"Stress: a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances" (Oxford Dictionary).
Stress has always been part of our everyday life. As humans, we come with a built-in stress system, the 'fight or flight' response. This is essential to our survival as a species - but whereas the physical responses to stress or threat once served us well, when, for example, faced with a wild animal from which we needed to escape, in modern life we are sometimes triggered by inappropriate situations. We can't exactly run away from a stressful situation at work or fight our boss! Some level of stress is necessary; positive stress motivates us to achieve goals and increases or productivity – but today's society sees many people live with levels of stress that are far too high, and unhealthy. High levels of stress, or stress triggered by 'inappropriate' responses and situations can lead to anxiety, habit forming and phobias.
There are any number of ways that a person might experience stress in their lives. Even generally positive situations can be stressful - marriage, moving house, holidays and promotions at work - as well as negative situations such as bereavement, separation and redundancy. These situations are commonly accepted to be high stress triggers, but it is not always the big things in life that can cause stress. Cumulative stress can be felt through a build-up of small events. We will all feel different levels of stress - what affects one person deeply can seem to bounce of another person and leave them unaffected.
The effect of stress is well-documented - many physical processes can be triggered by our mental state. Even low levels of stress can lead to psychological changes such as depression, anxiety, confusion and sleep or sexual problems. It is important for stress to be treated, then, and hypnotherapy can achieve this.
There may be a 'stress trigger' for the client - a specific situation, temporary or ongoing, such as driving tests, exams and social situations. In these cases, a treatment tailored to that situation can be productive. Other people may be naturally stressed, with a tendency towards stress inherited from their parents; additionally, they may be prone to 'awfulisation', or believing the worst will happen, or believe they should act in certain ways ('I should not make mistakes', 'I should always be perfect'), both of which will create a level of background stress. These are ways of thinking that have made their way into the subconscious and have become habitual, and which can be re-learnt.
"Anxiety: a nervous disorder marked by excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behaviour or panic attack" (Oxford Dictionary).
Stress is a reaction to a specific, current situation. Anxiety is apprehension or fear of a situation that lies in the future. It has roots in a person's thoughts and is a response to a perceived danger, not an actual danger. This could be a situation in the future that a person has experienced in the past, the repetition of which causes them to feel anxious.
Like stress, a certain level of anxiety is completely natural, and a predisposition towards it can be an inherited behaviour. Sometimes our imagination about what a situation could be like works overtime and anything that is remotely like the threatening trigger situation becomes a source of anxiety. A prime example is a child who is bitten by a dog; suddenly, all dogs become a threat, and not just the breed - or even the single animal - that caused the initial bite. As the subconscious works on an all-or-nothing basis, it cannot just be a little bit threatened; the shades of grey in a situation, which we can rationalise with our conscious mind do not apply here, and so anxieties may appear irrational to an individual. They may have a profound impact on a sufferer's life, especially if that person goes to great extents to avoid a trigger. Anxiety can therefore escalate quickly, with thoughts spiralling out of control, and, if left unchecked, it can lead to phobias and panic attacks.
Anxiety can cause physical symptoms - tense muscles, nausea, palpitations and headache among them - and this intensifies the need to avoid the trigger situation. Generalised anxiety can exist where there is no obvious reason to feel anxious.
In most cases of stress, anxiety, habit and phobia, investigation will lead to the identification of an initial sensitising event (ISE) and the therapist will spend time in establishing this. The ISE is the first time our subconscious received information that a thing, person or type of person was dangerous or undesirable - the dog that first bit that person, for example, may cause stress when around dogs, anxiety when the possibility of encountering a dog is anticipated, phobia of dogs or habits as a coping mechanism.
Hypnotherapy sessions enable the client to face their worries: from a distance in a detached, gentle manner; they can consider things that are normally too distressing in a safe and calm environment, allowing a reprogramming of attitudes to occur. When the stress or anxiety is related to a particular one-off event, such as an exam or driving test, your therapist might employ suggestion and visualisation techniques, enabling you to see yourself as successful at some point following the event, more in control, and boosting your self-esteem and confidence.