Approximately 33 million Americans—or nearly one in 10 people—suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. Unlike normal stress, which is short-term, traceable to a particular situation, and controllable, anxiety disorders are chronic, irrational, and tend to intensify if untreated.
Studies indicate that anxiety disorders can have both a physical and psychological component, they can be hereditary, and they cannot be overcome by willpower alone. The NIMH identifies five anxiety disorders: phobias, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.
Phobias are intense, irrational fears leading to avoidance of the thing or situation feared. The NIMH estimates that 4 to 5 percent of Americans have a significant phobia. Some childhood specific phobias may disappear before adulthood. A social phobia is an intense fear of becoming humiliated in social situations. Social phobias usually appear between the 15th and 20th years although they may begin in childhood.
According to the NIMH 3 to 6 million Americans, approximately two-thirds of them women, suffer panic disorders. Panic can appear at any age although it usually begins in young adulthood. Some people experience one panic attack and never have another, while others develop full-blown panic disorder. Panic disorder nearly always includes agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is so common – perhaps as high as 5 percent of the population – that it is often considered a separate anxiety disorder rather than a phobia. Although the word means fear of open spaces, in reality the underlying fear of agoraphobia is of panic attacks.
Sufferers of OCD experience uncontrollable anxious thoughts (obsessions) and/or ritual behavior (compulsions). A person is diagnosed with OCD when compulsive activities consume at least an hour a day, are very distressing, and interfere with daily life. Approximately 2 percent of the population suffer from OCD. Roughly one-third of adult cases begin in childhood.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD is characterized by persistent, frightening thoughts and memories that follow a terrifying event. Any traumatic incident can trigger PTSD and therefore it can affect anyone, although recent research indicates women are more prone to developing PTSD than are men. The NIMH estimates that approximately 4 percent of the American population will experience symptoms of PTSD sometime during their lives. Symptoms typically begin within 3 months of the traumatic incident, although they can begin years later. Some people recover within 6 months but others may suffer for years.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Approximately 4 to 8 percent of the American population suffer from GAD. They chronically worry and are tense out of proportion to the actual events in their lives. People with GAD are often less impaired than sufferers of other anxiety disorders. They usually have sleep disorders and difficulty relaxing, tend to feel tired, have trouble concentrating, and often startle easily. GAD generally comes on gradually, sometimes beginning as early as childhood or adolescence, and symptoms generally seem to diminish with age.
Certain anxiety disorders have proven to be responsive to medication. SRI-type antidepressants appear to rapidly correct the underlying biochemical abnormality in recent onset panic disorder. SRIs have also proven effective against social phobias. And clomipramine, fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, and paroxetine have proven effective in treating OCD. Behavioral therapy including hypnotherapy, alone or in conjunction with medication, can often bring about lasting relief.
Deep relaxation can benefit anyone suffering from any of the anxiety disorders. Sufferers can be taught techniques to achieve deep relaxation and how to relax when confronted with a formerly anxiety-producing situation. Hypnotherapy can help sufferers of panic disorder and GAD change the subjective interpretations that perpetuate the state of apprehension.
Guided imagery can be especially beneficial in breaking the pattern of anxiety disorders. Phobics can accelerate the desensitization process by imagining themselves being comfortable with the feared thing or situation. Sufferers of OCD can use guided imagery to practice exposure to the compulsion trigger without indulging in the ritual. In both cases the sufferer can become comfortable with the changed behavior before facing the situation in the outer world.
A psychological treatment of choice for PTSD is exposure treatment, involving repeated reliving of the trauma with the goal of lessening its psychological impact. An experienced Hypnotherapist can use guided imagery and carefully tailored positive suggestions to help the sufferer relive the trauma and lessen its impact.
If anyone suffers from an anxiety disorder, I usually suggest they include hypnotherapy in their treatment program. It will greatly accelerate their recovery.
A client came to me with a rather unusual specific phobia: she was afraid to drive up hills. Whenever she tried to drive up an incline she felt as if she were losing control of her car and would tip over backwards. The symptoms only occurred when she was behind the wheel, not when she was a passenger. I began the hypnosis session with an age regression back to the time when she was learning to drive, but the phobia was already in place when she first got behind the wheel. I then had her recall the sensation she felt when driving up hills and regressed her to the first time she felt the fear. She recalled tipping over backward on her tricycle when she was approximately three years old.
At my suggestion she remembered how her parents had picked her up and comforted her, and I reminded her that she had survived the incident.
With the emotional charge from the traumatic incident reduced, I suggested to her subconscious that driving in a car on hills as an adult is not the same as tipping over backward on a tricycle at three years of age. I then led her, still under hypnosis, through a series of guided images in which she imagined herself driving on a hill, feeling in perfect control of the car. I have kept in touch with the client and the phobia has not troubled her since our session, which was approximately three years ago.