Managing stress: overcoming anxiety with hypnosis

The term stress refers to a complex construct that we associate to a condition in which the organism is subject to requests by the environment. Despite the fact that it is often used to indicate external or internal circumstances that cause tension, it is important to consider that there are actually two kinds of stress1: eustress, that is a condition in which environmental factors enhances the individual’s adaptive capabilities and potential (ex. training programs for athletes); and distress, that is a condition in which the environmental factors tend to wear out the subject’s resources and can lead to both psychological (such as anxiety states, irritability, bad mood) and physical consequences (such as muscular pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, reduction of sexual drive).
Among the causes of distress there are not only single, serious events that can have negative consequences on the subject for a limited span of time, but also situations that, even if not exceedingly demanding, last for a long time. This is the kind of stress that we tend to be more exposed to during the course of our life.
Many methods to reduce it aim to teach relaxation strategies, and this is the reason that lead researchers to consider hypnosis as a mean to fight anxiety and stress in the first place. Scientific literature contains quite extensive evidence2 about its effectiveness in several contexts, ranging from public-speaking stress to that caused by university exams; from the stress caused by surgical or dental procedures, to extremely traumatic events such as those related to military activitiesibid..
Several studies demonstrated that the addition of hypnotic sessions to psychotherapeutic programs can enhance the effectiveness of anxiety treatments. More specifically, an analysis carried out on the results of 18 studies demonstrated that patients with anxiety issues, treated with cognitive-behavioral protocols and hypnotic sessions, showed improvements that were up to 70% better than those of patients who were treated with cognitive- behavioral therapy3 only.
These kinds of results are also confirmed by studies enrolling subjects who desired to overcome anxiety in specific contexts. In one of these studies4, two groups of patients were trained to public speaking with two different techniques. As with other studies, while the first group was treated using cognitive-behavioral protocols only, the second one also participated to a training aimed to reach a deeper state of relaxation with the use of hypnotic techniques. Results showed that both groups reached better results compared to control subjects and that the best improvements were observed in the participants of the hypnosis group.
That said, is it possible to separate the beneficial effects of hypnosis from that of relaxation alone? A research5 provides the answer by comparing two groups of patients who went to a psychological outpatient clinic to overcome anxiety and to learn to manage stress. While a group of patients learnt a progressive muscle relaxation technique, another group participated to a self-hypnosis training. After a month since the beginning of the study results clearly showed that despite the fact that both interventions lead to an improvement in anxiety measures, subjects assigned to the self-hypnosis group described themselves as more satisfied of treatment than the relaxation group.
The effects of hypnosis were also studied on academic performance anxiety of students. Results of several researches demonstrate that teaching students self-hypnosis techniques reduces anxiety levels and leads to a significant improvement in performance scores6-8.
Finally, adding hypnotic protocols can be very useful to patients suffering from physical disorders correlated to excessive stress or to inadequate stress management skills. An example comes from a research on individuals suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. There are several studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of an intervention that includes the teaching of self-hypnosis techniques to patients. Among those, percentages of success that arrive up to 95% were observed for the most common forms of the disorder9-13.
In conclusion, we can say that hypnosis and self-hypnosis can represent, when administered by trained professionals, a quick, cheap and, most importantly, effective way to overcome anxiety and the consequences of stress. More specifically, teaching self- hypnosis techniques promotes the development of tools that the individual can use autonomously any time he needs.
[1] Selye, H. (1975). Confusion and controversy in the stress field. Journal of Human Stress 1, 37–44.
[2] Hammond, C. (2010). Hypnosis in the treatment of anxiety and stress-related disorders. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics 10(2), 263-273.
[3] Kirsch I, Montgomery G, Sapirstein G. (1995). Hypnosis as an adjunct to cognitive- behavioral psychotherapy: a meta-analysis. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 63(2), 214–220.
[4] Schoenberger NE, Kirsch I, Gearan P et al. (1997). Hypnotic enhancement of a cognitive behavioral treatment for public speaking anxiety. Behav. Ther. 28(1), 127–140.
[5] O’Neill LM, Barnier AJ, McConkey K. (1999). Treating anxiety with self-hypnosis and relaxation. Contemp. Hypn. 16(2), 68–80.
[6] Sapp M. (1991). Hypnotherapy and test anxiety: two cognitive-behavioral constructs. The effects of hypnosis in reducing test anxiety and improving academic achievement in college students. Aus. J. Clin. Hypnother. Hypn. 12(1), 26–32.
[7] Stanton HE. (1994). Self-hypnosis: one path to reduced test anxiety. Contemp. Hypn. 11(1), 14–18.
[8] Schreiber EH. (1997). Use of group hypnosis to improve college students’ achievement. Psychol. Rep. 80(2), 636–638.
[9] Byrne S. (1973). Hypnosis and the irritable bowel: case histories, methods and speculation. Am. J. Clin. Hypn. 15, 263–265.
[10] Harvey RF, Hinton RA, Gunary RM, Barry RE. (1989). Individual and group hypnotherapy in treatment of refractory irritable bowel syndrome. Lancet 1(8635), 424–425.
[11] Prior A, Colgan SM, Whorwell PJ. (1990). Changes in rectal sensitivity after hypnotherapy in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Gut 31(8), 896–898.
[12] Whorwell PJ, Prior A, Faragher EB. (1984). Controlled trial of hypnotherapy in the treatment of service refractory irritable-bowel syndrome. Lancet 2, 1232–1233.
[13] Whorwell PJ, Prior A, Colgan SM. (1987). Hypnotherapy in severe irritable bowel syndrome: further experience. Gut 28, 423–425.