Treatments for anxiety are available on the NHS but waiting lists for talking therapies can be long, so many people look to other options. Could clinical hypnotherapy be helpful for those with the condition?
As I travel to my hypnotherapy appointment, which I am attending for anxiety, I realise I am fretting about it excessively, my heart's beating fast and I'm starting to sweat. This isn't unusual for me. My brain has a tendency to turn even the most mundane of situations into a problem of apocalyptic proportions; a cacophony of 'what ifs', that rise to a crescendo of horror in my mind.
But that's exactly why I'm here in Harley Street. I've come to see clinical hypnotherapist Fiona Lamb, hoping she can make me feel less overwhelmed, more present and stop excessive worry from taking over my life. I'm not sure what to expect, but assume at some point I'll be involuntarily crowing like a prize cockerel.
I'm pretty far off the mark. Lamb greets me with warmth, empathy and a big smile. Her office is small and cosy and at no point does she pull out a pocket watch. She's not surprised about my preconceptions though.
"People liken hypnosis to stage shows they see on TV," she laughs. "But there's no magic, swinging watches, or chicken noises in reality. It's a natural state we can all achieve and very similar to meditation. It's just about engaging more of your imagination."
I feel guilty for making assumptions, but Lamb doesn't care. She immediately puts me at ease, asking me to explain why I've come and what I want to achieve. She explains that she too used to suffer from severe anxiety and insomnia. After trying everything from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to herbal remedies, she found that hypnotherapy was the technique that finally worked for her.
"Hypnotherapy really helped me with my own anxiety and sleep problems. It was the only thing that worked after trying everything. That's why I wanted to learn how and why it worked," she explains.
So what does hypnosis really involve? In a nutshell: trying to get to the root of the problem, according to Lamb.
"Anxiety is just fear. We work out why you aren't feeling safe and relaxed, look at the root causes and work through them. I think it's the quickest and most permanent way of reframing beliefs," she reveals.
I'm still feeling sceptical when Lamb asks me to relax in my chair, and puts my feet up on a pouffe. She plays some relaxing music on the stereo and asks me to close my eyes. Speaking slowly, gently and counting backwards, she performs the meditation. I feel myself almost losing consciousness, but not completely. I'm still awake and aware of my surroundings. And I know I can stop the hypnosis at any time if I need to.
It's in this deeply relaxed state that Lamb asks me to go back to a time in my life where I remember feeling fearful. I immediately feel put off. My anxiety isn't really connected to things that happened decades ago, is it?
Part of me wants to resist this exercise, but I surprise myself by recounting incidents I'd long forgotten from my childhood. Events I probably shrugged off as insignificant but apparently still linger in my subconscious. "Where on earth did that come from?" I think.
Lamb tells me to imagine this past version of myself from each time period and reassure her, telling me to speak the words aloud. This feels a little awkward, more than a bit embarrassing, but I do as I'm instructed. Feeling foolish for half an hour could be worth it if it improves my mental health. "Everything is going to be fine. You're safe," I say to my inner child - trying not to cringe.
When Lamb counts me back into the room, I'm relieved it's over. I also feel a little freaked out about the things I've remembered in the session. Our hour together has flown by though. And as I leave Lamb's office, I realise I feel lighter and calmer than I have in ages.
Only time will tell whether my appointment has truly helped me. But according to Dave Smithson from Anxiety UK, clinical hypnotherapy can be a very effective treatment for mild to moderate anxiety. Though I'd wager it probably isn't everybody's cup of tea.
"The evaluation of our own services evidences this with almost 74% of clients accessing hypnotherapy in 2016 and 2017 achieving recovery at the end of treatment. However, it may not be the most effective form of treatment for more complex conditions," he cautions.
But does it really work?
Peer-reviewed clinical evidence for hypnotherapy's success in treating anxiety disorder and panic attacks is lacking. What studies there are suggest that it is effective in helping people with 'trait anxiety' (a tendency to anxiety as part of your personality). However, reviews consistently suggest that more studies are needed - not a reflection of evidence that it doesn't work, rather a recognition that not enough studies have been done to prove that it does. Perhaps bizarrely by contrast, there are more studies suggesting that it shows promise in treating IBS.
But right now, the treatment is not available on the NHS. That means those who want to try it need to do so privately, at a cost of upwards of £50 a session. I was lucky enough to have two complimentary sessions, but would otherwise have been priced out of such an approach.
It's also worth pointing out that hypnotherapy is absolutely not recommended for someone with psychosis or a personality disorder because it could make the condition worse.
Back in the room
Before you splash out on hypnotherapy for anxiety, it's a good idea to speak with your GP first, who may prescribe appropriate medication. And it's also worth exploring any NHS self-referral services in your area. You may be able to get access to talking therapies with a mental health professional (such as CBT, the gold standard for anxiety treatment), without needing to see your doctor.
“In addition to considering any form of talking therapy, it is always good practice to look at other ways of addressing your anxiety, including more exercise, reviewing your diet, practising mindfulness, talking with your GP who may also recommend medication, using other support tools such as the Headspace app or becoming a member of Anxiety UK to access the many benefits and support we can provide," says Smithson.
"Often we find it is not one single treatment that helps manage the anxiety, but a combination of changes including therapy."
I'm going to go for the combination approach myself, but I haven't completely given up on hypnotherapy. Lamb sends me some audio files for self-guided hypnosis sessions, which I promise to try now I know there's more to the treatment than 'look into my eyes' and leather couches.