A couple of years ago I was having a conversation with a psychologist who admitted Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) was only partially successful with the phobia cases he worked with. He wanted to know how a case of claustrophobia could be completely resolved with hypnotherapy. As I shared the following experience he took copious notes.
I explained that when a problem is rooted in an emotion it cannot be completely resolved solely through behaviour modification or suggestion methods. You can’t suggest or reason away an emotion. Behaviour modification only helps a person to cope with their fear. It doesn’t free them from it. To illustrate, I shared with him a client case.
A case of claustrophobia:
The client had been diagnosed with claustrophobia. She avoided any situation which placed her in a closed-in space because any closed-in space would cause her to panic.
The psychologist said that his strategy would be to systematically desensitize the client to each specific situation that would act to trigger the fear. And, in fact, my client had already been through this very approach. After a course of treatment her therapy was successfully concluded.
Success meant the client was now able to cope with being in an elevator. What this meant was holding her breath and closing her eyes. The fear wasn’t gone. She was simply enduring it. Nor had this therapy helped her to deal with any of the other situations she had to avoid in daily life because of her fear. These included hallways without any windows, escalators, and airplanes. Even the back seat of a car was off limits.
The underlying problem is a feeling of fear. No surprise. But feelings don’t come out of nowhere. Something must have happened to cause her to fear those situations. The question is, what?
Rather than try to teach the client coping strategies to manage her symptoms and behaviour, my approach was to simply ask her subconscious mind to show us where the problem was coming from. What had happened in her past to cause her to have that fear? What was revealed held the solution to resolving the client’s fear of closed-in places. It was right there, all along, inside the mind of the client.
4 Universal Healing Steps
The approach I used involves a simple, universal healing process that can be applied to any phase of the healing process using the following 4 Universal Healing Steps.
- Find it.
- Feel it.
- Heal it.
- Seal it.
#1. Find it
The first step in resolving the client’s irrational fear of closed-in spaces was to find the feeling.
After inducing hypnosis I asked the client to imagine a specific situation in daily life that would cause her to feel that fear. The situation she chose was her brother’s wedding reception which was held in a hotel. In fact, not being able to attend her brother’s wedding reception was the last straw that motivated her to try something as bizarre as hypnosis.
The client's desire to be present and celebrate her brother’s wedding reception was very strong. Unfortunately, the banquet hall was at the end of a long, windowless hallway. Her heart was pounding! She was sweating! She couldn’t breathe! She couldn't override the panic that was welling up from within. To escape the fear, she retreated.
Describing this experience brought back some of the uncomfortable feelings associated it. I then asked the client to describe the first time she ever had a panic attack. Every client can remember the first time because it was so unexpected. The fear just seemed to come out of nowhere. It enveloped them.
What clients don’t realize is the consciously-remembered event is not the first time they felt that fear!
#2. Feel it
Feeling the feeling will provide an energetic bridge to the past.
I asked the client if it would be all right to let some of that feeling come up so we could release it. When working with intense fear a permission-based approach provides much-needed safety. I reassured her that she was in control of how much she allowed to come up. Giving the client a choice regarding how much of the feeling to allow made it safe for her to feel it.
The easiest way to connect with the feeling is to focus attention in the body. So once I had the client’s permission to let the feeling come up, I simply asked her where in her body she was feeling it. She answered, “All over.” This is typically how anxiety expresses. It's a pervasive, antsy feeling that is felt throughout the body. But for regression, we need to identify a targeted emotion like fear or anger.
To get a clear bridge to the past you need to connect with an actual emotion. Emotions are felt primarily in the throat, chest and gut. “That’s good.” I encouraged. “That feeling is allowed to be there. Where are you feeling it the most?”
Once the client had identified a targeted area in her torso, I asked her to keep her focus on that feeling in her body. I then asked for a Subjective Unit of Distress (SUD). “On a scale of 1 – 10, where 10 is the strongest it has ever been, how strong is that feeling right now?” The client reported that it was about an 8. That's great! Anything above a 7 is enough intensity to Bridge back on. But I asked her if it would be okay to let it come up "just a little bit more" to give us a stronger connection to the causal event.
While focusing on the feeling will increase the intensity of feeling, on its own, the client’s permission can open the floodgates. I noticed that the client's breathing had became noticeably rapid so I asked her for another SUD. “It’s a 10!” she replied.
If the intensity is too great, the client may be unable to speak. In this case, you need to back off on the intensity to prevent bringing on a panic attack. That's the last thing we want! Maintain control of your session to ensure your client’s safety.
Regressing into the feeling took us back to an event in childhood. I uncovered enough detail to find the connection to her specific fear of closed-in places. I then conducted the test for the Initial Sensitizing Event (ISE). The ISE is the causal event. It's where that specific fear got started.
Most of the time the intensity of emotion in an ISE is significantly less than what the client is experiencing in adult life. So doing the healing work in the ISE is much easier on the client. Think of it as pulling out a seedling by the roots. It’s much easier than trying to cut down the whole forest.
I continued to regress back through earlier events until we located the ISE. It turned out that the client's fear got seeded during the experience of being born! As an infant, the client got stuck in the birth canal. She felt overwhelmed with panic because she couldn’t move. This taught her to fear closed in places.
The fear of being trapped got stored in her body-mind system for future reference. From that moment on, every time she found herself in a tight spot, the fear would grow a little stronger. As she got older, there were more and more tight places that she needed to avoid to feel safe. Eventually, venturing outside of her comfort zone would bring on a panic attack.
#3. Heal it
Having uncovered the cause of the fear, the next step was to release the feeling.
Insight alone is not sufficient to resolve an emotional problem. James Hillman recognized this when he said, “We’ve had 100 years of psychotherapy and we’re not getting any better.” People can spend years, decades even, in talk therapy. They can tell you all the reasons why they have the problem.
The problem is that they still have the problem! To resolve the problem, you need more than insight. You need to release the feelings trapped in the event. That's what we did. We released the fear associated with being trapped inside Mom.
Fear generates internal stress. And stress inhibits cognition. When you release trapped emotions the client will experience a release of internal pressure. As a result she’ll have more clarity with which to report what’s happening in the event. This makes your job easier and allows you to get a more thorough healing of all the aspects contributing to the presenting issue. To achieve this, rewind and replay the event after each release. More detail will be made available allowing you to neutralize all the contributing aspects.
The purpose for reviewing the event following a release is to:
- Test to ensure the feeling is completely gone.
- Identify any unresolved aspects and release them.
- Ensure a thorough cleansing of the causal event.
Being thorough will get you a deeper healing and lasting results. Deliver on your promise of results and the world will beat a path to your door!
When we rewound and replayed the event, we discovered remaining aspects that had to do with the people involved in the client’s birthing experience. There were the doctor and nurses who handled her once she emerged into the world. These were associated with the sense of emergency in the delivery room.
There was also the delay in bonding with Mom, which caused considerable distress. And then, there was Mom. Mom was where the client had gotten stuck! Both literally and figuratively.
This was not a single session phobia resolution.
While clearing the ISE will certainly reduce the client’s symptoms, it’s not a guarantee that the problem is resolved. That was certainly the case with this client. The reason this wasn’t a one-session miracle was because it involved complexity.
In addition to the trauma of getting stuck in the birth canal, immediately following birth the infant experienced a small seizure. It was mild but it acted to reinforce the fear because an epileptic seizure immobilizes the body. It’s a repeat of the feeling of being trapped and unable to move.
Following the session, the client gained insight. She realized that getting stuck in the birth canal must have cut off oxygen to the brain, causing her epilepsy. Epilepsy isn’t a one-time occurrence. Growing up she had many episodes. Several were life threatening. As a result, her mother became anxious and overly-protective of her daughter.
While understandable, Mom’s anxiety only added to the child’s insecurity. In addition, as the child grew older, Mom’s need to protect began to be perceived as controlling. Mom was smothering her. Did you catch the metaphor?
As the client grew older she began to resent Mom. By the time she was a teenager she was experiencing rebellious anger. But she was conflicted. She loved Mom, but she was also angry with Mom. With nowhere to go, the anger got trapped inside, along with the unresolved fear.
When anger gets trapped inside it, generates fear. So the initial fear of being trapped, compounded by Mom’s anxiety, now had another source of fear feeding into it. Anger. There were also layers of denial. The client couldn't admit to feeling angry. She'd been taught that anger was "bad". But once the truth of her anger was brought to light and accepted, she was free to release it.
Releasing the anger restored peace to her mind-body system. Peace restored her sense of safety. This safety allowed her to finally relax and breathe, again.
She forgave Mom. And then herself. Only then was the healing complete. While resolving the casual event set her free of the seeds of fear, forgiveness set her free from the past. As a result she was free to go wherever she wanted. How do I know this? I tested the results. That’s the final step.
#4. Seal it
To test the results, I used Mental Rehearsal, prior to emerging the client.
I asked the to client imagine being in each of the situations that, in the past, would have brought on the fear. I encouraged her to "try to find the fear." Each time I challenged her, I hammered in a new response. “Try to find the fear. The more you try to find it the more calm and relaxed you’ll feel.” When the client was unable to find any trace of the fear, I emerged her. She felt transformed. But we weren’t done, yet!
The only true test of your results is in the client’s waking life. So, following this session I decided to conduct a real-life test. The proof is in the pudding, right? I took her outside and opened the door of my two-door Mitsubishi Laser.
I asked her to think about getting into the back seat. “How does that make you feel?” I asked. She replied that normally there was “no way” she could ever sit in such a tight space. But that wasn’t the question. The question was, "As you think about getting into the back seat how do you feel right now?" She realized she was actually feeling calm. This surprised her.
I then asked her if she would be willing to get into the back seat. I assured her I would leave the door open. That way, if she felt any discomfort she could hop right out. She agreed and climbed into the very tight backseat of my sports car. Normally, just the thought of getting into such a tight space would have brought on the panic. But, much to her surprise, the client continued to feel calm and comfortable.
Next, I asked if it would be okay for me to put the front seat back up. This would create an actual barrier, blocking her ability to escape. She agreed. I put the seat up. Still no problem.
I then climbed into the driver’s seat, started the car, and drove around the block with the client still in the back seat. As we were returning back to the house, I looked into my rear-view mirror. Picture this, now. The client was wide-eyed, fists raised high, doing a Rocky Balboa victory cheer. She was beaming!
Several weeks later, the client was able to enjoy a trip on an airplane. Her first ever. She stayed in a hotel. She rode in elevators and escalators. All without a whisper of discomfort.
Her co-workers were well-aware of her claustrophobia. They found it hard to believe that she was free of the problem and challenged her assertions. One co-worker said, “You mean to tell me if we locked you in the closet you wouldn’t have a problem with that?” The client retorted, “How would YOU feel if you were locked in a closet?” She then stepped into the closet and closed the door behind her. “See?” she called out to her shocked co-workers, “No problem.”
So ends my story.
Having shared this story with the psychologist he remarked, “I have to admit, there’s no way I could have done that.” I wasn't surprised. But years later, I discovered a reality TV series called “Obsessed.” The series followed the treatment of people with different anxiety disorders such as:
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- General Anxiety Disorder
The first portion of each episode was dedicated to showing how each subject was suffering as a result of their disorder. The second portion of the episode showed the subjects undergoing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to treat their issue.
Outcomes were sketchy. Some clients saw improvement. Some bailed on therapy. Some learned to cope.
Following a twelve-week standard protocol of CBT not one client was completely free. You can view a brief outline of each episode, client case, and outcome here. In the end, the series wasn’t much of a testimonial for the efficacy of CBT.
Many people turn to hypnosis as a last-resort. Often, they have already tried "standard" treatment and they still have the problem. When a client comes to you with an irrational fear, like claustrophobia, you need to do some preliminary uncovering work.
Rule out any serious mental disorders and conditions that are outside your scope of expertise. Like my client, the person in your chair may have received medical attention before considering hypnosis. Because the client is desperate, they’re highly motivated. That's good. But there can be two additional problems added to the mix.
Problem 1: The client has been given a diagnosis.
Fear of closed-in spaces carries a diagnosis of claustrophobia. This is because a doctor is required to diagnose before he can prescribe a treatment, be it chemical, surgical, or psychological.
He is required to assign a label to the patients condition. This just adds to the problem. First, the doctor's authority makes the diagnostic label a suggestion. Second, hypnosis practitioners are not qualified to treat a diagnosis. That could be construed as practising medicine. Third, while the label describes a symptom or pattern of symptoms, the symptom isn’t the problem. The symptom is evidence of an underlying issue calling for healing.
Treat the diagnosis as a label. The label is suggestion that was given to the client by a person in authority. That gives it power. Now it’s something “real”. It’s “their” phobia. It defines them. It has become a part of their identity. It’s not merely their own feeling that has power over them. It’s a condition. This makes it a very sticky belief. That belief that needs to be removed before you go to work resolving the presenting issue.
Before you begin addressing the fear remove the label. You can do that by taking the time to educate the client. Teach the client how their mind works so they understand there’s nothing wrong with them. Their mind is doing what it was designed to do. Fear of tight places is simply a fear. Fear of flying is simply a fear. Fear of spiders is still a fear.
Fear is a natural human response to the perception of threat. When you’re walking through the woods, if you confront a bear, fear will get you moving to safety. Fear is a good thing! It’s there for a reason. What they need to understand is that feelings don't come out of nowhere. Something happened to make them feel that fear. The client knows this. But they may not have thought about it.
The fear they experience is simply a learned response. What has been learned can be un-learned. You can’t change a diagnosis. But you can remove a label. So remove the label. This will give the client back the power to change and make your job easier.
Problem 2: They’ve already been through conventional treatment.
Many of these clients have already been through conventional treatments like CBT. Like my client experienced, conventional treatment only helped them to cope. It came nowhere close to resolving the problem. Even the psychotherapist with whom I shared this story recognized the limitations of conventional treatment. Here's the problem: when a client has been through treatment without relief, they have learned that nothing can help.
They “hope” hypnosis will work. They “hope” you can help them get free of the fear. But they don’t really believe it’s possible. Before you dive into the regression work, help to restore their sense of possibility. While hope is good, belief is better. A client who believes that it’s possible to heal will go where you need them to go to find the solution. So remove any doubts or misconceptions.
Remember, the fact that someone else’s attempts failed to achieve a lasting result has nothing to do with you. What you do is different from those other methods. Tell the client why those methods failed. Sure, they can sometimes help, but complete resolution is not the goal of conventional treatments. Few people realize this.
All Healing is Self-Healing
Hypnotherapists live by the credo that all healing is self-healing. The power to heal isn't in the tool or technique. It's within the mind of the client. Your job is to guide the client to heal herself. You can do that in a very systematic way by following the four universal steps of healing:
- Find it
- Feel it
- Heal it
- Seal it
What’s your take-away from all this? Did you find something that surprised you or got you thinking differently? Ready to empower yourself with a deep-dive into the WHY of regression hypnotherapy? Join me in the Ready for Regression Session course! It will change how you do therapy.