Hypnotherapy has a long and somewhat contradictory history. Hypnosis itself was developed in the 18th century by the German doctor Franz Mesmer. But it took nearly 200 years until therapy informed by hypnosis was accepted by the American Medical Association. But due to its potential to sever the connection between our social fear and our bodily responses, today, hypnotherapy is an increasingly common tool for treating social anxiety disorder. But how?
In this article, we will explore what hypnotherapy for social anxiety can achieve and when it could serve you most effectively.
Related: Test: Do you have social anxiety?
How does Hypnosis for Social Anxiety work?
When we experience an overwhelming experience such as a sense of anxiety, we respond to the stimulus both physically and emotionally. Sometimes these two aspects of our behavior get linked. The aim of hypnotherapy for social anxiety is to break their connection. Once this link is broken, we are free to face the stimulus again but without the same powerful (and often very unpleasant) emotional response.
A very commonly used example is that of public speaking (which many people, including this writer, experience very strongly). Public speaking is a difficult activity but with seemingly high stakes. This is why, when many of us fail the first time, we experience the embarrassment of it again and again later on. The sweating, the shaking hands, the high heart rate, and the hyperactivity.
All of these responses are highly automatic. Our bodies, or more specifically– our brains, simply react to a stressful stimulus by preparing us for danger. This makes the subconscious mind an immensely powerful tool when it suits us– in the genuinely threatening situations when we would like to be poised for danger.
But this response can painfully backfire when we are not in a particularly threatening situation, but which is subconsciously perceived that way. It leads to a bodily overreaction and to that emotionally familiar state of social anxiety.
Some social situations are of course stressful. But what makes many of them worse is our instinctual but problematic approach to them. It can needlessly complicate our social lives and therefore our quality of life.
This is where the aim of hypnosis for social anxiety comes in. It offers to reduce this automatic reaction by breaking the connection between the stimulus and the response. In the context of social anxiety, this means that hypnotherapy aims to diminish the brain’s strongly imprinted relationship between stressful social situations and the experienced emotional state of worry.
What does Hypnotherapy feel like?
The aim of hypnosis for social anxiety is to take affected people to an altered state of consciousness– the hypnotic state.
This state is usually very different (much less scary and magical!) than what people expect. Films and stage hypnosis may have done hypnosis a disservice. A lot of us may believe that under hypnosis, participants lose control over their will and become play-doh in the hypnotist’s hands. The reality is much different, however.
Instead, in this state, participants will likely have a heightened focus and concentration and be more open to outside suggestions including those made by their therapists. But this comes through a sense of calm and openness, not through external control.
This heightened suggestibility is one of the crucial elements that make hypnotherapy able to work. Moreover, it brings a sense of calm clarity, temporarily reduces symptoms and naturally elevates mood. This is why in some settings clinics may use hypnosis as a tool to help patients relax before surgery.
In itself, the hypnotic state cannot provide social anxiety therapy. But it can be a useful means to an end.
The Hypnotic State
In this state of increased clarity and responsiveness, people are more likely to find and break the rigid connections between their emotional and physical responses. This enables the learned anxious emotional response to become divorced from people’s responses to very uncomfortable situations such as social situations.
Hypnotherapy sessions tend to last between half an hour and a full hour. They would usually include a debriefing period during which patients are invited to reflect back on their experience. This can help the brain retain the newly-learned response. This can improve the effectiveness of hypnotherapy for social anxiety.
Can Hypnotherapy help with social anxiety disorder?
Unfortunately, there have not been any rigorous scientific studies looking into the effectiveness of hypnotherapy specifically for social anxiety. However, research has shown that hypnosis can be an effective tool for generalized anxiety, especially when it is done alongside cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Learn more about group cognitive behavioral therapy for social anxiety!
It is important to keep in mind that while anxiety hypnotherapy can complement CBT, it cannot substitute it. CBT is usually recommended as the first line of treatment for social anxiety.
Should you start hypnotherapy?
As with therapy for most forms of anxiety, we would recommend that you discuss your experience of social phobia with your therapist before committing to any particular form of help. In some cases, people may not be well suited for some therapeutic procedures. Other forms of therapy would be more effective and less costly.
This can be especially important when considering hypnosis as a form of treatment. Unfortunately, hypnotherapy has the potential of making anxiety worse. Remember, when in the hypnotic state, people are especially open to suggestions that could exacerbate some problems. Hypnotherapy should be approached with particular caution and with the help of an expert.
In particular, practicing self-hypnosis outside of your therapist’s office may be hugely beneficial but make sure you discuss it with your counsellor before starting self-hypnosis for anxiety.
Who should I approach?
Most professionals practicing hypnosis therapy for social anxiety would be certified healthcare workers: doctors, nurses, psychologists or social workers with certified training in the field. This means that their work would also be guided by the specific regulations of their profession.
And although most professionals practicing hypnotherapy for SAD will have a license and experience behind them it is always important to consider their qualifications. Where did they receive their qualification from and how much additional training have they undergone? How long have they practiced? Are they affordable? And, importantly, do you trust them?
It is not advised to begin social anxiety hypnotherapy with someone you do not trust. The side effects, while rare, can be unpleasant. After hypnosis-based therapy, people have reported drowsiness, dizziness, headache, anxiety or distress and in some cases the creation of false memories. This is also the reason why self-hypnosis for treatment of SAD should be approached with caution and should be discussed with a trusted practitioner.
Wrapping up Hypnotherapy for SAD
The specific benefits of hypnosis therapy on social anxiety have not been tested yet. However, if you decide to give hypnotherapy a try, make sure to consult your therapist first. Even if they do not practice this form of treatment themselves, they could be able to refer you to a specialist with a proven track record. As it can be a powerful procedure, it could be best to approach it with additional caution until you find if and when it works best for you.