Picture the scene. You’re in a heaving, bustling supermarket at Christmas. The lights are bright, the aisles are closing in on you and you feel very hot in your heavy winter coat. Inside your heart is pounding, your legs feel like jelly, adrenaline courses rapidly through your body, a panic attack is building and your mind is telling you to run. Run out of the supermarket immediately! Right now! Go!
I’d like to say that this is the first time that I had felt this overwhelming surge of anxiety, however, it had begun in a Manchester University lecture hall a few months previous to this. It seemed to pounce suddenly, like some petrifying predatory beast threatening my life. I had no idea where it had come from, and to say that it left me quaking in my trainers is a colossal understatement. It rocked my life, and made me doubt I’d ever feel normal again.
FINDING A SPARK OF HOPE WHILST IN THE GRIP OF ANXIETY
So how at the tender age of 19 did I begin to tackle sky rocketing levels of anxiety and terrifying panic attacks? The first stop was a visit to my GP, who was a rather frosty and indeed fusty old gent, who couldn’t look you in the eye for more than a few milliseconds. The year was 1994, and some doctors didn’t really possess soft skills and hadn’t experience or in fact training in mental health.
To this day I remember two key aspects of our conversation. The first being that I was adamant that I did not want to be prescribed any medication (of course this is a highly personal preference, and I do not judge those who find it relieves their symptoms and provides some much needed respite). Secondly, I distinctly recall that I asked the doctor if I would ever recover. His response was “it depends on what you were like prior to suffering from anxiety. “ Well, that was a bit of a conundrum of a response. To say it totally baffled me is trivialising it, as it lacked clarity, comfort or any solution. If he’d have answered how long is a piece of string that might have been clearer! Shortly afterwards I resolved to trust my gut and focus on hope. Hope that I would one day recover and not be plagued by crippling panic attacks, agoraphobia and generalised anxiety.
HYPNOTHERAPY - THE PERFECT ANTIDOTE TO ANXIETY
In the weeks and months that followed, hope spurred me on to read about and research a number of ways in which I could heal from anxiety. One such way was hypnotherapy. During my most anxious laden, darkest hours hypnotherapy demonstrated to me that I still possessed the ability to relax and to quieten down the often worrying and alarming thoughts. It soothed my tired mind during periods of agitated insomnia. It brought me back to myself after I had become entangled in catastrophizing. And more importantly it ignited and fuelled that spark of hope which I had identified as my saving grace, after visiting that GP's consulting room weeks before.
Recent scientific research has shown that the brain does in fact experience beneficial changes when a person is receiving hypnotherapy. In 2016 Speigel, a respected Professor at Stanford University and his team of scientists, discovered that the highly relaxed or trance state that hypnotherapy induces, decreases the function of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. This is a part of the brain that is extremely active when you are anxious. The researchers state that hypnosis “invokes a suspension of critical judgement” and gives rise to “the ability to dissociate from distress and pain.” Basically hypnotherapy can quieten your inner critic and disconnect you from mental or physical suffering. As an Anxiety UK approved therapist, I would certainly agree that hypnotherapy is very effective in alleviating symptoms of GAD (generalised anxiety disorder), panic disorder, agoraphobia and other phobias.
ONE IN EVERY FOUR PEOPLE WILL SUFFER FROM MENTAL ILLNESS
Thankfully, 26 years after I experienced rampant anxiety, the condition is a key part of the agenda of public health discussion. Charities such as Anxiety UK, Rethink Mental Illness, Heads Together and Mind are continually raising awareness of mental health. They reflect the need for advice, support and services for this long ignored, extremely common human experience. Finally, mental illness is becoming less of a taboo and people from all walks of life are sharing their experiences of it - royalty included. Consequently, they are providing a positive platform in tackling a vastly devastating problem for many.
Personally I will never, ever forget the fact that one in every four people will experience a mental health issue at some point in their life. In fact if not more, as even now in this age of mental health awareness some people are still reticent to share their experiences. This is understandable as a characteristic of mental issues can be the fear of being stigmatised and labelled mentally ill. It is certainly not something to be ashamed of. It is certainly not rare or uncommon. It is certainly not a weakness.
ANXIETY CHANGED MY LIFE FOR THE BETTER
It has truly been the making of me. I doubt that I would be the same person I am today without my experience of panic disorder and anxiety in early adulthood. It has made me much more compassionate, accepting and empathetic towards others. I am reminded of the saying hope springs eternal, meaning that just one tiny glimmer of light can be sufficient in beginning to raise the human spirit. After firing up my hope and feeling empowered to overcome anxiety, the first step was most definitely finding little glimpses of normality to challenge anxious thinking.
Now I'm not in so much of a hurry to leave the supermarket and I love a good browse up and down the aisles. Ask my husband, who can be often heard saying 'You said that you were only gonna be 30 minutes!'
If you want to:-
reduce your anxiety
regain control over your life
recognise how the nervous system actually works
realise why your anxiety switch has been tripped time and time again
reinforce and practice a range of tools and techniques for stopping anxiety in its tracks
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Geraldine McGrath is a Clinical Hypnotherapist, Teacher and founder of Embracing Anxiety for Women a Facebook group. Join here for further help, support and empowerment