The amygdala is a tiny part of your brain that springs into action whenever you feel threatened – and hypnotherapy can help to ‘turn down’ its anxiety-based responses.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where it seems like your mind and body’s response was over the top? For example, why does it seem to be that you’re the only person at the airport that is stressing out at the thought of getting on the plane? Why is it that no one else is having a panic attack at the thought of getting into that rickety-looking lift? And why are you the only one that seems to gets sweaty palms and a rapidly beating heart when you’re about to give a presentation?
All of these responses are triggered by anxiety or a phobia (phobias being anxiety that is focused on a specific stimulus), which in turn is caused by a small part of the brain caused by the amygdala. These anxiety driven responses are actually surprisingly common. I’ve helped thousands of people to overcome this type of anxiety using proven clinical hypnotherapy techniques – and most people are able to significantly improve their anxiety or their phobia in just one or two sessions.
But what is an anxiety, and what are the symptoms?
Understanding anxiety and its symptoms
According to the mental health charity Mind, anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid, particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future. The American Psychological Association adds that people with anxiety disorders (anxiety that is more intense/excessive than is helpful) usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. “They may avoid certain situations out of worry,” they write. They may also have physical symptoms, such as:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Tunnel vision
- Shortness of breath
But what’s going on? What if we were to look inside a mind affected by anxiety to find out what is causing it?
The key to what’s going on lies in a small part of the brain called the amygdala – it looks a bit like two halves of a walnut. Its role is to process what you see, feel, hear and smell and give it emotional significance. It tries to work out if the environment you are in – or are about to enter into – is safe or threatening to you.
How does the amygdala know what’s safe or threatening?
Your amygdala is not perfect. In fact, it can be extremely unhelpful – even if its intentions are good! It can only tell you how to respond to something based on past experience. If every time in your life that you had stood up to speak – in class, in college, at work – you’d gone down an absolute storm and loved it, you’d be unlikely to have a fear of public speaking, because your amygdala wouldn’t perceive or recognise the situation as dangerous.
But if your first ever public speaking engagement – maybe something as simple as standing up and talking about a book when you were six – went badly, then as an adult, every time you were about to speak in front of a crowd the amygdala zooms unconsciously and repetitively right back to that moment on a loop.
This then sets off alarm signals and your body does what it has been programmed to do since we lived in caves: get ready to run away or attack. This the much talked-about fight, flight and freeze response. Basically you are experiencing a surge of adrenaline and cortisol here.
It’s important to note that we don’t all react the same, though. A bad public speaking experience for one person may be much more easily shrugged off than for another.
Why does the mind get stuck in a loop?
When we have phobias, or panic and anxiety disorder of some kind, our responses to stressful situations get stuck in a loop. The amygdala keeps telling us again and again that the thing we don’t like is bad – and primes the body to fight or run away. That’s because we’ve not given it sufficient evidence to change its mind, so to speak. We’ve not convinced it that planes are safe, or that dogs probably won’t bite.
If the amygdala remains ‘switched on’ when there really isn’t any danger – or not as much danger as it perceives – then it can make life extremely difficult and unpleasant.
It can be exhausting emotionally & cause chronic physical symptoms such as tension headaches and it can seem that you just can’t stop yourself from playing out scenarios – horror movies, if you like – over and over again in your head.
It can cause you to avoid certain things.
It can start to feel like anxiety is ruining your life.
So what exactly is going on in the brain when we are anxious?
If you want a more detailed picture of what happens in the amygdala and the rest of the brain during an episode of heightened anxiety or a panic attack, here it is:
- The amygdala perceives that you are facing a threat.
- The amygdala sends signals to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus.
- The hypothalamus activates the pituitary gland.
- The pituitary gland activates the adrenal gland.
- The adrenal gland pumps adrenaline and other hormones through the body, which creates fear and kickstarts the fight or flight response. In turn, this leads to those symptoms we discussed such as a faster heartbeat, tunnel vision or sweating.
All of this happens in just a fraction of a second. It’s so fast and so dramatic that science journalist Daniel Goleman terms this the ‘amygdala hijack‘, because it’s as if the amygdala has seized control of your body. Unless you take steps to intervene and change this unconscious response to a ‘threat’, then this pattern of behaviour will keep repeating again and again. Paradoxically, the amygdala is only trying to help you and thinks it’s priming you to cope with danger.
How do you stop the amygdala hijack? In this blog, I’ll explain how hypnotherapy is an effective way to do this – and why.
Why logic doesn’t work when tackling anxiety
In truth, logic can work when trying to overcome anxiety, but it tends to be a long and arduous process. What I mean is that there are therapy methods such as CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – that can help people to address the way they respond to things over a series of multiple sessions.
But as a quick fix, logic is doomed to fail. Here’s why…Your fear is not logical.
When you step on a plane to travel 2,000 miles, it is literally the single safest way to travel that distance. In 2018, 4.3 billion people flew safely on more than 46 million flights. Logically, therefore, you’re in extremely good hands when you step onto that 747. But if you have a phobia or anxiety, then these comforting facts actually offer little comfort at all.
The problem is that logic affects a completely different part of the brain to the amygdala. So you’re trying to diffuse a landmine, so to speak, with the wrong set of tools. You’re speaking Portuguese to a Korean. Anxiety is regulated with the limbic system – which is where the amygdala and the hippocampus are to be found. Logic takes place in the prefrontal cortex. You can’t stop what’s happening in the limbic system by having a word or two with the prefrontal cortex.
You can control anxiety to some extent with prescription drugs, but people often want a more permanent solution. Which is where hypnotherapy comes in, because it deals with the unconscious response.
Why hypnotherapy works with anxiety
During an online hypnotherapy session with a client, I help them to stabilise the amygdala’s response to the thing that is causing them stress. We go straight to the root of the problem – the amygdala – and find ways to ‘reprogram’ its response to the events that have made you feel really bad e.g. a bad flight, a terrible presentation and so on.
You’re still conscious and aware of what’s going on, but you are more relaxed when I’m using the various tools and techniques that I use. At this stage, we spend around approximately 20 minutes getting mind and body to a place where the events that have instigated the problem don’t bother you emotionally. We then use tools to help stabilise the emotions that normally arise when thinking about aircraft (or public speaking, crowds – whatever is holding you back) and then introduce new outcomes.
You’re far more susceptible to the idea of accepting these new outcomes than you would be when wide awake, so when you are more stable, you’ll be able to think of doing those things that bother you and basically, feel much calmer and in control.
One thing that works very well during hypnotherapy is to take people inside an imaginary control room of their own mind. Inside this space, we can help them to see control panels and levers – levers that can be turned down to a lower level not just during the hypnotherapy session, but after, too. When clients come out of their hypnotic trance and I ask them to think about their phobia or the things that make them anxious, almost all of the time they say that their anxiety is no longer there.
And if, at a later date, they feel like it is returning, they now know how to enter their personal ‘control room’ and dial the response down again.
No difference between in-person and online hypnotherapy
I have been conducting online hypnotherapy sessions since long before the pandemic struck, though back then they were relatively infrequent. Everything changed in March 2020, and since then virtually all of my sessions have taken place online.
Because hypnotherapy works by the power of suggestion – a certified professional is suggesting things to you while you are in a hypnotic trance – it makes no difference whether the client is four feet away in a chair, or 12 inches away on a laptop screen.
So long as we can see each other, you’re in a comfortable and quiet place with a good internet connection, then online hypnotherapy is every bit as effective as when it’s conducted face to face. It’s one of the best – and quickest – ways to overcome phobias, panic attacks and anxiety.
Just get in touch if you’d like to know more.