The relationship between stress, anxiety, habits and phobias

Discuss the relationship between stress, anxiety, habits and phobias and describe how you would treat these issues using hypnotherapy.

Stress and anxiety are the natural reactions to fear and change. There is no single cause of stress and we will all have experienced it at times in our lives. It can be potentially very harmful, both physiologically and psychologically and professionals agree it is vital that we try to understand the causes of our stress, in order to prevent or at least minimise it.

It is believed there are three identifiable models of stress; things that happen to a person (not what happens within a person), things that happen within a person and thirdly, stress that arises from interactions with people and their environment. (Richard D. Gross. pg 186). There are also differences in how people attempt to cope with the stresses they face in everyday life, physiologically and psychologically. Some people suffer with stress and are able to identify the causes, leaving them able to solve the problems they face.

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Others may live in a permanent state of stress and anxiety, unable or unwilling to identify the causes behind it. Hundreds of differing factors can be the root cause behind a persons stress and anxiety, ranging from excessive noise, resentment, fatigue, emotional upsets and physical and emotional upheavals, such as moving house. Others can be more traumatic, the separation of a child from its mother, the death of a loved one or the trauma suffered by a soldier returning from a war zone.

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However, not all stresses are negative to have in ones life. Stress caused by a romantic encounter for example or the stress underlying anticipation in receiving an award. However, stress that causes depression and can debilitate is not desirable. (Hypnosis for change, Josie Hadley and Carol Staudacher. Pg 83, 84)

People suffering from an anxiety disorder may fail to notice the object of their fear can in no way harm them, as they avoid situations where their fears never have to be confronted. Freud identified three different types of anxiety; Realistic anxiety, which we call fear. The second is moral anxiety, which we feel when the threat comes not from the outer, physical world, but from the internalised, social world of the super ego. The last is neurotic anxiety. This is the fear of being over whelmed. If an individual feels they are about to ‘lose it’, lose control, their temper, rationality or even their mind. This is an experience of neurotic anxiety.

Anxiety and stress can lead people to seek unhealthy ways of alleviating the symptoms, which can limit their lives. This may lead them to develop habits, such as smoking or over eating. A habit is described as encompassing a certain group of conditions, including an unhealthy repetitive behaviour that is somewhat out of the person’s control. Such behaviours can include, nail biting, thumb sucking, hair pulling (Trichotillomania) and the excessive use of tobacco, food and alcohol. These habits could in a more complex case develop into an addiction, i.e., to food, alcohol or drugs.

A person with a habit will avoid interrupting them, as these although largely negative coping mechanisms, prove a much needed tool, especially during times of severe emotional and psychological distress. Thy serve their purpose during intense periods of upheaval, but can also develop into psychologically and physically damaging behaviours, compulsions or even addictions. To the person with the habits, it is seen to them as ‘meeting their needs.’

Fears are held by all of us, whether it is a fear of rejection, not finding love, losing a friendship or a relationship, being alone. But when these fears begin to dictate a person’s life and restrict their day to day activities, they can develop into a phobia. A phobia is defined as an extreme, irrational fear of specific objects or situations. The individual will more often than not identify the object of their fear as harmless, but will still experience intense feelings of fear, anxiety and stress. Trying to conceal a phobia could induce further stress and anxiety, in some cases leading to panic attacks. Almost anything can be the subject of a persons fear, but some phobias are more common than others. Agoraphobia is the most common of all phobias, accounting for almost 60% of cases. (Richard D. Gross. pg 120)

Akin to anxiety and stress, not all fears are harmful, before they become a phobia. Some fear can actually be very useful, for example, a four year old is conditioned to fear traffic. This is beneficial and useful in regards to the physical safety of a child. However, in some cases, this fear of busy traffic could grow and develop in an adult over time and with a trigger, possibly lead to a fear of not only traffic, but also busy places and open spaces. In this instance, Agoraphobia could be a possible result In cases of phobias, stress and anxiety are common side effects for an individual suffering from a phobia. In the case of agoraphobia, anxiety and stress are commonplace, as they spend their lives trying to avoid leaving their comfort zone and developing habits to not only placate these feelings, but also to support their reasons for not facing their greatest fears. A phobia can leave a person in a highly anxious state, which increases stress levels and heightens internal fears.

Stress, anxiety, habits and phobias are all described as being neurotic conditions. In cases of neuroses, only part of the subject’s personality is involved and affected and contact with reality is maintained. The individual has insight, recognising they have a problem, Neurotic behaviour is understandable as a ‘normal ‘behaviour and often arises as a response to external issues and pressures. This neurotic disturbance is related to the person’s personality and life experiences, prior to their illness. As Neurotic behaviours, they maybe addressed and successfully treated (if the subject is susceptible to hypnosis) through hypnotherapy. Provided the subject does not have any history of psychosis and does not display any symptoms, a professional, ethical therapist could assist them in over-coming their issues.

Hypnotherapy can reduce and in many cases, completely eradicate stress, anxiety, habits and phobias, by successfully re-programming a new response to an old stimulus, A few sessions for each stimulus will probably be necessary. (Hypnosis for change. pg 93) For treatment of stress, anxiety, habits and phobias to be successful, it is useful to discover the triggers, which have led to a patient developing these problems. Sometimes an individual will come to therapy, with a clear idea of the catalyst for their problems, for others this may only be discovered through hypnosis. Once the route cause has been established, a professional hypnotherapist will be better equipped to treat their client, with beneficial results.

In a case of Anxiety- depression, if it is a bio-chemical depression, then it does not react well to solely psychological intervention, meaning hypnotherapy is not appropriate as a course of treatment. In either circumstance of depression, a hypnotherapist would need to consult with the client G.P before treating the individual. If an individual is suffering from reactive depression (depression triggered by an incident, such as bereavement, loss of job, etc), then the hypnotherapists task is to focus on the anxiety that triggered that depression. Treatment employs hypnotic suggestion to assist strengthening of the ego, to alter the individual’s perception of their situation and overcome stressful symptoms, implementing programmes of behaviour appropriate to the person.

In respect of phobic conditions, hypnotherapists and psychotherapists alike employ different methods in their treatment of psychological disorders, but all must centre on the understanding and control of the anxiety, in its various manifestations, whatever the phobia suffered. Therefore, the approach to treating a patient with a phobia, via hypnosis, should be with the notion that modalities would be personalised. Even if a subject has the same phobia as another, the underlying anxieties and triggers are likely to be different. (Hypnotherapy a handbook. pg 37.)

When it comes to treating a habit disorder (such as smoking and over eating) the simplest method of treatment through hypnotherapy, is using direct suggestions, direct suggestions to the individual, that they will cease to continue this negative habitual behaviour. A hypnotherapist may choose to involve the use of imagery, including images of vomit (in the case of an over eater) and sense of foul tastes and smells (maybe for a smoker). However, there is generally a stronger preference for the use of positive suggestions, e.g., in the case of a smoker, clean and fresher breath, financial saving and better health. It maybe better to emphasize the positive emotional gains, such as increased self esteem, as it is more immediately evident than the physical gains, that may take time to manifest themselves.

The key factor is knowing the client well enough, to be aware of what will serve as positive reinforcement to them. (Hypnotherapy a handbook. Pg 73.) Most undesirable habits begin as ways of discharging tension, which is described as ‘displacement behaviour.’ A person will usually find that even though the original dynamics of an undesirable habit are no longer present, the action of the behaviour is still associated with anxiety and how it is expressed. The action is performed when anxiety arises. It is said that positive reinforcement is more powerful when applied through behaviour control, rather than punishment through suggestion, eg, each time the person stops short of biting their nails, the positive suggestion will leave them experiencing good, positive feelings. In the case of a nail biting habit, suggestions would include the individual feeling pleasure in their appearance and whatever other reinforcements appear appropriate. (Of course this also depends on the modality of the individual seeking hypnotherapy, for a habit disorder such as nail biting.)

In conclusion, I can determine that stress and anxiety are indeed the underlying causes of habits and phobias. These symptoms are further exacerbated if the habit is interrupted or if the object of a phobia is confronted or forced upon the individual with the fear. Phobias and habits will often culminate from pro longed periods of stress and anxiety, as a way for the sufferer to cope day to day and whatever the trigger, they would not exist without the presence of stress and anxiety. Therefore it is a vicious cycle and one that is difficult to break. Anxieties and stress have in some cases led to the development of a habit (i.e. smoking) or a phobia (i.e., agoraphobia). Yet stress and anxiety (in regards to a habit), is felt if the habitual behaviour is not repeated. With the intervention of hypnotherapy, a person could be successfully treated, once the root cause of the stress and anxiety has first been determined.

Hypnotherapy- A handbook (Michael Heap and Windy Dryden.)
Hypnosis for change- Third edition (Josie Hadley and Carol Staudacher.) Madness explained- Psychosis and human nature (Richard P Bentall.) Psychology- The science of Mind and Behaviour. (Richard D, Gross.)

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The relationship between stress, anxiety, habits and phobias. (2016, May 06). Retrieved from

The relationship between stress, anxiety, habits and phobias

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