Picture the scene. You are sitting on a sturdy, exposed root of a sycamore tree, above a sandy beach next to a low weir by a peaceful river. It’s early April 2020 and you’ve been self-isolating in lockdown for over three weeks. Just then you hear a punchy exclamation of “kingfisher” from your husband, who is standing behind you. A flash of brilliant, bright blue flickers from a low hanging branch on the opposite side of the river bank and finds a resting place in some lower bushes a few metres further along. You feel your heart lighten and lift at the rare sight of this natural treasure. Up until now you have been quite literally locked in your house and wary of setting a foot out into the world – natural or otherwise. Locked in a spiral of worrying about catching the virus. Locked in a warped compulsion to follow the 24/7 news cycle in an attempt to learn how to protect your family and yourself from COVID-19. Locked in a limited grey and dull world, bereft of any release, colour or beauty.

This was me, just over two months ago and it got me thinking. If the glimpsed sight of a beautiful bird had the power to elevate my spirit in this manner, what’s the science behind it?


Environmental scientist Ming Kuo may have the answer. In an article published in 2015, she reviews a number of scientific studies in order to list the benefits of nature on our physical and psychological health. One conclusion is that “images of nature reduce sympathetic nervous activity and increase parasympathetic activity.” The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the body’s fight or flight response, whereas the parasympathetic nervous system stimulates the body to rest, relax and conserve energy. By ‘images of nature’, she seems to be suggesting being in nature and experiencing a natural landscape. As well as this Kuo points out that the “sounds of nature played over headphones increase parasympathetic activation.” In fact, birdsong has been shown by other studies to encourage relaxation and to aid the eradication of stress.


As an eminent Professor at Stanford University, David Speigel has also shown that hypnotherapy reduces the function of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – a section of the brain that is highly active when you are anxious. Tapping into the potential of real or imagined experiences in a natural environment provides the perfect technique when tackling stress and anxiety disorders, and in fact anything which requires you to relax and attain a new perspective.


Often the first with progressive ideas, the Japanese harnessed the healing power of nature in 1982 when introducing and coining the term ‘Shirin Yoku’, or as it’s now known in the west - forest bathing. Obviously, this idea stemmed from ancient practices and an appreciation of nature spanning back centuries. The approach requires total and full immersion of the senses in the atmosphere of the forest. This is said to bring about feelings of comfort, release and healing.

The positive benefits do not end there, as further research has found that trees and plants release natural aerosols and oils called phytoncides that are anti-microbial. Exposure to such compounds increased the number of natural killer cells, which in increase anti-cancer proteins in the body for up to 7 days after a visit to the forest. Perhaps if nothing else, consider rehoming some plants in your home that emit natural soothing aromas such as lavender and rosemary, or plants which purify the air such as aloe vera and succulents. They will fill your indoor space with an invisible array of beneficial natural gases which will create valuable effects for your health.


On this latter point, the healing properties of plants are very much the focus of two eminent British institutions. The BBC’s popular Gardeners’ World television programme and the RHS consistently convey the message that nature, via gardening, enhances feelings of wellbeing. A recent episode of Gardeners’ World visited the Blackthorn Trust, a social enterprise which specialises in using nature therapy to treat PTSD, anxiety and chronic pain. The April edition of the RHS’s publication “The Garden” included an article entitled “The Healing Power of Gardens“. Within this piece, the writer emphasised the growing body of evidence to suggest nature enriches our lives. It cites a Dutch study of over 340,000 people, which found that there is a 33% higher chance of experiencing depression, and a 44% higher chance of experiencing anxiety disorder if you live in an area without convenient access to green space. Furthermore, the feature details how nurturing plants and developing your own patch of land increases feelings of control, responsibility and connection, leading to an increase in self-confidence and positivity.


Personally I know that my daily dose of nature has played a vital part in calming and soothing the background anxiety that I felt in lockdown and beyond, and this must be true for countless others. Without our daily family walks to the river and surrounding woodland, I would have missed out on the much needed feelings of joy, awe and tranquillity. I am grateful to all those who have helped me in the writing of this article, and most especially I give thanks to that exquisitely coloured bird that I briefly glimpsed one morning in April.

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Updated: Sep 24, 2020


Take three deep breaths, and then gently rest your eyes on a point way off in the distance. In your mind’s eye picture an opulently decorated drawing room in mid to late eighteenth century Vienna. A man dressed in a heavy, black velvet cloak, adorned with mystical symbols, is ministering his particular brand of hypnotism, and approximately twenty people are crowded around a crude wooden rounded cabinet with bottles and iron rods protruding from its top (a bacquet – a crude apparatus used for treating people). This is Franz Anton Mesmer, the controversial mesmerist - more on him later - his modern counterparts are known as hypnotherapists. This particular form of complementary therapy, along with its healing effects on a range of physical and psychological ailments, has experienced a massive surge of interest of late. So what has modern science got to say on the subject and how did it evolve?


Well, recent research conducted by Spiegel, a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University, indicates that the state of hypnosis is a genuine occurrence within the nervous system. It has also been seen to alter perception. This was shown in a study Spiegel carried out in 2000, when subjects’ brains’ illuminated in a specific colour processing region of the brain, after they were hypnotised and told to view a grey pattern as being coloured. The same region of the brain didn’t show any activity in non-hypnotised subjects who were given the same instructions. So how do these findings have a real world application?


Spiegel argues that due to hynotherapy’s ability to modify perception it can be used to aid a number of health issues and performance anxieties – for example pain relief, exam performance and sporting achievement. Furthermore, his most current research suggests that brain processes modify in three distinct ways when a person is in a hypnotic state. He states that this could have positive ramifications for those who find it difficult to be deeply hypnotised, as their brains could be stimulated in these three specific spots to increase their propensity to trance: subconscious plumbing, if you will.


Metaphor making aside, hypnotism’s provenance goes back to ancient days. The great Egyptian, Mayan and Greek civilizations dabbled in it, as did the druids and pagans of Celtic Britain. Even Genghis Khan was known to have used the power of suggestion to rouse his troops prior to battle. To what extent this was as an ethical person centred intervention, rather than an agent of power and control, is questionable. However, the rise of modern hypnotherapy can be traced back to Mesmer, who as we saw earlier, hit upon the therapeutic qualities of going under. He didn’t fully understand the altered state, possessing some odd ideas about ‘magnetic fluids’ in the body being out of balance, causing illness, and how his own ‘magnetism’ as a ‘magnetiser’ was superior in curing others. Nevertheless, his work played significant role in contributing to the development of early hypnotism.


Other early mesmerists followed in his wake. The Marquis de Puysegur, who found that the positive relationship between the magnetiser and person being treated is crucial, something that is certainly true today. Leading on from this Abbe Faria, a Portuguese monk, rejected magnetism and concluded that the power of suggestion was the fundamental factor of mesmerism. Pioneering the technique of eye fixation to induce the hypnotic state, like Mesmar he was highly criticised and his work discredited. It seems that European society was not ready to embrace the advantages from understanding their work.


In the early nineteenth century, two British doctors became interested in the phenomenon. As an eminent academic of medicine, John Elliotson discovered that the trance state eased the pain of patients having major operations without anaesthesia. Again he fell victim to suspicion and ridicule, and was not permitted to practice mesmerism at the hospital where he was based. His upper middle class contemporaries became dubious of his practice of using ‘lowly’ working class Irish maids to demonstrate his methods, and his conclusions were disregarded. Later on, James Braid invented the term hypnotism and recognised that it has some psychological basis. He rejected mesmerism, was interested in the language used to induce focus and he thought that mental ill health was due to fixating on negative ideas. At last, we’re getting closer to modern ideas.


Whilst in the 1860s in France, two main schools of thought developed in an attempt to explain things further. The Nancy approach (as put forward by Dr Liebeault) claimed that hypnosis can heal, certainly echoing thought today. Whereas the Salpetriere clinic, under the guidance of Jean-Martin Charcot, asserted physiological issues cause emotional disturbances, a belief that isn’t given much credence today. Furthermore, he believed that physical activity would alleviate such emotional issues, which is an interesting point considering the mood altering benefits of physical exercise and the endorphins it releases. He also managed to distinguish and name distinct stages of trance, getting nearer and nearer to uncovering the nature of hypnosis.


No journey into this fascinating sphere would be complete without some understanding of the influence of Sigmund Freud. Recognising that the mind is an enigmatic entity and much of its workings are submerged from conscious thought and motivation, he named and emphasised the workings of the unconscious mind. He advocated the view that the unconscious mind, known as the subconscious, can be split into the three distinct sections and named these the id, ego and superego. The id is said to be the driver of primitive impulses, such as aggression and sexual desire. Whereas the ego is the part of the id that has been influenced by external social influences, and therefore toned down to some extent. Finally the superego is the aspect of the psyche that aims to control the influence of the id, and comprises the ideal self and the conscience. Failing to fully accept the power of hypnosis, Freud’s conclusions contribute greatly to our appreciation of subconscious thought and how it drives and influences our conscious actions. His work is vital to getting to the crux of how hypnotherapy works.


In the past century Dave Elman and Milton Erikson made further developments. The former began as a stage hypnotist, then went on to train a vast number of medical practitioners in the techniques of hypnosis. Primarily he is also known for his rapid methods of induction, said to incur deep trance. Milton Erikson was also a major proponent of hypnotherapeutic methods. He himself had used self- hypnosis to overcome polio in his childhood. Working as a psychiatrist in later life, he used the treatment in a good proportion of his cases. This work was often done in clandestine circumstances, as the use of hypnosis was not approved by the medical establishment, and Erikson could have been stripped of his professional status if found to be operating in this way.


Taking a step back, we can conclude that hypnosis has been a contentious issue through the centuries. This may have something to do with the way in which its mechanisms are not observable and the scientific community are only just beginning to identify and value its positive application. It’s clear that throughout time there are several commonalities between hypnosis then and now: an authority figure or expert who ‘guides’ you into trance; some understanding that a narrowing of focus is required; a positive and warm relationship between the hynotised person and hypnotiser is required; a reliance on the power of suggestion to alter deeply held, unhelpful beliefs.


So in a few moments, I’m going to count backwards from one to five. One – remembering the original work of Mesmar and mesmerism. Two – thinking about how the Nancy and Salpetriere schools advanced further development. Three – considering Freud and his ground-breaking work on the unconscious mind. Four – turning your attention to Speigel’s recent research on brain activity in hypnotised subjects. Five – remembering what you have learnt about the magnificent power of the hypnotic state and how you may use it in future.

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The message 'This is tough but so are we' has been chalked on a wall of my local shop. It’s been there since the very start of lockdown. Whenever I’ve looked at it and taken it in again, I’ve always fully agreed with its sentiment.


I know from my past experience of dealing with and then accepting horrendous panic disorder that I have inner strength and resilience. You undoubtedly possess this too! Even if it’s just raising yourself out of bed in the morning, as sometimes finding the physical energy to do so can seem like a mammoth task. This is especially so when your mental processes are in overdrive, and you feel absolute exhaustion plus that ongoing knot in your stomach, before you’ve had breakfast. Something keeps you going, and challenges the anxiety even on your worst days.


This part of you is your drive, your hope and your inner resilience. It will strengthen as you learn to accept and embrace the anxiety. It’s the part of you that challenges the anxiety to come and do it’s worst, so that you can practice acceptance and not add secondary fear or anticipatory anxiety. Both of the latter are similar in nature. Secondary fear is the bunch of rapid alarmed thoughts you have when anxiety strikes, for example ‘Oh no, my voice/legs/arms are wobbling. I’m going to collapse/run out of the room/go mad/die.’ By intercepting these thoughts and dampening them down by telling yourself ‘It’s just a physiological reaction to the adrenaline my body has released. It’s temporary. It will end. It’s a chemical reaction’ or ‘I am going to be OK. Come on anxiety do your worst. I have faced you before, and I can get through this again.’ Anticipatory anxiety is the anxiety that builds up when you think about an event you are attending in the future.


Accepting and therefore embracing anxiety, means consciously stopping the chain reaction of fearful thought on top of fearful thought. This is replaced with acknowledgement of the physiological, emotional and mental symptoms of anxiety and a knowing that these will run their course. This knowing is gained from understanding how the anxiety response works on our brains and bodies. The beauty of this is that it’s the same for everyone, it can be learned and it provides some comfort that your extreme anxiety is nothing unusual, that it follows a set pattern.


Of course, acceptance isn’t an effortless process as it requires repeated doing until it becomes more habitual. Dr Claire Weekes says that by practising accepting, “…you earn the little voice that says, ‘It doesn’t matter anymore if panic comes!’ this is the only voice to listen to. It is your staff, and will always come to help you in setbacks, even if you find yourself almost helpless on the floor”. Very wise words indeed.

Try practising acceptance today, and let me know how you go below.

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