One of the most common requests I receive from my hypnotherapy clients is help in dealing with anxiety, panic attacks, and other highly emotional states of being. While each person's experience of anxiety or panic attacks may be unique, a common theme is a feeling of being out of control. The experience of feeling out of control often brings on a panic attack, and when we’re in the throes of one, we fear we’ll never gain control, which only serves to add fuel to the anxiety flames.
What can we do - in the moment - to stop this endless spiral?
And that phrase - in the moment - is the key to the answer. When we’re experiencing anxiety, we are not living in the moment. We’re either mourning the past… we might be holding feelings of shame, regret, or remorse. Another possibility is that we might be fearing what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year. It could be a planned upcoming stressful event or the possibility of one… it doesn’t matter, the point is that when we’re anxious we are not living in the present.
Actually, we want to flee the present moment by any means necessary, because in the moment, we’re spiraling down a panic vortex.
Which reminds me of an analogy… imagine you’re swimming in the ocean and you’re caught in a riptide and being carried out to sea. Swimmers are taught to do the opposite of what feels instinctive - which is to swim directly towards the shore, and this might be - by the way - against the current. Instead, we all know to swim parallel to the shore and allow the current to gently push you back to the shore, while you also swim in a lateral direction. In this particular case, surrendering is both a courageous and a wise act because it is what saves you.
So does that mean I’m suggesting that you surrender to anxiety and panic?
No. Not at all. Because surrendering to anxiety and panic means to remain anxious, maintaining the status quo, and allowing it to rule your life. What I’m proposing instead... is to surrender to the fight against ‘that which is’. Explicitly, that which exists now. When we’re panicking, we are fighting against that which is. We are denying what is happening right now, we are trying to escape it by focusing on the past, or by worrying about the future. The panic is a primal instinct that is kicking in based on our ‘fight or flight’ / adrenal glands.
We can surrender the fight against what is by simply focusing on the present moment, and every characteristic that you’re aware of. You can do this in a variety of ways:
- Focus on your breath. You can even say silently to yourself, 'Now I am breathing in, and now, I am breathing out'. A simple focus on breathing is a proven method to bring on a state of relaxation and calm.
Focus on your surroundings.
- Count the number of objects around you. For example, if you’re outside, count how many trees you can see, or how many cracks there are in the sidewalk. Just like breathing, counting can help ground you and take your active mind off of your emotional state. If you’re inside, counting the objects that you see on a nearby table, or even tracing the pattern you see on a couch or pillow can cultivate a sense of well-being.
- Reinforce your experience. Once you feel your heartbeat start to decelerate, and your breathing return to normal, focus your attention on this fact. Become aware of your ability to relax yourself, and this realization that this is precisely what you just did to take care of yourself. You just learned - experientially - that YOU are in control of your emotions despite the fact that - at certain times - it feels as if they’re controlling you.
- Create an anchor for calm. Once you’ve calmed down, and feel fully relaxed, create an anchor for this feeling. An anchor is similar to a mnemonic device, it gives you a cue to remember something - in this case, it gives your body and your subconscious a cue for how to feel at certain moments. It could be a gesture (e.g. hand on your heart, or head), or an image (e.g. your happy place), or a mantra or song. It’s not important what it is, but rather that it works for you in moments where you feel the possibility of becoming anxious. And you ‘charge’ it by cultivating the feeling you want, amplifying it, and then setting the anchor in place. After that, it’s a good idea to test it to experience if it's really working for you (before any anxiety starts).
How do these tactics work? Aren’t they too simple? Actually, they work because your conscious mind needs a job to do.
Again, anxiety-inducing conditions can trigger your adrenal glands to make you feel as if your life is in danger, and these cues are coming from an overactive, conscious mind and they are false positives. In order to disarm these triggers, we distract the conscious mind by giving it a job to do. Focusing on your breath or counting objects around you gives your conscious mind something else to do rather than dream up scary past or future scenarios that are totally unnecessary and unhelpful.
Of course, these strategies can help us in the midst of an anxiety experience, but how do we stop anxious emotions from arising in the first place? That’s where hypnotherapy can help.
Remember that your conscious mind uses only 10% of your brain’s overall energy, and is responsible for short-term memory, planning, thinking, and analyzing. The subconscious mind uses 90% of the brain’s energy and controls much more of who we are: our emotions, our long-term memories, our creativity, our involuntary bodily responses, including our ‘fight or flight’ responses, among others.
Using only the conscious mind to try to heal a problem that began in our subconscious, resides there, and is experienced mostly through subconscious impulses is not a winning strategy.
Hypnotherapists help their clients get to the root cause of their anxiety, and heal it, by accessing their subconscious through trance, and other energy healing modalities (e.g. sandplay therapy, Reiki, EFT, and more). There is a way to manage your anxiety, as long as you live in the moment, as much as you can.