Why do I have anxiety?

and what might it be telling me?

A Hypnotherapy Perspective

Welcome to my post about Anxiety

In my hypnotherapy practice, anxiety is the most common reason people come to see me.  It is either the main presenting problem or a significant factor in other problems like sleep, fears and phobias, IBS, alcohol and substance use, habit and lifestyle problems. 

Over the years I have come to understand more about anxiety and would like to share this learning in case it is of help to anyone else.

 Take good care. Andy Hill

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Table of Contents

Article summary

If you only have limited time, the main points of the article are summarised in the following brief slides

Many people suffer with anxiety
You are not alone
Anxiety Can Improve
When the mind feels safer
Anxiety is there for a reason
It is a signal that something needs to change
Something is out of balance
Anxiety arises from sustained worry or fear
Fears can be real or imagined
About the past, present or future
Psychological or Medical
Anxiety can be
Mild, moderate or severe
It's something to take seriously
We can get stuck in anxiety
It can become a pattern, a habit
A disorder
A fearful thing in itself
Anxiety Improves
When the mind feels safer
The Mind Feels Safer
When we change things
Hypnotherapy and other therapies
Can help you with your anxiety
Read on to find out more
Previous slide
Next slide

I am deeply troubled by anxiety

Yes, it’s true. I am deeply troubled by anxiety, not personally these days (thankfully) but by the number of people who come to see me for help and through no fault of their own, have little understanding of what anxiety is.  People talk knowingly, expertly and emotively about their anxiety. Their story is sometimes a long one, a story of being held back, of feeling scared and lonely, twists and turns, diagnostic checks, treatments and a range of therapies, some helpful, some less so. When you listen to people’s stories, you know their experience is painfully true for them. 

You also know that if you are going to help them, something else needs to be discovered and something needs to change.

Whilst working as a hypnotherapist, I have seen many people improve their anxiety, and their healing journeys share one thing in common. Their anxiety improved when they changed thingsThis may sound too simple or obvious but the ‘what-needs-to-change-for-me?’ question is often a missing piece in their story and their thinking.

In this post I would like to share my experience of helping people with anxiety. In doing so, I fully acknowledge that there are many ways to improve anxiety and your experience could be very different from what I describe. Also, for people who are living in difficult, stressful, unsafe, and frightening situations, making changes to alleviate their anxiety may be impossible right now. My commentary, therefore, relates to those of us who are fortunate to live in relative safety and have control over aspects of our lives.

Important note: Anxiety can be caused by a number of medical conditions, and it may be important to have these checked out by a qualified medical practitioner, particularly if they have suddenly appeared, and if your life feels relatively happy and problem free, otherwise.

Anxiety is something to take very seriously.

We know what anxiety is, don't we?

Anxiety is common and there seem to be an increasing number of older and younger people suffering with it. This can be evidenced in data published by the Mental Health Foundation which show an increasing number of men and women reporting high levels of anxiety or data from NHS Digital which show that the number of prescriptions for antidepressants in England has almost doubled in the past decade.

There is a huge amount of information about anxiety on the internet. Just type in the word and you’ll find hundreds of descriptions of the symptoms, signs, types and effects. You’ll also find lots of suggestions about what can help. This includes breathing exercises, mindfulness, taking exercise**, talking therapy, medications, diet and lifestyle change. These can help with the management of symptoms but when people tell me their anxiety story, two important issues are often missing:

  1. Knowledge of why anxiety is created in the mind and body and
  2. What their anxiety is trying to tell them

A little anxiety is a normal part of life and we all feel anxious from time to time but if it is sustained and severe, it can be terribly disabling and restricting, and negatively impact many areas of our lives including our health, work, relationships, finance and even our life expectancy.

**A special note about exercise

Exercise has been proved to have a very positive effect on anxiety, at least equal to antidepressants and for this reason I encourage all my clients who are suffering with anxiety to consider taking up exercise. For a thorough read on the subject I would recommend the book Spark – How Exercise Will Improve the Performance of Your Brain by Dr John Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

The Mental Health Foundation in the UK describe anxiety as a type of fear usually associated with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future, but it can also arise from something happening right now.

People often tell me that they have tried all sorts of things to help but their anxiety is still there. So we have to help the person see what else could be changed.

Anxiety is purposeful but not necessarily helpful

'Emotions tell us how we feel about something even when we are unaware of how we feel.'
Miton H. Erickson
Quoted in The Wisdom of Milton H. Erickson. The Complete Volume by Ronald A. Havens

This is a really important piece of information for people to know. Anxiety is a state of mind and body created for a reason. It is trying to tell us something important.

Now anyone who has suffered with anxiety, myself included, will know that it doesn’t feel like a constructive state of mind and body, it can feel absolutely awful, dreadful even. It doesn’t feel like a helpful method but if we look at the science behind anxiety, we know that it is not random or arbitrary, it’s not there to just make your life difficult. The human brain and body are too wise and too efficient for that.

Anxiety seems to be a signal from a very innocent and honest part of us that is trying to get our attention and tell us that something is unsafe, worrying or out of balance.

Anxiety is a big social problem but is the bigger problem a lack of education and awareness of why anxiety is there and how it can get resolved?

Anxiety comes from the subconscious mind

'The unconscious probably already knows what the person's problem is, the source of the problem, and how to alleviate the problem. As such it is a potentially beneficial ally.'
Miton H. Erickson
Quoted in The Wisdom of Milton H. Erickson. The Complete Volume by Ronald A. Havens​

The uncomfortable feelings associated with anxiety are not something we want or can consciously make happen and yet they are still there. Why is that? Well, as the neuroscientists can now clearly show, anxiety is generated by the subconscious, not the conscious mind.

What are the conscious and subconscious minds?

People who come for therapy are often unsure about the different functions performed by the conscious and subconscious minds but once this is explained people say, ‘ah yes of course’. It’s something we do know.

The conscious mind can be thought of as the part we have direct control over. For example, if we want to take a sip of our coffee, we use the conscious part of our mind which sends out instructions to arm and hands to pick up the coffee cup. According to the neuroscientists the part of the brain we can directly use like this is only about 10-15%. The rest of the mind is outside of (or beyond) our direct awareness and is responsible for a vast set of functions, which it seems able to manage simultaneously.  For example, the subconscious manages the:

  • Heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow
  • The immune system
  • Cell generation and healing
  • The adjustment of hundreds of chemicals and hormones every second
  • Body movements and balance that are now second nature
  • Our instinctive survival mode (Anxiety relates to this)
  • Prioritising body processes and the use of resources (threats are given a high priority whether they are real or imagined)

All these are managed without our conscious involvement and the subconscious represents power beyond our comprehension. 

Anxiety is related to our instinctive survival mode and the horrible feelings we get from it are the effect of powerful stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenalin surging around the body.  The subconscious instructs certain glands to release these chemicals and get the body ready for danger when it predicts that we are unsafe, at risk or overwhelmed. This is a normal and adaptive response to threats, and we are only here today because our ancestors and all animals have this ability. The process is intended to be temporary and happen in short bursts, and the chemicals are strong and demand our attention.

Interestingly, the subconscious does not seem to distinguish between physical dangers, like falling rocks or being chased by a bear, and social dangers like relationship problems, stress, work pressures or whether the danger is past, present, real, or imagined. So danger is danger and the fearful feelings that come with anxiety are actual fear. 

People often think they are weak because they have anxiety but there is nothing weak about them. Fear is fear.

For some people, anxiety relates to a current threat, stress, or feeling of being overwhelmed. For others, the threat relates to the past but is it still playing out in their lives today. Either way, anxiety is our instinct believing, rightly or wrongly, that we are in some sort of danger.

In my experience, anxiety decreases when our subconscious mind starts to sense that we are safe, calm, able to take more control or that the past threats are no longer here. When this happens, the levels of circulating stress chemicals reduce, and the feelings of anxiety subside. So therapy for anxiety must focus on helping a person reassure and guide the subconscious mind in these directions.

How we talk about anxiety

People are mammals, group animals, and our survival depends on us sharing how we are feeling and detecting how other people are feeling. So it’s only natural that when we talk, we often talk about our feelings, our emotions and our body state. We ask, “How are you?” and reply by saying things like, “I’m OK.” ….. “I feel happy.” ….. “I feel sad.” ….. “I have a headache.” ….. “I’ve got more energy.” ….. “I feel tired.” ….. “I feel excited.” We don’t start our conversations about why the feelings are there, we start by describing the feelings. The same is true for anxiety which we take to mean those uncomfortable feelings of unease, worry, dread or foreboding.

This use of language is understandable and efficient for ordinary everyday interactions but if we are going to help people resolve their anxiety, we need to help them understand ….

  Why the anxiety is there and what it is trying to tell you.

Examples of people who had hypnotherapy for anxiety

The following examples are illustrative of the types of problems people describe when they first come for help with anxiety. (People’s names and all significant details have been changed.)

Take Jim for example who came to see me for severe anxiety. He’d been suffering for about 15 years, had been taking anti-depressants for nearly all that time and had tried other talking therapies. He ran a busy restaurant and catering business and managed a great deal of work stress. He was driven to achieve high standards, he was always on the go and regularly experienced panic in queues or traffic jams. I found him to be very likeable, decent, caring and hard working. 

Or Susannah who came to see me for Emetophobia (a very strong fear of being sick). She had suffered with this, coupled with anxiety for over 40 years. She experienced panic attacks when taking (or thinking about) public transport because of the fear of catching a bug and could not get into a vehicle with another person. I found her to be an upbeat person, amazing with animals, strong minded with a great sense of humour.

Or Fiona, a young woman in her early 20s who came to see me for health anxiety, long term unresolved Irritable Bowel Syndrome and constant thoughts about having a heart problem or serious illness. She often contacted and attended her local GP practice and even the local A&E department about her health concerns, always to be told by the medical professionals that they could find nothing wrong. I found her to be a very intelligent and thoughtful person, an amazing artist who had a love of travel, cooking and spending time with friends.

Or Ysuf, a young man who sought help for a 10-year cannabis smoking habit, severe anxiety, panic and insomnia. He was finding it increasingly difficult to leave his house, to find work and get back into ordinary living. I found him to be a spiritual person, with a strong connection to nature, his country of origin and his extended family. He had played sports at a high level and had been a competent martial artist, activities he was keen to get back into.

In these sorts of cases, and many others, the person’s anxiety improved not by focusing on the anxiety itself, but by helping the person see their life from a position of calm and control, helping them acknowledge their needs and strengths and start to change things that were causing their mind to feel afraid or overwhelmed. Developing self- worth and making changes are critical success factors.

How people improved their anxiety

So, what sort of changes did people make which caused their anxiety to reduce?

Jim’s anxiety reduced considerably after he relooked at his relationship with alcohol and cut right back on his drinking. He also became aware of how his urgent thinking and frantic movement throughout the day kept him in a high anxiety state. He consciously slowed down, changed his pace and regularly practised being calm. Contrary to his long-held belief, his productivity at work increased when he was calmer.

Susannah’s anxiety reduced when she recognised that her fears about being sick originated many years ago when she was little. These fears were still playing out in her life today. As her therapy progressed she became able to notice what was in the present and what was from the past, to guide and reassure herself, extend her comfort zone and start to do more of the normal things in life that she had wanted to do.  

Fiona’s anxiety reduced when she came to understand how the mind works in certain stressful situations and that anxiety is a physiological and emotional response to perceived danger. She came to view her anxiety as coming from a part of her, not the whole of her. She practiced compassionate calming techniques, noticing what was good and praised herself for taking small steps forward. As her anxiety improved, so did her IBS symptoms.

Yusuf’s anxiety changed significantly when he was able to declare who he really was, what he stood for in his heart of hearts and how he wanted his life to be. He decided that he didn’t want to carry scared feelings any more and felt strong enough to confront some of his past head on. He stopped smoking cannabis when he felt ready, then moved to a new flat, started a job and came back into the world.

Maybe we can all relate to some aspects of Jim’s, Susannah’s, Fiona’s or Yusuf’s story, or we know someone whose life is a bit like this?

In all these and many other examples I could give, the person’s anxiety seems to reduce when they changed something. According to the neuroscience, these changes will have signalled to parts of the person’s brain that the level of threat or danger had reduced. In response, the subconscious brain sends instructions to reduce the flow of stress chemicals and the person’s feelings of anxiety start to dial down

Improving anxiety takes time, compassion and care

The examples included above are not intended to suggest that healing from anxiety is quick or easy. It often takes time and a great deal of patience, self-compassion and self-kindness.

Although anxiety can be mild, it can also be severe, long standing and part of more complex problems for the person. Sometimes my clients are just seeing me, others are receiving help from their GP, other talking therapies and of course family, friends and networks.

In my experience, helping people improve or gain relief from anxiety using hypnotherapy can happen quickly, for example within 3 or 4 sessions but for most clients, it takes longer between 6 and 12 sessions for sustainable changes to be made. Improvements tend to be slow to begin with and grow steadily and quickly as the sessions progress. People often describe some ups and downs over the first few weeks. Then, the difficult days become less frequent, the intensity of their anxiety reduces and when they do have a difficult day, they know it will pass and they know they have the skills and confidence to support themselves through it. As the healing journey progresses, people experience longer anxiety free moments, then anxiety free days, then anxiety free weeks or even months.

All this improvement is coupled with a growing and powerful sense of relief and something clients often say to me is, “I feel like me again.”

Clients often say to me, "I feel like me again."

Our brain functions are not random, neither is anxiety

'Individuals were coming along to therapy believing that their strong emotions were a result of a fault in their brain or personality. They did not believe they had any power to influence them.' 'Emotions are your brain’s attempt to explain and attach meaning to your thoughts, body and world.'
Dr Julie Smith
Quoted in Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before

In medical terminology, the word ‘disorder’ is often used in association with anxiety, denoting something wrong or functioning improperly. This is entirely understandable given how uncomfortable and limiting anxiety can be. However, in both my own life and my clients’ lives, anxiety was a consequence of something, it did not randomly appear.

So, talking about the feelings of anxiety may only be helpful to an extent because at some point, we need to help people identify why the anxiety is there and what needs to change.  

For some people, the anxiety is related to a sense of threat that is still present in their lives but for others, anxiety relates to threats that are no longer actually there, but their mind is stuck in a hypervigilant, protective mode, as if the danger were still there.

Whether your anxiety relates to your current or recent life or the past, the uncomfortable feelings that come with anxiety feel very real.

Is anxiety a disorder or an important signal?

So, should we think of anxiety as a disorder or a signal? For some people it most definitely becomes a disorder but its purpose is to signal that something is or was wrong, out of balance, or needing to change.

Think about these two possibilities:

  1. Anxiety is not random, it comes from a part of us that is 100% honest (in its own way, but not necessarily helpful).
  2. Anxiety tells us that something needs to change about our thinking, our actions or our life.

If anxiety is a signal, what questions need to be asked?

If we accept that anxiety is a signal, then the following questions may be instrumental to its resolution or improvement:

  1. “What do you need to feel calm, happy and safe, what do you really need?”
  2. “What needs to change about how you think, what you do and who you connect with, to make this happen?”
  3. “What can I (a professional, family member or friend) do to help you see and make the changes you need to make?”

These questions might sound obvious but in my own life and in the lives of my clients,  these questions have often not been asked and the focus has been on the anxiety feelings themselves.

Facing uncomfortable truths

In improving anxiety, it is sometimes necessary for people to see, face and even confront uncomfortable truths about their lives, because these are often the underlying reason for their anxiety. For example: 

However, in Solution Focused work, it is crucial that clients come to their own conclusions about which issues may be an underlying cause of their anxiety. This is not for me to guide or direct. On the contrary, my job is to help clients do the following:

Key principles in helping a person with anxiety

As a hypnotherapist, having those three questions in the back of my mind feels important but I know they are not enough on their own. To realise their power, we need to believe in the person, build rapport and trust and allow them to lead and change at a pace that is right for them. To tap into the person’s power and capability I work according to 3 key principles:

  1. The person in front of me is deeply ok. They may be feeling very strong uncomfortable emotions like anxiety or panic, but in their essence (their true self), they are intact, capable, fascinating, more than enough and they really matter.
  2. The root of the person’s anxiety is not a fault to be put right, it is not a mistake. It was or is a very important and honest signal that something was wrong, something needed to change.
  3. The person has the answers. They may not realise this but somewhere within them are the answers to their anxiety. Something needs to be seen, understood, validated or changed.

What's the job of a therapist in helping people with anxiety?

I know these ideas and this framing of anxiety is not new. They have been held and endorsed for centuries and continue to be endorsed by current day psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers.

Given all of the above, my job as a hypnotherapist must surely be to help people change. To remember who they are, how they want to be and how they want to feel. I must help people come to see and realise their strengths, their resources and their imagination and start to change those things that need to change.

Then, it seems, that 2 million years of human evolution will powerfully do the rest. The brain changes the associations, the deeper meanings, the signalling, and the anxiety, slowly but surely, goes away.

If change is key, how could we allocate public resources differently?

The word anxiety describes a particular set of uncomfortable feelings but not the underlying reason why the person is experiencing it. This is helpful to some degree, but if anxiety goes away when we change things, should we give more emphasis to the language of change, to the part of anxiety which is signalling for change?

Imagine how different things might be for adults, young people and children alike who suffer with anxiety, if the ‘something-needs-to-change-for-me’ aspect was what we talked about early on?

Imagine how resources could be used differently and how costs and suffering might be avoided?

Solution Focused Hypnotherapy for Anxiety

Solution focused hypnotherapy helps you:

Please note that in solution focused hypnotherapy, we acknowledge and listen genuinely and empathetically if a person wants to talk about past difficulties, but we do not focus our therapeutic approach on this. Instead, we have forward looking conversations with people about how they want to be and the small steps forward they can take. Following the talking part of the session, we then use hypnosis to help the person get into a very calm state or mind and envisage (mentally rehearse) those changes either directly or indirectly.  These, coupled with techniques the person may use outside of the sessions, set the conditions for them to make the necessary changes.

Even though solution focused hypnotherapy is mostly forward looking, people who come for sessions often come to their own helpful conclusions about their past.

Food for thought and final word

I hope this article has given you some food for thought and maybe a sense of hope. If you or someone you care about is struggling with anxiety, there are many sources of help available through the NHS and complementary therapies. If hypnotherapy is something you might be interested in, please get in touch. Anxiety is usually improved with hypnotherapy between 3 and 10 sessions and these improvements, as far as I can tell, are long lasting. Once changed, the human mind doesn’t seem to go back.

Remember that we are all working life out, we are all working things through. It sometimes takes courage to get through a day and you are not alone.

Take good care, out there.

Andy Hill

Hypnotherapist (Solution Focused)

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