The Therapy Lounge


Understanding Anxiety

(Including an experience from Rob Hadley)

Anxiety is an issue that afflicts most of us at some point in our lives. Our tendency to play own its importance and to try to ‘tough it out’ can often exacerbate its effects. It is worth for a moment looking at the idea of anxiety in a historical context.

When I was very young I remember an old man that lived on our street in London. We would see him working on the tiny garden in front of his house from time to time. On the other side of the road was a churchyard with old iron railings painted a gaunt black. The years of painting had softened the look of that fence. One day I remember seeing a young boy run alongside the fence with a stick held out – as it rattled along the iron railings it gave out a loud rat-atat-tat sound. These were the sounds of life in our street.

Now, another look at that apparently ordinary scene.

The old man was on his knees weeding his garden when he heard the sounds of the rat-atat-tat. For him, in an instant he was transformed back to that moment in 1916 when he was first deployed to the Somme. As a frightened teenager he had been quite literally terrified, uprooted from his childhood home to fight a horrific war he had been deployed to the Western front into the thick of the fighting. Like so many of England’s youth of the time, he had no idea what to expect. He quite possibly had never left home before. As a young man, hopelessly badly prepared he would have been as afraid of the process of being dispatched to war, as he was of the enemy. Seeing his friends and brothers killed right before his eyes with industrial efficiency he was exposed in a short time to enormous trauma.

Finding himself in a wet trench surrounded by heavy fire, the sound of machine guns in his ears at some point he literally shut down at a neurological level and ceased functioning. It used to be called ‘Shell Shock’. Nowadays we call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The immediate effects were obvious – he would have found himself rooted to the spot, unable to function and quite terrified of everything going on around him, until he shut it all out. Blacking out, or fainting or simply going into catatonic shock is an immediate result of such trauma in some people. Unable to function, much less to fight, he would have been shipped home.

What is less understood is the long-term effect of shell shock. For the old man in the street, the sound of that stick being rattled along a railing transported him back to the trenches in an instant. For him it was the sound of the machine gun all over again. In a moment he was transfixed and then collapsed in absolute terror shaking on the ground.

Just as Pavlov’s dogs salivated on hearing the bell, so he played out the response he experienced with the sound of the ‘machine gun’. Some of the kids playing in the street saw him collapse and ran to get an adult. As I remember it, one of the parents went and helped the old man; they’d seen this before periodically. It was something that happened now and then and had been a part of his life these past fifty-five years. The people in the street knew of the old man’s trouble and helped him back inside and calmed him down whenever he had one of his ‘turns’.

This enduring memory from childhood is an extreme example of how anxiety can affect us. In this case it’s a response to a very defined trauma. Both the original trauma and the response were extreme, which both go to illustrate the point. For some, that trauma is less defined. It could be fear of an accident, or fear of being alone, or even something as apparently benign as not being asked to be in the Sunday school play.

In each case a response of anxiety – extreme or otherwise – can be debilitating and hugely impactful on our daily life. Not all of us will end up cowering in a flowerbed, with bemused children playing in the distance. For most people it will feel more like an increasingly present feeling of unease in our stomach. From time to time it will well up in waves and make itself felt with a malevolent darkness that is unmistakable.

From the point of view of hypnotherapy, we often see a trigger of some type, and a response to it. The hypnotherapists job is to try to uncouple those two elements. Going back to Pavlovs dogs, we need to get the dog to stop salivating involuntarily when that bell rings.

Before we go too deeply into the efficacy of hypnotherapy in this field let’s take a brief look at what has been done by medical doctors over the years. In the Middle Ages the mentally ill were driven out of the house and condemned to wander homeless depending on the charity of passers by. Here we have the origins of the ‘village idiot’.

If you go back a couple hundred years there was a belief in an idea called ‘degeneration’. This was the idea that ‘madness’ was hereditary and passed down the generations. It may start as an eccentricity and in the following generation come out in the form of manic depression. The next generation may exhibit a family member with epilepsy or another increasingly evident manifestation of the problem. Ultimately the family line would terminate in a dementia laden generation of cretins. This idea was expounded in the 1850’s by Benedict-Augustin Morel. Anxiety was merely a stepping stone on this path.

Morel was both hugely influential and an idiot. His idea contributed to some of the most hideously unjust results of mental illness. Families in England would literally hide away their mentally ill relatives, for fear their condition would become known, and condemn the family line. Who would want to marry into a family so clearly and scientifically known to be headed to the asylum? This is where we get the idea of the mad brother chained up in a secret room behind the library.

Now keep in mind this idea had some currency until not that long ago. One hundred and fifty years is not so far back, and the idea stayed around for a while. Doctors these days are a little more on the ball. But who is to say that in a hundred and fifty years time we will not look at the ideas of today and scoff, the way we now do about ‘degeneration’?

The modern solution to anxiety is often to prescribe an anti-depressant. Let’s just think about that for a moment. Firstly, many anti-depressants are now known to actually have a side effect of – wait for it – causing anxiety. Secondly, there really is no question about the fact that this is a prime example of treating the symptom rather than the problem. (‘We’re not worried why you’re experiencing anxiety; we’ll make you feel better about it’… This is much the same as saying ‘We’re not worried why your legs just became paralysed, but we’ll make you feel better about it’.) Thirdly, in an anti-depressant solution, most doctors readily admit they do not know how long you’ll stay on the medication, what the side effects will be, or even why they work. It’s a little like saying ‘stand on one foot, face the wind and say abracadabra three times – I don’t know why it works but it does…’ These are not promising indicators of the current solution being any more relevant than Morels idea of degeneration.

So, why hypnotherapy? Firstly, hypnotherapists do try to find the root cause of the problem. Secondly, it’s generally accepted that anxiety is a psychological issue. Hypnosis works on that level.