Why Hypnosis Works for Anxiety, Panic and Phobias
Anxiety, panic and phobias strike a wide range of people. Often the problem pops up suddenly. For others it gradually worsens over time. Sometimes people understand why and sometimes it just doesn’t make sense. You may know someone who suffers from anxiety and may have tried to help the person see there was not reason for it, or you may recognize that there is little reason for your own anxiety.
However, you have probably discovered that you can’t talk yourself or anyone else out of anxiety. You may have even gotten some relief talking to a counselor or therapist, and may have tried medication but, found the results didn’t last.
There are specific reasons for that. And it has to do with how the brain works.
Medication only relieves the symptoms of the anxiety, and not always well. Medication does not treat the cause of the anxiety.
Talking doesn’t help very much either. The part of the brain that understands the logic that there is nothing really going on that is that threatening is not the part of the brain where the anxiety or panic gets conditioned. In fact, when the logical mind is active (for example, when talking about the problem with a therapist) it makes the part of the brain that stores the fear response temporarily calm dow.
That part of the brain is called the amygdala. The amygdala pairs sensory stimulus (what you see, hear, feel, smell) with negative feelings (fear, anger, sadness). It has a vague memory function which has different qualities that what we normally think of as memories. Some brain researchers believe this is the location of the subconscious mind. 1
You may be familiar with the work of Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov famously trained a dog by ringing a bell when the dog ate. After awhile, when Pavlov would ring the bell (stimulus), the dog would salivate (response) even when no food was present.
Anxiety and panic develop in a similar way. It happens when a particular stimulus (tight space, for example) gets paired with a feeling (extreme fear) in the amygdala. After the initial event that links these two you may be in a situation that seems similar (different tight space) and have the same reaction triggered (extreme fear). When the stimulus is specific, such as a tight space, we recognize it as a phobia. When the stimulus is vague, not well defined, we may identify it as anxiety.
To get more detailed information on how the brain works related to fear, click here to see a slide show by Joseph Ledoux. 2
How can hypnosis help?
Hypnosis helps because it gets the logical mind to fade into the background allowing the therapist and client to have access where the information needed to relieve anxiety and panic is stored. “…Traumatic amygdale-based memories tend to pop into consciousness when we relax and allow our minds to wander …” 3 Hypnosis takes advantage of this by getting people into a relaxed state and inviting the person to bring to mind the events that originally conditioned the response. When the memory resurfaces in a therapeutic setting, it can be restructured and paired with a new, more positive experience, and uncoupling the stimulus from the physical response.
Further, researchers from Cornell University have provided “compelling evidence that humans can ‘unlearn’ an automatic process.”4 “'This [research] means that, using suggestion—in this case post-hypnotic suggestion—we were able to ‘un-ring’ Pavlov’s bell,’ Dr. Amir Raz said. He went on to say, “It also speaks, literally, to psychotherapy and the power of the spoken word. It means that words – talking to someone—can create profound brain changes. This seems to be a top-down effect that may be able to override a whole range of impulses…In this study, we show that a specific form of hypnotic suggestion is capable of targeting focal functional brain areas—something no current drug can do. I believe that when used responsibly and judiciously, hypnosis can be a great tool, not only to advance scientific inquiry but perhaps even for treatment in certain psychopathologies.” 4
Hypnoanalysis takes advantage of the way the brain works to relieve anxiety, phobias and panic by using in the ways described above.
Stage fright functions the same way other anxiety works. Something about the setting triggers a fear response in the amygdala. Using hypnoanalysis we can de-condition the response. In addition, learning self-hypnosis and other techniques gives performers additional tools to relax and approach events with clarity and focus.
Hypnosis used in psychotherapy is called Hypnoanalysis. Using this advanced tool, we can discover the cause of an individual’s depression and resolve it.
Brain researchers have found that negative emotions such as depression, sadness, and grief and stored in a part of the brain called the amygdala. This part of the brain stores memories that are not accessible through the conscious mind. This is why talking about the depression may help temporarily, but often not permanently. Using hypnosis we can access this part of the brain and often eliminate symptoms of depression completely.
It is a process, however. The first step is to find the cause of the problem. The next step is to resolve the memories that conditioned the mind to develop the problem. We then help develop new, more effective ways to function. And finally, we reinforce new patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving.
Medication is sometimes helpful and at times even needed in serious cases of depression. However, medication alone rarely cures depression. It simply relieves the symptoms helping people feel less bad. There is good news. Brain researchers are saying that hypnosis can be effective in ways medication can not.3
- Rita Carter, Mapping the Brain, London, Oxford, 2003. 174-175.
- Joseph Ledoux, Center for Neural Science, New York University. Click here to see a slide show of LeDoux’s explanation of fear and the brain.
- Amir Raz, Jin Fan & Michael I. Posner, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “Hypnotic suggestion reduces conflict in the human brain –102 (28): 9978, July 12, 2005.
- Seak Kelliher, Cornell University News Service, August, 2005.