Hands up if you sometimes feel like a forthcoming event that you’re due to take part in – be it 10 seconds away or 10 days away – makes you feel a bit uncomfortable?
I can guarantee that almost everybody reading this will be nodding along in agreement – thus demonstrating that anxiety is something that most of us experience from time to time.
Still not convinced? OK try this.
Have you ever:
+ Been asked to give a speech – and rehearsed like mad because you get a bit clammy at the idea of it going badly?
+ Been at a party, suddenly realised that you were on your own, and then retreated to a quiet corner where no one would notice you?
+ Spoken up at a meeting, only to discover that the words aren’t coming out quite right. Maybe you’re rushing them, or your breathing has changed and you suddenly feel awkward and embarrassed?
+ Thought about something you’re planning – such as a party or a wedding – and then got yourself in a tizz because of all the things that could go wrong?
+ Avoided eating in front of people or shielded your mouth with every bite, because you feel uncomfortable about it all.
+ Taken a detour on the walk home from walk, because there’s an angry dog at number 12, or because you used to date someone at number 16, and even the idea of walking past stresses you out?
There a thousand different ways that anxiety can manifest itself, and working as a hypnotherapist in London has exposed me to such a great number that I can’t help but observe how common anxiety is.
Anxiety has many faces – and none of us are immune
What’s unusual, perhaps, is just how different we all are. One client might come in with anxiety about speaking in meetings… and yet be fine when encountering strangers.
The next person might be great in meetings, but feels very uncomfortable when shaking hands with folks he/she doesn’t know.
So what is anxiety, and why is it holding so many of us back?
Anxiety definitions vary, but I think this one sums it up rather neatly: “Anxiety is a feeling of worry, unease or nervousness about something with an uncertain outcome.”
The key word here is “uncertain” and, in fact, anxiety is the only emotion we feel that is connected entirely to the future. It’s linked to an event that has yet to happen.
You might be thinking that’s not true of public speaking, say, because the anxiety manifests itself as you talk. This might be the case, but your real fear is crashing and burning in two seconds or 10 minutes’ time.
What’s happened is that your body is on high-alert that it is doing something you’d rather not be doing, or that you subconsciously have concerns about.
Bring on the sweats (and other physical symptoms)
When speaking, the first time you falter (or the first time you anticipate what you see is a sure-to-be-inevitable falter), the sweats come, or the flushing starts, or the heart beats faster, and you begin to imagine the impending disaster that is surely mere moments away.
So yes, anxiety is an emotion – like love or anger – and it is extremely common. In fact, more than 40 million adults in America are said to be afflicted by anxiety disorders.
It is a “normal” emotion.
There are ways that hypnotherapy can help with anxiety – more of which in a moment – and self-help can be beneficial, too.
But you should know that there are some limits when it comes to self help, though. To understand why, you need to understand more about anxiety.
Why anxiety draws on millions of thoughts and encounters
Over the course of your life, there will have been millions of thoughts, interactions and experiences that shape how you are. Coupled with this, we all have an inbuilt ‘fight or flight’ response to tricky situations.
It’s what makes you run away from a bear even if you find grizzlies rather cute.
The fight or flight response is an involuntary reaction to things that your mind perceives as a threat – and it covers a frankly staggering range of things.
But why are some people anxious about public speaking, for example, and others anxious about germs (obsessive hand washing and worrying about dirty surfaces is not uncommon)?
This is where your memories and life experiences come in. Somewhere, deep down, will be a trigger event that has caused you to respond to something in a way that you would prefer not to.
If your anxiety is about speaking in public, then it’s likely that somewhere in your past there will have been an unpleasant moment where you were asked to do something similar.
And it’s entirely possible you don’t even remember it.
Maybe it was:
+ Being asked to stand up in class aged seven to read a poem – and you felt embarrassed, or some of the other kids laughed at you.
+ Perhaps you liked the spotlight when you were four but your parents told you to sit down, because “no one likes a show-off”.
+ Maybe one of your early meetings at work left you feeling like a clueless newcomer? Perhaps you spoke up – only to have someone talk over you.
+ And so it goes with dogs, germs, drunken people, networking events, crowds, being on an aeroplane and so on. Your body is saying, “Been here before, didn’t like it – how do we get out of this?”
So anxiety is something that happens to most of us, to some degree. Unfortunately, it’s rarely helpful, and when it is profound it can be life-changing – for the worse.
Why avoidance isn’t the answer to anxiety issues
What often happens is that anxiety can can lead to avoidance, which then leads to limiting behaviour. Anxiety can make you:
+ Throw a sickie off work when you know there’s a big meeting.
+ Skip meals, or drink too much in the run-up to a public speaking engagement.
+ Avoid socialising. Or travel. Or large crowds – or hundreds of other things.
Avoidance is not the answer: your goal is to prove to your mind that there is actually no threat, to retrain its response to the perceived problem.
And here’s the good news…
You can start to change today – you can start to fight back.
Three quick tips to control anxiety
1/ Control your internal self-talk
You know that voice in your head that says “you can’t do this” or “you’re rubbish at this” or “what if someone asks you a difficult question”? That’s known as negative internal self talk, and again it’s something most people have to deal with.
It’s your brain’s way of reminding you that you’ve been here before and didn’t like it. The problem is that this voice is often wrong. Really!
Just because you spoke a bit too quickly in a meeting in 2015, it doesn’t mean you have to do so every time from now on.
Just because a dog nipped you when you were six, it doesn’t mean every dog now has it in for you.
You can change. And you can start by turning down these negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones.
Many people find it helpful to put positive words into the mouth of someone they like or find inspiring. If you have Ryan Reynolds in your head telling you you can, then it can work wonders for your self-belief.
2/ Learn the Ha breathing technique
The Ha breathing technique is a proven method for getting the mind and body back on track and has roots in ancient Hawaiian culture.
Simply breathe in through your nose and count to three or four. Then exhale through the mouth with a quiet “Ha” sound for a count of six or eight (the ratio should be 1:2).
Also, by focusing on this for a minute or two, you’re quite specifically not focusing on the thing that was making you anxious a moment ago. This can help, because the state of being anxious is not compatible with certain other states: if you’re calm, it will trump your anxiety.
3/ Use peripheral vision
I know this sounds like a strange one, but the second you focus your concentration on your peripheral vision – instead of focusing on a single thing – something magical happens.
Your anxiety reduces, because you are now spreading your mental bandwidth across a much, much wider area. Your brain is taking in millions of bits of visual data and has to process them.
Give it a try.
How hypnotherapy can help with anxiety
I would argue that the best way to deal with anxiety is to try and find the root cause – people often don’t actually know what it is – and then try and weed it out, for want of a better term.
Working in hypnotherapy in London, I can help people from across the city to unearth the issue and then retrain the body’s response to it.
In other words: we find the ‘trigger‘, and then help the mind to go somewhere other (and more pleasant) than the fight or flight response next time. It can be life-changing, and is often something that can be dealt with in just one or two sessions.