passageway is probably empty” won’t work. The deep breathing, the positive affirmations and “riding the wave” can help – but they won’t fix the problem.
This is where hypnotherapy comes in. During clinical hypnotherapy – be that online hypnotherapy or an in-person session – I will help you to get into a very relaxed state. We will then give your amygdala somewhere other than fear to go the next time you’re in the kind of situation that normally causes anxiety.
In that way, we “re-wire” the mind, so that the amygdala doesn’t reach for fight or flight next time. We let the amygdala reach for a different response – one of calm or confidence or even happiness, depending on the situation.
Happiness? Let me explain. And again, I’m keeping things really simple!
Let’s say you were once bitten by a dog. That memory is now carved in stone – so to speak – in your memory. As a result, it’s possible that you get anxious around dogs as an adult.
But let’s say it’s also true that you once owned a dog – or a friend did. A lovely dog. One that you used to enjoy playing with.
During hypnotherapy, we’ll swap out the old amygdala response (dog = bite = panic) and give it a new one instead. Something like dog = fun times = happiness.
If we can achieve this – and it is usually possible in just one or two sessions – then something amazing has happened. You have well and truly calmed your anxiety… just by thinking about it.