Panic and Anxiety Disorders in Children & Adults

Dr. Hutt’s Published Article on panic and anxiety disorders in children and adults in the WSCA (Western Suffolk Counselors Association) Publication, Spring 2013

Hypnosis is a powerful therapeutic agent that is often misunderstood by the general population and even by some in the psychology community. Its effectiveness goes beyond such well known uses for habit control, such as nail biting, weight loss, or smoking cessation. The aim of the article is to describe hypnosis’ effectiveness in treating such psychological conditions as panic and anxiety disorders. The skillful use of hypnosis by psychotherapists in a clinical setting can speed up the therapeutic healing process and help patients attain even higher levels of healthy functioning. In short, hypnosis can turbocharge the therapeutic process.

As described by Dr. Tim Brunson, a researcher and educator, during hypnosis some parts of the brain are activated while others are deactivated.  The part of the brain that plays a role in behavior, the Reticular Activating System, is activated while the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, which plays a big role in worry, anxiety and obsession/rumination is deactivated.

This one two punch, where the behavioral part of the brain is activated and the worry part deactivated, allows the brain to absorb and internalize positive behavioral suggestions, while limiting the ability of anxiety to interfere with these messages.

For behavioral suggestions to take root, first the basis of a patient’s anxiety must be unearthed. Part of any cure is creating a narrative for the patient that identifies a real and tangible reason for their anxiety.  Does it exist because of a past trauma?  Is it “Free Floating Anxiety” which is defined as excessive worry over all types of aspects of daily life? Was the patient raised in a home where a parent was overly anxious and perceived many things as a threat? Some patients will discover the source of their anxiety or worry though the clinical process; others will need the help of hypnosis to access the buried memories and experiences that are at the root of their anxiety.

Hypnosis allows the unconscious mind to do the work of uncovering, experiencing, and ultimately releasing, the source of trauma or conflict. Like a person’s immune system, which knows what areas of the body to activate to protect against disease, the unconscious mind knows where hidden and harmful experiences are buried within the psyche. The therapist as hypnotist functions as a kind of guide, urging the person in the trance state to trust their subconscious mind to unearth the events, experiences and feelings that triggered their anxiety. This re-experience of previously dormant events, and their verbalization in the presence of a therapist, can liberate people from years of emotional suffering.

This is what occurred with one of my patients, a forty year old highly successful professional who after several years of therapy with another therapist still suffered from severe insomnia, despite, as she put it, knowing herself well. She was also experiencing horrible gastrointestinal symptoms (stomach distention) that remained unexplained after a year of medical tests. A clinical assessment of her psychiatric and family history revealed more serious problems than insomnia. Through hypnosis the specific childhood incidents that haunted her until this day, and which involved a long buried memory of her mother severely abusing her, and the family dog, as she sat at the kitchen table, were revealed  Her recall and re experience of this trauma while in a hypnotic state loosened the grip of this previously unconscious memory. Shortly thereafter she reported her gastrointestinal problems had disappeared and her insomnia had improved. The therapeutic process also proceeded at a quicker and more fruitful pace.

In another case, a 20-year-old woman who had severe anxiety also benefited from the power of hypnosis.  She had been diagnosed with a very serious, but not life threatening, chronic illness. She was fearful of the possible side effects of her prescribed medication and how the illness would affect the quality of her life. Not surprisingly, she had begun experiencing panic attacks. She experienced once such attack at the start of a hypnosis session. The experience of letting go, and succumbing to a hypnotic state, was for her synonymous with her fear of death, the underlying source of her anxiety over her illness. Once this source of her anxiety was brought to consciousness she was able to quickly relax into a hypnotic trance. Her panic attacks abated, and I was able to successfully incorporate hypnosis for relaxation and pain management in future sessions as an adjunct to the therapeutic process.

Hypnosis can not only uncover the causes of anxiety, but can also be used to speed up the behavioral changes needed to ultimately vanquish it. As anyone who has seen a stage hypnotist perform knows, people are susceptible to all sorts of behavioral suggestions while in a hypnotic trance. The clinical use of such suggestions, while not quite so dramatic, can have similar effects. Unlike stage hypnotists, who induce subjects to behave in certain ways on the spot, with no lasting after effects, clinical hypnosis is geared towards making prospective changes in behavior and thoughts. Post hypnotic suggestions can literally transform the way people think and behave outside the therapist’s office, while also giving them the tools to self-employ the benefits of hypnosis wherever and whenever they need to.

A case example, this time involving a child, illustrates the process by which this occurs. This case involved a 9 year boy referred by his pediatrician because he was increasingly fearful of going to school. Otherwise well adjusted, he panicked every Sunday night at the thought of going to school. When his Sunday night panic seeped into the other days of the week, his parents, fearful that he was developing a phobia to school, sought help. After it was ascertained that there were no problems in school or at home, a three-session course of hypnosis was instituted. To get him used to the experience of a hypnotic state and to learn that the cure lay within him, I first taught him self-hypnosis techniques, using a combination of breathing, visualization and counting exercises. I had him use these techniques while imagining what it was like to be anxious about going to school, thus teaching him how to calm himself when anxiety struck.  Then, after inducing a hypnotic trance, I suggested that he had mastery over his condition, and that it was within his ability to overcome his fears.  The relief was almost immediate, and his parents reported that he was no longer fearful of going to school.

As this example demonstrates, hypnosis can paradoxically give patients more control over their thoughts and feelings. The sensation of “letting go” of the debris of daily life, which occurs during a hypnotic state, can provide the soil for new and healthier patterns of thought and behavior to grow. It allows the patient to experience, often for the first time, what it is like to exist in a mindful state of consciousness.

The brain wave shift from alpha (conscious thought) to beta (physical or mental relaxation) to theta (deeply relaxed with reduced consciousness) to delta (deep sleep or catalepsy) also makes the mind more receptive to post hypnotic suggestions that instill and reinforce a sense of mastery and control. Patients often emerge from the hypnotic state with a renewed sense of hope, and the belief that it is within their power to redirect their thoughts and quell their anxiety. This is then reinforced by teaching the patient “auto-suggestion”, or the practice of self-hypnosis, where the patient can self-suggest or self-talk ways to dampen or side step their anxiety when it occurs. This ability to internalize the suggestions of the therapist , and attain a state of receptivity to change, is  essential to the therapeutic process, and can sometimes take months, and even years to attain with conventional therapies. Hypnosis speeds up this process, allowing the work of psychotherapy to take root more easily, as patient and therapist build on the insight and sense of mastery achieved through hypnosis.  

Hypnosis is an exquisite and versatile tool; in the hands of a therapist it can help cure a wide variety of anxiety disorders. It can help patients overcome episodic and isolated forms of anxiety, such as the fear of public speaking, taking a test, or competing in athletic competitions. But it can work equally as well on more diffuse and entrenched forms of anxiety. Paired with the insights and change inducing tools of the therapeutic process, it can provide hope and healing for those afflicted by anxiety.

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