Why pour your heart out on the page?
I often suggest to my clients to start a habit of regular writing (writing, honestly, just for themselves). They don’t even have to keep what they have written.
Journaling can help us to cope with challenging experiences and emotions, and it can also help to prepare us to face new things.
Journaling can also significantly improve performance and reduce stress and anxiety.
That’s not just the hunch of someone with a BA in English Literature and a passion for poetry. There’s a heap of evidence and clinical research to back this up.
The process of writing down our innermost thoughts and feelings allows us to get to know ourselves more deeply. Writing in this way is different than just thinking about stuff; it is more focused and intentional. It moves us forward.
But how does writing down feelings and thoughts help?
With his seminal research Dr.James W. Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, demonstrates that people’s wellbeing and overall health improves when they write in an authentic and earnest way about stressful situations in their lives. These benefits have been observed for cancer survivors, people stopping smoking, those facing unemployment, military veterans, nurses, and those with exam and performance pressure.
Changing the Brain with writing
- Psychologists from the University of California worked with 20 volunteers. These volunteers undertook a brain scan before writing for 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Half of the participants wrote about a recent emotional experience, while the other half of the participants wrote about something neutral. The sample who wrote about an emotional experience showed more activity in the part of the brain called the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This in turn relaxed neural activity that is linked to strong emotions.
- As another example, in another Chicago study, students who journaled about their performance anxiety for 15 to 20 minutes per day for 4 days, compared to students who wrote about a neutral subject had notably increased test scores. Their Performance was markedly improved through the process of expressing their fears and concerns in writing.
Writing accesses the left hemisphere of the brain, which is analytical and rational. Psychotherapist and journaling expert Maud Purcell puts it like this “While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to do what it does best, i.e. create, intuit, and feel. In this way, writing removes mental blocks and allows us to use more of our brainpower to better understand ourselves and the world around us.”.
And for those with a tendency for depression, the research shows us that expressive writing reduces the likelihood of chewing over negative experiences, reducing significantly the risk for depression up to 6 months later.
Significant Health Benefits
Aside from drastic improvements to your mood and emotional well-being, writing out your thoughts and feelings regularly can also actually benefit your physical health. Journaling can genuinely increase your chance of fighting specific diseases like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and even cancer. Amazingly, it can even help physical wounds heal faster.
A study conducted in 2013 found that 76% of adults who spent 20 minutes a day journaling for three days in a row before a scheduled medical biopsy were fully healed 11 days later. On the other hand, 58% of the control group had not yet recovered. The study concluded that just one hour of writing about a distressing event helped the participants to better understand the events and reduce stress levels.
So, what’s to lose? Why not give it a go?
The next time you’re feeling particularly stressed or worried about something why not get out that pad and paper or tablet and allow your words to flow.
It’s so simple and all the evidence points to its power.
Frattaroli, J., Thomas, M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2011). Opening up in the classroom: Effects of expressive writing on graduate school entrance exam performance. Emotion
Gortner, E.-M., Rude, S. S., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms. Behavior Therapy
Klein, K., & Boals, A. (2001). Expressive writing can increase working memory capacity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General
Where’s the Magic?
I have clients that have had profound positive experiences in hypnosis ask me if I am magic or have superpowers. Whilst this makes me smile, I always remind them that Hypnotherapy is not magic. Hypnosis is not some mystical ability.
Even though it may at times seem like the hypnotherapist is doing all the work or “making” someone become hypnotised, it’s actually the individual who is in control. In reality, all hypnosis is ‘self-hypnosis’. It is not something that is done to you. Hypnotherapy is a balanced dance with the therapist, who guides you with your imagination and subconscious mind towards profound internal insights and an agreed more helpful upgrade of your map of reality.
Under hypnosis you are fully aware of what is happening, in fact you are often more aware of what is going on as your senses are more alert and tuned in. And in hypnosis you will only accept and do what you choose to. No one can make you do something you don’t want to do. So those people who bounce around like chickens on the stage, have chosen to. It’s real. But the power lies with them. They could just as easily say no, open their eyes and walk away. As I said, no hypnotic superpowers!
Hypnotherapy is about empowering you and helping you to create positive change. You should expect your hypnotherapist to guide you, to help you get quickly to the roots of your problem and to help you to reframe the way you think about and experience your problem, equipping you with coping skills and confidence,
Ultimately though, the person who makes the change is you. The power is always with you.
Hypnotherapy empowers you to run new patterns, to experience the world differently and to take control of your problems. Some clients experience powerful change after just one session, some after three sessions. Typically, it is a short-term therapy whose success depends greatly on your motivation and engagement with the dance.
So, do you want Magic? Hypnotherapy is not Magic, but better still, it can help you discover and connect with the MAGIC of and in YOU.
When our body becomes our anxious mind (and what you can do about it)
Most of us would like to experience life from a calm, centered place.
That said, we all need anxiety. It’s useful to be in a heightened or aroused state if we are confronted by a tiger, pulling a child from a busy road, or at the final stages of interview for that dream job.
Typically, when this type of stressful event is over though, we expect to return back to physiological balance, and most of us do.
Anxiety becomes a problem when it spills over into our everyday lives. When anxiety takes over, it decentres us, it’s almost as if we live outside ourselves.
For a person with an anxiety disorder normal tasks like food shopping, talking to a stranger, or leaving the house even can be overwhelming and life-robbing. Our nervous systems have an in-built threshold for stimulation. The body’s stress system cannot distinguish between imagined threat and immediate, real, in-your face, run for your life threat. For those who suffer from constant fear, worry, or panic in their day to day living (prompted by things as routine as sitting in a work meeting for example) the stress they experience can be just as intense as if they were in a face off with a hungry lion.
Because, with clinical anxiety, the person’s body is actually producing the same physiological chemical reaction as if they were in a very dangerous encounter with a fierce animal. The body is the unconscious mind. It does not know the difference between an actual experience in life that creates an emotion or when an emotion is created by thought alone. The reality is that there is no real threat, but the neuro-chemistry of fear does not pay attention to that. Perceived threat is threat.
Our bodies can get knocked out of balance just by thinking. The physiological fight or flight response can be activated by an idea.
A series of repetitive, highly charged, emotionally stressful events that occur in a person’s experience within a short time frame can turn on the body’s stress response over, and over again. And when the stress response is turned on and can’t turn off, the body’s survival mechanisms are activated and can stay that way for a long while. When someone lives in this kind of survival mode, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is turned on and has taken control. People experiencing this are living as if they are continually prepared to run from the ‘lion’. Their body’s natural ‘rest and restore’ processes are put on hold, weakening their immune system, natural balance and their ability to concentrate on much more than survival. Did I say- life robbing?
So, when someone falls prey to a panic attack, they will struggle to control it with their conscious mind, logic doesn’t work- because their responses have been programmed into the body subconsciously.
People who suffer with panic attacks and severe anxiety are often hyper-vigilant, constantly living in the future, assessing their environment and preparing for the next stressful experience.
The physiology of an anxiety attack can be really frightening. Racing heart rate, tightness of breath, sweaty palms, dizziness, feelings of being detached, being convinced you are going to die.
It is possible to interrupt this process and recondition the body to a new mind though. This can be done by becoming conscious of (noticing) and re-programming our thoughts and feelings and automatic responses. One way is through an integrated approach of CBT, Mindfulness and Hypnotherapy.
Mindfulness for example teaches techniques to settle the brain and body into the present moment, to interrupt the habit of living in the ‘what if’s’ of the future. By living in the present moment, by choosing not to pull away from or resist uncomfortable feelings but by sitting with them, even for a short time, the body (as well as the brain), begins to feel safe, more relaxed, and ultimately more balanced.
Hypnotherapy makes use of the exact same process that created the anxiety. In other words, a good hypnotherapist will work with the client to define how a new future healthy way of experiencing life would be for them and then redirects the client’s vivid imagination, mind- body connection and passion through hypnosis to emote, imagine and visualise this way of experiencing the world.
Through this integrated approach the client’s body will become conditioned to experience living in that future healthier scenario and subconsciously transforms into the calm and centered mind.
Be a Cheerleader
When I ran in the London marathon two years ago the thing that most bowled me over was the immense generous energy and kindness of the crowds. These masses of marathon spectators handed out sweets and water and went hoarse with calling out names and motivational words. They poured out kindness and encouragement unconditionally to total strangers.
It moved me. It kept me going. It reminded me of the importance of being other people’s cheer leaders. Of the huge power of encouragement and positivity for others.
This energetic current of encouragement and connection stuck with me.
People asked me why I looked so strangely invigorated when I finished the 26.2 mile slog (I’m not super fit!), my explanation: I was awash with Oxytocin. I ran the whole 26.2 miles grinning from ear to ear, in awe of the loving energy and human connection I was immersed in.
Compassion and Kindness can change the world. Compassion and Kindness can also change us.
One act of kindness can create a ripple effect, like dropping a pebble in a pond, the ripple spreads out to everyone and everything around you.
When we display kindness or compassion towards someone, we feel happy because the act of human connection produces the hormone Oxytocin. Oxytocin is well known for its role in connection: childbirth, breastfeeding and the early stages of intimate and loving relationships. That’s why these types of relationships create monogamy or bonding. It is oxytocin that produces elevated emotions that cause your heart to swell with love and joy
When oxytocin levels are elevated above normal, most people experience intense feelings of love, forgiveness, compassion, joy, wholeness, and empathy.
At a community level and a cellular level, supporting others, connecting with each other and encouraging each other unconditionally can help us to experience immense joy and satisfaction.
Hard to put a price on this powerful inner state.
In his book The Relaxation Response, Dr. Benson explains that regular practice of the Relaxation Response is a clinically proven treatment for a wide range of stress-related disorders, as it counteracts the physiological effects of stress and the fight or flight response.
Dr. Herbert Benson- professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute defined the ‘Relaxation Respsonse’ as your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.
The fight or flight stress response occurs naturally when we think that we are under excessive pressure, and it is designed to protect us from bodily harm. Our sympathetic nervous system becomes immediately engaged in creating a number of physiological changes, including increased metabolism, blood pressure, heart and breathing rate, dilation of pupils, constriction of our blood vessels, all that work to enable us to fight or flee from a stressful or dangerous situation.
It is common for individuals experiencing the fight or flight response to describe uncomfortable physiological changes like muscle tension, headache, upset stomach, racing heartbeat, and shallow breathing. The fight or flight response can become harmful when elicited frequently. When high levels of stress hormones are secreted often, they can contribute to a number of stress-related medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, GI diseases, adrenal fatigue, and more.
The Relaxation Response is a helpful way to turn off fight or flight response and bring the body back to pre-stress levels.
Dr. Benson describes the Relaxation Response as a physical state of deep relaxation which engages the other part of our nervous system—the parasympathetic nervous system. Research has shown that regular use of the Relaxation Response can help any health problem that is caused or exacerbated by chronic stress such as fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety disorders, and others.
There are many methods to elicit the Relaxation Response including visualisation, hypnotic relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation and breathing techniques, prayer, meditation and mindfulness. True relaxation can also be achieved by removing yourself from everyday thought and by choosing a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or by focusing on your breathing.
One of the most valuable things we can do in life is to learn deep relaxation- making an effort to spend some time every day quieting our minds in order to create inner peace and better health.
The best time to practice the Relaxation Response is first thing in the morning for ten to twenty minutes. Practicing just once or twice daily can be enough to counteract the stress response and bring about deep relaxation and inner peace.
Following is the Relaxation Response technique taken directly from Dr. Herbert Benson’s book The Relaxation Response.
Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed. [Relax your tongue—and thoughts will cease.]
- Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word “one”* silently to yourself. For example, breathe in, and then out, and say “one”*, in and out, and repeat “one.”* Breathe easily and naturally.
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.
- Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace.
When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “one.”*
- With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.
*Choose any soothing, mellifluous sounding word, preferably with no meaning or association, in order to avoid stimulation of unnecessary thoughts.