Hypnotherapy for anxiety involves the therapist guiding a person into a state of deep relaxation and highly focused awareness to effect change. Specially trained and certified hypnotherapists can make use of clinical hypnosis to treat those living with anxiety through relaxation techniques and helping people reframe their anxiety or situation while under hypnotic trance.
This is not the same as stage hypnosis, where an entertainer invites volunteers to be hypnotized in front of an audience. Although the mechanics of achieving the trance state are similar, therapeutic hypnosis is aimed at achieving personal goals rather than putting on a show.
What Is Hypnotherapy?
Hypnotherapy emphasizes the relationship between the conscious and subconscious minds and how they work together to both generate problems and create their solutions.1 Sometimes, erroneous beliefs and counter-productive habits get “stuck” in the subconscious. This can give rise to a variety of adverse conditions including anxiety, phobias, sleep disorders, and addictions.
In the state of hypnosis—when the subconscious mind is more active and accessible—the hypnotherapist’s aim is to help the person resolve the issues that have become problematic. Through relaxation, guided imagery, positive hypnotic suggestions, and other methods, unwanted beliefs or behaviors can be reprogrammed into more positive ones.
How Does Hypnotherapy for Anxiety Work?
A typical course of hypnosis treatment for anxiety will include an initial assessment, several hypnosis sessions, and some kind of follow-up and support.
Many therapists today will provide people with pre-session hypnosis “training.” This may be in the form of written scripts that can be read outloud or recordings of hypnotic inductions that can be listened to before the actual session. In this context it can be very helpful to view hypnosis as a skill that can be learned as opposed to a treatment that is done to you.3
During the initial assessment, a person may be asked about their past and current anxiety symptoms and experiences. As this can be a serious medical and mental health issue, a therapist will likely ask about any past or current anxiety treatments so they can coordinate with other providers as needed.
Some other areas that may be explored before treatment begins include:
- Identifying what triggers episodes of anxiety or panic.
- Clearly noting all the physical and emotional symptoms that signal an impending or ongoing anxiety attack. These can include mental images, inner dialog, looping thoughts, and physical sensations.
- Clarifying the person’s desired outcome from the treatment. For example, feeling relaxed, at peace, and at ease during situations that used to trigger anxiety.
- Using all this information, the person will then work with the therapist to create hypnotic suggestions and a plan of treatment that will best support anxiety relief.
Next are the actual hypnosis sessions. During the first session, the therapist will induce the hypnotic trance, guiding the person into a state of deep relaxation and focused awareness. In addition to the strategies mentioned above, a therapist can then employ various techniques to relieve the symptoms as well as address the underlying causes of anxiety.
The number of sessions needed will vary from person to person. Some people experience satisfying results after one or two sessions while others benefit from a longer program of treatment.
Post Hypnotic Suggestions
While in hypnosis, a person is more amenable to accepting and implementing positive suggestions. These are most effective when delivered in the present tense. For example, “Whenever I sit on an airplane, I remember to breathe and relax.” The key to post hypnotic suggestions is that they are both believable and offer desirable alternative responses to the cause of the anxiety.
Anchoring is a technique that effectively teaches a person how to create their own positive triggers for more desirable outcomes. While in trance, a person will be guided into a state where they feel relaxed, safe, and at ease. They will then be instructed to create an “anchor” to those feelings. This can be a phrase, a specific place, or a physical gesture such as pressing the thumb and forefinger together. Through physical and mental association, they are then able to enter the desired state whenever the chosen anchor is activated in the future.
Often, chronic anxiety and phobias have their source in memories of past events. In hypnosis, it is possible to revisit those memories with better resources. For example, a person who is anxious or phobic around dogs may remember they were bitten by a dog when they were a child. In the trance state, they can re-experience the event with the full knowledge that they survived, that they are now more capable of protecting themselves as adults, and that not all dogs are a threat.
Hypnosis for Anxiety Techniques
With its emphasis on physical and mental relaxation, hypnotherapy can be a highly effective treatment for various forms of anxiety that are affecting someone’s life. It should be noted that some serious conditions may require other treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication. However, hypnosis as a complementary treatment has been shown to increase the chances for successful outcomes.
Hypnotherapy techniques for working with anxiety include:
In order to achieve sufficient relaxation to enter the hypnotic trance state, the therapist will guide a person through a progressive attention to each part of the body. Through mindfulness, focused awareness, and soothing suggestions, a person is able to release tension and stress. Once physical relaxation is achieved, mental relaxation comes more easily. Through this process, the symptoms of anxiety are often greatly reduced, allowing any therapeutic work to begin.
Oftentimes anxiety is caused by or exacerbated by obsessive and fearful thoughts about the future. This can take the form of catastrophizing, filtering information, and magnification. While in the trance state, the therapist will guide the person through a process of right-sizing their fears and worries to better reflect the reality of their situation.
This technique relies on the use of imagination and guided imagery. In the dreamlike state of hypnosis a person imagines themselves experiencing the situations that trigger anxiety. They are then able to bring new resources, perspectives, and attitudes to those situations, allowing them to practice healthier responses. For example, a person who is phobic of flying in airplanes will be asked to repeatedly imagine themselves taking a long flight with confidence and self-assurance. This creates new mental habits and associations that can make it easier to face the phobia when it’s encountered in real life.
In addition to all of these techniques, many hypnotherapists will suggest various self-management tools to deal with anxiety as it may come up in the future. These can include instructions for self-hypnosis, deep breathing exercises, and self-guided relaxation meditations.
Is Hypnosis for Anxiety Effective?
There has been a great deal of research done on the effectiveness of hypnosis and hypnotherapy for treating anxiety disorders. Hypnosis by itself and as an adjunct to other treatments has been proven to help calm anxiety in cancer patients, burn patients, and state anxiety issues such as pre-test anxiety.
- A meta-analysis from 2018 reviewed the findings of almost 400 records, 15 studies, and 17 trials of hypnosis for controlling the symptoms of anxiety. They concluded that hypnosis was more effective in treating anxiety than other methods alone. At the end of treatment, the average participant in the 17 trials reported more reduced anxiety than 79% of the control groups.4
- A 2018 study of burn wound patients found that hypnosis was highly effective in managing pain and reducing the secondary symptoms of anxiety.5
- Another peer-reviewed study from 2018 of cancer patients concluded that the group receiving hypnosis as an adjunct treatment showed statistically significant reduction in symptoms of pain and anxiety. They further went on the say that hypnosis can be considered effective for controlling anxiety in cancer patients and other chronic illnesses.6
- A 2010 meta-analysis concluded that a “tremendous volume of research provides compelling evidence that hypnosis is an efficacious treatment for state anxiety (e.g., prior to tests, surgery and medical procedures) and anxiety-related disorders, such as headaches and irritable bowel syndrome.” The study also concluded that hypnosis showed promising results for treating general anxiety disorder but that more research was needed.7
What Are the Benefits of Hypnosis for Anxiety?
Before beginning hypnotherapy for anxiety, it is important to weigh the pros and cons of the style of treatment.
Pros of hypnotherapy for anxiety may include:
- No medication: Although medications can be effective for treating anxiety, they carry the risk of adverse side effects like sleeplessness, dizziness, and headaches. In addition, medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can take up to 6 weeks to take effect and even then there is no guarantee they will work.
- Quick results: People can oftentimes find immediate relief from anxiety symptoms when receiving hypnosis treatment. By calming and relaxing the body and mind, feelings of anxiety and panic naturally subside. Even if they return after a session, they can be treated again as needed with hypnotic techniques such as focused breathing, progressive relaxation, and anchoring.
- Can resolve underlying issues: Anxiety can have roots in past experiences. These experiences can be major or minor traumas from accidents, injuries, or even abuse. Depending on the issue, hypnosis alone or as an adjunct other treatments can help the person find psychological resolution for the underlying cause of anxiety.
Are There Any Risks?
The potential negatives of hypnotherapy for anxiety may include:
- Results vary: As with any treatment, not everyone will experience the same results. Although the person-centered approach of hypnotherapy can be a great advantage to many people, it means that sometimes the treatment will be more or less effective. As a result, a person may have to seek out more than one hypnotherapist if they are not satisfied with the initial outcome.
- Standards: There is not one set of standards that govern the profession of hypnotherapy. As a result, the services and treatments provided by hypnotists may vary. Nonetheless, most practitioners do adhere to some kind of ethical and professional standards. Make sure that your hypnotherapist belongs to a reputable trade organization such as the National Guild of Hypnotists.
- Insurance: Many insurance companies do not cover hypnosis treatment which can result in out of pocket costs. Check with your insurance company before committing to hypnotherapy as a treatment for nicotine addiction.
How to Find a Hypnotherapist to Help You With Anxiety
As hypnotherapy becomes more popular and accepted, the consumer has more choices available to them than ever before.
Become more knowledgeable about hypnosis by reading articles and books, watching YouTube videos, and listening to podcasts. A little knowledge goes a long way when it comes to making decisions about your health and well-being. See some of the resources at the end of this article for more information.
The requirements for practicing hypnosis vary from state to state, country to country. Check the credentials of any prospective therapist and make sure they are qualified to practice in your state or region. Credentials can include degrees in other fields, or the types of hypnosis training your prospective therapist has received.
Many hypnotherapists offer initial consultations for free. Take advantage of these to personally meet a number of different therapists and compare their services. You can also “get the feel” of the person through your conversation. Ask yourself, do you feel comfortable sharing your issues with them, do they seem to have empathy for you, and do you feel like you have good rapport with them.
Since you are about to hire a person to perform a valuable service, treat your initial consultation like a job interview. Ask them about their experience with helping people with anxiety. What kind of success have they had with your particular issue? Do they offer any additional support before and after your sessions? What kinds of clients and issues do they most want to work with?
There are also many professional organizations that maintain directories of hypnotists and hypnotherapists in your area. Some respected ones include:
- The National Guild of Hypnotists
- The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis
- The National Association of Transpersonal Hypnotherapists
What to Expect During Your First Session
During the first session of hypnotherapy, the therapist will be devoted to gathering information about you, your symptoms, and your goals. At the same time, they will make sure you understand the risks and benefits of hypnotherapy.
If your symptoms and goals are straightforward, the therapist could begin performing hypnosis during the first session. Otherwise, the entire session will be devoted to assessing, planning, and consenting to treatment.
How to Prepare for Hypnotherapy
Preparing for hypnotherapy does not have to be a challenging task. Sometimes, the best you can do is enter the situation with an open mind and a hopeful outlook. Researching, studying, and worrying about the process of hypnosis may derail your experience. As long as you are meeting with a trained, experienced, and competent hypnotherapist, trusting in their path will be all the preparation you need.
Self Hypnosis for Anxiety
There are many techniques employed by hypnotherapy that one can use at home. These techniques can be used by the patient before, after, and in between sessions with a hypnotherapist.
Here are four ways to practice self-hypnosis for anxiety:
1. Body Awareness
Because anxiety often manifests as physical symptoms, it can be very helpful to develop a more fine-tuned awareness of the body. This can be done through regularly practicing the progressive relaxation technique below. Over time it will result in a heightened ability to recognize anxiety as soon as it begins to come up. It then becomes possible to treat the anxiety before the symptoms intensify.
2. Progressive Relaxation
Most hypnotherapists incorporate some kind of progressive body relaxation into a hypnosis session. This mindfulness technique is easy to learn and apply at home. Simply find a quiet space, close your eyes, and bring your attention to each part of the body from the top of the head down to the feet. Spend some time noticing where there is tension or stress and do your best to let go and relax.
Once a person is relaxed, they can begin to visualize different scenarios where it becomes possible for the anxiety to subside. One technique is to create a calm, safe place with the imagination. This can be a beach, a forest, or a safe and familiar room. Once “there,” the person should pay attention to sensory details until the experience seems more and more real. This can give the person suffering from anxiety a much needed break and is often enough to treat the immediate symptoms for the short-term.
4. Break the Cycle
Anxiety and panic attacks can make a person feel like they are caught in a cycle of fearful emotions and physical sensations. It can be difficult, but breaking the cycle by changing the stimulus or environment can bring relief. Going outside for a walk, engaging in some physical exercise, or simply calling a friend are all ways to cut the loop of fearful thinking and feeling.
Other Therapies Effective for Treating Anxiety
While hypnosis can be helpful, some people might need more specialized care if symptoms don’t improve.
Fortunately, there are a lot of therapy options available for anxiety, such as:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is one of the most common types of therapy. In CBT, the therapist helps you identify negative thought patterns which negatively impact your behaviors and emotions. By getting to the root of the thought, CBT empowers you to reshape your experience. CBT, when used consistently for two months, can help relieve feelings of stress and anxiety related to underlying negative emotions.7
- Interpersonal Therapy: This form of psychotherapy works by improving symptoms in the context of your loved ones and to help improve relationships with others. This type of therapy works to help people identify negative and limiting beliefs which can impede healthy relationship growth.
- Exposure Therapy: The goal of exposure therapy is to help people confront their fears, exposing them to these fears slowly (sometimes through virtual reality) to help them move past what’s holding them back. The idea behind exposure therapy is that given that people tend to avoid what they are afraid of, by slowly exposing them to the fearful stimulus, they can move forward from it.
If you or a loved one is dealing with anxiety, hypnotherapy may be worth a try to help you move on from those difficult feelings.
For Further Reading
- Mantras for Anxiety
- Hypnosis Basics A video explaining some of the basic principles of hypnosis.
- The National Guild of Hypnotists offers educational material as well as a listing of hypnotists who are in good standing with the Guild.
- HMI College of Hypnotherapy offers free videos on hypnosis for health and self-improvement.
- Hypnosis Today: An article by the American Psychological Association about the benefits of hypnosis for treating anxiety.