How hypnosis helped me tackle my crippling anxiety
We're a nation of worriers and negative thinkers, but can we reprogramme our brains to make us more upbeat? Suffering from extreme anxiety, Vicki Notaro tried out The Positive Habit - a new Irish course designed to teach you to think away your problems…
I'm sitting at my dressing table, looking myself dead in the eye and thinking the same three words over and over again - 'free', 'excited', 'relaxed'. I feel more than a little stupid, but making affirmations out of words that describe the emotions I felt at a brilliant time in my life is supposedly one of the crucial stages of hypnotising myself happy.
Ireland seems to have become a nation of negative thinkers in recent years - or has it ever really been any other way? Perhaps it's the effects of the recession, the disillusionment with those in power or maybe it's just the endlessly disappointing weather, but banging on about the power of positivity has never really been our thing. We're more of a "Sure this is how it is" race, the type to just get on with things rather than look for a solution to our unhappiness for fear of losing the run of ourselves entirely.
I've always been a pretty highly strung person and, often, I actually thrive on stress, on deadlines, on being busy - it's part of my personality. However, over the past couple of years, my anxiety levels had slowly crept up and my mood down, and the slightest perceived insult or mistake would set off a chain of worrying in my brain which would build and build.
Have you ever felt like the bottom just fell out of the Earth? That your life as you know it is over, and you're free-falling, completely out of control? Your breath is short, your head is spinning and you're drenched in sweat. It feels like every nerve ending in your body has been lit, and you're spiralling down - all you want to do is hide away from sight until it's all over. If you know what I'm talking about, it's likely you too have suffered an anxiety attack.
When it happened to me for the first time, it came as a great shock. Then in February of this year, things went swiftly south. My anxiety was near-constant. There were days when I didn't want to leave the house or see my friends and family. I couldn't focus, couldn't read, couldn't do any of the things I normally enjoyed, and I felt desperate - I just wanted to be fixed.
Around that time I was made aware of a new Irish self-therapy programme called The Positive Habit. Developed by clinical hypnotherapist and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) practitioner Fiona Brennan, it is an online course to be completed in your own time over the course of about six weeks. Each module, or "pathway" as she calls it, is designed to make us really think about how we see the world and ourselves, and move towards a more upbeat way of thinking.
Of course, I was cynical - the word "hypnotherapy" was enough to make me roll my eyes - but I met Fiona and instantly liked her, so I resolved to start The Positive Habit that very day. But when you're in a negative headspace and feeling like the world is against you, it's always easier to think that a large pizza and some wine will sort you out instead, so I procrastinated for weeks.
Eventually, after a nudge from Fiona via email, I began the course, which costs €69.95 for 70 days. I'd never thought of myself as a negative person; on the contrary, I'm sociable, outgoing and generally upbeat - or at least I used to be. But when I sat down to fill in the introductory questionnaire, I realised just how drained of positivity I'd become. I'd scored a meagre 30pc on the survey, and admitted more to this virtual platform than I had to pretty much anyone in reality - that I barely felt worthwhile, had little or no hope and never felt calm and relaxed. I copped that I'd been slowly but surely withdrawing from my own life; everything irked or annoyed me and I felt like I was universally disliked, a terrible person really.
Bolstered by this shock, I started The Positive Habit properly. You aim to complete a pathway a week, reading all the material, filling in the exercises and listening to Fiona's soothing MP3s as often as possible - she recommends doing it before you go asleep. You can't move on to a module before you've completed the previous one, and the aim is to essentially reprogramme your spongey, malleable brain, building "positive" pathways as opposed to your current negative ones.
In Pathway One: Discovery, you learn all about negativity, why you're feeling the way you are and the ill effects of it. I learned that anxiety can be a good thing, that it's our body's defence mechanism against the world, and we'd be lost without it. But over time, thanks to being exposed to prolonged stress, being too busy or bad things happening in our lives, the function can go haywire. Fiona stresses that stress can literally kill, putting the immune system under duress and deregulating our hormones.
Even just reading in black and white that what I was feeling was "normal", that stress can have a long-term effect and that so many other people feel the same way was sobering. I'd thought I was a special snowflake in dire straits, but in all honesty I was just trapped in a cycle of inherent negativity.
The second Pathway focuses on love, which sounds namby-pamby, but in reality focuses on how you treat yourself. It allowed me to pinpoint my negative coping mechanisms (food, wine, reclusive behaviour) and instead think back to a happier time in my life and how I felt then (peaceful, free, excited). Enter here the positive affirmations, which quickly lost the cringe factor; the act of telling yourself that things are OK, that you will be fine, is incredibly useful when you're spiralling.
You also learn to identify your triggers, both the people and circumstances that set you off, and how to manage them. One thing Fiona teaches that really struck me, was this: most of the time, people's intentions are good, despite how they might come across. Just even taking time to think about that made me realise how true it is - rarely is anyone deliberately trying to hurt or upset you.
After a couple of weeks, I noticed myself feeling better. I wanted to eat well, to go to the gym, to leave the house and go to my office instead of working from the couch. My fiancé noticed I was singing more, sleeping in less. I still had my moments of being hit with paralysing anxiety, but without really doing much, the colour was coming back in to my life.
The next module was Care, a practical guide to just looking after yourself. It sounds so obvious and easy, but often the last person we take care of is ourselves. Then comes Happiness, which draws hugely on the laws of attraction, the mindset that if you think positively, you'll draw positivity to yourself. Again, I was sceptical until I thought of it the other way - and in my experience over the last few months, negative thoughts have definitely led to negative reactions.
You take the same questionnaire you took after the introduction at the end of every Pathway, and I'd just been doing it without really thinking. Then, at the end of the Happiness module, I looked at my results, and I was amazed. After every module, my "positive feelings" had increased by five to 10 points, and at the end of the fourth week, without even realising it, I'd gone from a score of 30.3 to 72.2.
I thought there might be some trickery at work here (ever the cynic), so I looked back over my old questionnaires, and there in black and white was evidence of my attitude improvement. I'd gone from never feeling calm and relaxed to saying I felt chilled out "often", and my self-worth, motivation and optimism had all shot up.
The most revealing question though, was: "Is your life satisfying?" On day one, I'd given it a one on the scale, which looking back, is ridiculous. I have a lovely life - a fantastic fiancé, loving friends and family, a job that can be greatly rewarding and enough of everything to get by comfortably. It was then I realised that I truly had been standing in my own way, and looking at my life through a warped lens. It wasn't my fault; circumstances had definitely led me down a difficult path, and I simply wasn't able to enjoy all the great things I have going for me. But there is no doubt I was focusing on the negatives and allowing them to take over my world.
Of course, it's different for everyone. Some people are truly clinically depressed, and need therapy, medication, or both. But for someone like me who'd hit a rocky patch and was struggling, this programme was just what I needed. Non-judgemental, full of common sense and practical advice, it forces you to examine yourself and see how you can truly help yourself.
I don't know if my talking into the mirror really made me hypnotise myself, and in a way I'd like to think I wasn't because the 'H' word still freaks me out. But, whatever Fiona's programme did for me, it has undeniably helped.