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        A typical session will involve sitting comfortably on a chair while engaging in imagery-work. However, since the primary goal of the session is to bring about change, other means can be taken to achieve that goal - such as breathing patterning, body-awareness and more. You are always an active participant in the session, not merely a passive recipient. You will be guided into trance and be assisted in utilizing it for your own benefits. The average session time is around 60 minutes (initial consultation is sometimes longer than the preceding sessions). The number of sessions is based upon the program, the nature of the problem and the person. However, hypnotherapy is a goal-oriented, brief and elegant therapy.

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Related Anxiety Links:   Efficacy of Hypnosis for Anxiety

                                      Post Traumatic Stress  




             This case provides an overview of psychological interventions including hypnosis to treat John, a 22-year-old man presenting with a recent history of anxiety with panic attacks and migraines. He presented for therapy after a traumatic incident involving his mother, an abusive alcoholic. Since the episode he had developed some avoidant behaviours (avoiding socializing and driving) which he wanted to address. A treatment plan that included mindfulness-based cognitive–behaviour therapy (MBCT) and hypnosis was employed. MBCT helped John learn to be in the moment with fear-based thoughts and feelings without judgment while correcting cognitive distortions. The hypnotic process allowed John to learn the benefits of arousal reduction and pain management, it also assisted and enhanced positive cognitive restructuring, ego-strengthening and an opportunity to process long-held grief regarding his relationship with his mother. At the end of treatment John no longer suffered from debilitating anxiety or disabling migraines.

He had ceased pain medication which he had been dependent on for some years. In the last session he reflected on his full and active social life and was planning an overseas trip.


        John, a 22-year-old university student, presented with anxiety, panic disorder and migraines. He did not have a history of substance abuse and was avoiding alcohol and caffeine in an attempt to minimize his anxiety. He had been prescribed pain medication but was finding the side effects intolerable and 64 Bowring wanted to explore on-pharmaceutical options. In recent months he had started to avoid social situations. He was also reluctant to drive, fearing that he would have another panic attack, having experienced his first one while driving to university two months earlier. It being John’s final year of studies he was determined to overcome his fears and regain his confidence. He was also motivated to start socializing more as he was starting to feel isolated.


       John lived at home with his parents and three younger siblings. He recalled that throughout his childhood his mother had been an emotionally abusive alcoholic. John sought treatment after his mother pulled him across the dinner table and repeatedly hit him. Although this marked the first physically violent episode, John had suffered from anxiety-related symptoms since his early teens. Being the eldest, John had taken on a protective role towards his younger siblings. After the traumatic incident John became anxious when leaving the family home as he feared for the safety of his siblings in the event of another violent outburst. Once a socially active young man, John had become increasingly withdrawn, stating that he had “stopped bringing friends home and going out.” His reluctance to drive (and at times avoidance of it) was impacting on his ability to attend university which required a two-hour commute. He became increasingly clingy and dependent on his father and girlfriend, expressing a desire for one of them to accompany him socially or when he needed to drive somewhere. This made him feel incredibly vulnerable and dependent. He had also started to avoid social engagements in case he felt “unwell.” These responses to threat and trauma were considered within the context of wanting to prevent the onset of acute stress disorder, or deep-seated anxiety and avoidance patterns.

         Although not the primary presenting issue, further exploration revealed the debilitating nature of John’s migraines which he had suffered since his early teens. Referred by his general practitioner (GP) for anxiety and panic disorder, the referral stated that he was “crying, depressed and miserable” and listed other symptoms including: lethargy, sleep disturbances, dizziness and migraines. The GP queried as to the cause of John’s migraines, suspecting they were anxiety related. 

       Hypnosis in the Treatment of Anxiety and Migraines 65 SUITABILITY OF THE SUBJECT FOR HYPNOTICALLY BASED TREATMENT

John was motivated to overcome his anxiety and to cease pain medication to manage his migraines. Hammond (1990, p. 46) reminds us of the complexity of the pain disorder, he states that “we must not neglect thorough medical or psychological (behavioral, cognitive, emotional, affective) evaluation with the pain client.” A detailed description was taken of John’s pain experience and possible causative factors. Since organic factors had been ruled out (MRI showed negative results) and further medical treatment had been deemed unnecessary, hypnosis was considered to be a suitable intervention (Hammond, 1990, p. 46).

         People with chronic physical illnesses, especially those with conditions that produce a lot of pain, restriction of activity or a poor outlook, are prone to developing co-morbid depression (Hammond, 1990). Given that antidepressant medication can mask symptoms a Beck Depression Inventory (BDI-II) was administered to measure the depth and severity of depressive symptoms. With severe depression ruled out, a risk assessment was conducted No suicidal thoughts, plan or intent were shown. However, depression was considered as a co-morbid presentation.

        John presented as the ideal subject for hypnosis. Good therapeutic rapport was established quickly and easily. He was highly motivated to overcome his anxiety and pain so he could resume a “normal life.” When I mentioned hypnosis as a possible intervention John responded enthusiastically and positively. A positive attitude towards hypnosis, coupled with high levels of motivation, are considered to be important prerequisites for suggestions to be effective (Hammond, 1990, p. 11). Furthermore, John was a graphics student and capable of vivid imagery in the non-hypnotic (waking) state, a trait shown to correlate with hypnotic susceptibility (Wilson & Barber, 1981, p. 133). Contraindications such as a personality disorder, clinical depression or major psychiatric disorder were absent.


       Given John’s history and presenting issue, therapeutic goals involved strategies for ego-strengthening, arousal reduction and positive self-affirmations. Due to the intensity and severity of John’s migraines the first goal of therapy focused on pain reduction and management. A desire to cease medication meant John was open and willing to try various tools and techniques. It was decided that hypnosis would be used primarily to assist in pain reduction and management. In the first session it was evident that John had learnt to use avoidant strategies in an attempt to manage unpleasant symptoms and minimize the onset of a panic attack. These avoidant behaviors were increasingly impacting on his social/work life and attendance at university. Given the negative impact that John’s anxiety was having on many aspects of his life, the second goal of therapy aimed to help him manage arousal more effectively. This was coupled with psycho-education so that John was aware of what his body was doing and why (i.e., fight/flight response). John was also taught abdominal breathing techniques which he was encouraged to practice daily. It was also decided that hypnosis would be used to assist with reducing anxiety and lowering arousal. The third goal of therapy focused on helping John re-engage in all aspects of his life (social, work, student, driving). This part of treatment focused on incorporating arousal reduction strategies (i.e., mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy—MBCT) with behavioral techniques (i.e., graded exposure therapy).

        The final treatment goal was to build confidence and self-esteem. Loss of independence, which led to feelings of isolation and being out of control of one’s life, destabilized John’s sense of self-identity and self-worth. This along with the traumatic incident with his mother compounded these negative and unhelpful self-perceptions. Providing John with a safe space to grieve and process the feelings he held towards his mother enabled him to re-frame the experience in a way that promoted healing and growth.

Summary of Goals

1. To reduce migraine pain, intensity and severity.

2. To reduce symptoms of anxiety (psycho-education/breath work).

3. To actively re-engage in all aspects of life (social, work, student, driving).

4. To increase confidence.

Hypnosis in the Treatment of Anxiety and Migraines 67 TECHNIQUES AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP WITH OTHER TREATMENTS

Priority was given to hypnotic techniques that targeted pain reduction for a

number of reasons:

1. Hypnosis has been proven to be an effective tool in the management and

perception of pain (Rose, 1990).

2. Pain was persisting after anxiety reduction.

3. A full and complete physical and psychological evaluation was undertaken

(i.e., results of an MRI showed no organic causes). Given that the

perception of pain almost always includes a strong emotional component,

hypnosis was considered an appropriate intervention (Sarafino, 1998).

4. John was able to provide a detailed sensory description of the pain,

providing invaluable clues for hypnotic strategies and techniques that

would be most useful (Hammond, 1990, pp. 45, 46). Not surprisingly,

techniques that used imaginative involvement and transformed the pain

into images were prioritized to align with John’s visual abilities.

Anxiety Management

       For several reasons, prior to engaging in hypnosis the first few sessions focused on MBCT. Residing with a mother who was an abusive alcoholic meant John had been living in an unsafe environment. This sense of psychological and physical unsafety was compounded by the recent (and first) physically violent episode. In response to ongoing psychological and/or physical threat, John’s body was in a constant state of physiological arousal (higher adrenalin levels). When this state of arousal is prolonged the body eventually begins to lose its adaptive capacity, giving rise to pathologies (i.e., anxiety present in the absence of a “stressor”) (Riisik, 2010). MBCT was employed as a technique to help alleviate such symptoms.

Often people with anxiety have learnt to associate bodily sensations negatively as a cue to enter the fight or flight response. MBCT has been shown to benefit people with anxiety by teaching them how to remain nonreactive to physiological arousal experienced within one’s body and to observe thoughts from a place of non-judgment or detachment (Cayoun, 2006). John was encouraged to perceive bodily reactions as bodily sensations, nothing more or less, and to perceive thoughts merely as words passing through conscious awareness. 

Treatment for anxiety also included:

• Psycho-education re: anxiety.

• Asserting healthy boundaries.

• Breathing techniques.

• Graded exposure therapy/desensitization therapy (i.e., driving).

• Building independence (scheduling social activities alone).

• Exploration of secondary gains (since the incident, John’s mother had

expressed concern regarding his health and would respect his space when feeling unwell).

• Build protective behaviors, especially in dealing with his relationship with his mother (i.e., assertiveness; develop a safety plan).

• Counselling re: grief/trauma (i.e., write a letter to mum, role play “empty

chair” etc.).

Reported Changes Pre-Hypnosis (four sessions), from aforementioned interventions:

• Considerable reduction in anxiety.

• Driving and attending university, etc.

• Socializing with friends.

• Pain medication under review.

• Headaches still persisting.

• K10: 31 to 14.


       Each hypnosis session was recorded and John was encouraged to listen regularly. Session 1 (Soothing the Pain Using Visual Imagery) Problem identification John was asked to rate his pain intensity and pain distress on a scale from 0 (no pain) to 10 (severe pain). Sharp stabbing pain in his right temple was given a pain rating of: Intensity 3, Distress: 3. Utilizing colour, John chose red to describe his pain and yellow to describe calming, peaceful, soothing energy. Induction Breath awareness. Deepener After a simple “Count Down Induction” (Allen, 2004, p. 16), John was guided to inhale yellow energy and to exhale red energy. The mantra “breathing in calm and peace” and “exhaling discomfort” were used rhythmically. Hypnosis in the Treatment of Anxiety and Migraines 69 Content Transforming pain into images. Continuing to focus on imaginative involvement John was asked to picture a dial in his inner mind (utilizing the pain rating scale, 0 to 10). He was told that by turning down the dial he would experience a softening, a soothing, and an easing of the sensation of pain. Post-hypnotic suggestion The word calm was given to help evoke a softening/ easing of pain when recalled in the waking state. Feedback Post-treatment: Pain: Intensity 1, Distress, 1. At two-weeks, John reported an overall decrease in headaches stating that he had experienced less pain than he could remember for some time.

      Session 2 (Once Again Focused on Soothing the Pain Using Visual Imagery) Information gathering In the last two weeks John’s headaches returned, and coincided with the commencement of a new pain medication. John presented with a headache which he was asked to rate: Intensity 7, Distress 4. Induction The same “Count Down Induction” from Allen (2004, p. 16) was employed because of its effectiveness in the first session.

Deepener The use of visual imagery and “The Garden” (Allen, 2004, p. 35) deepener was chosen because it combined counting and imagery of a beautiful country garden which appealed to John’s love of nature; thus incorporating the client’s interests. Content Allen’s “Pain and Discomfort” (2004, pp. 141–153) script was modified to align with John’s presenting issues (it was originally written for people with a terminal illness) which combined visual imagery with the sensation of warm water to relax and soothe. It also focused on the whole body as opposed to just the pain area. John had spoken of his love of water and how he specifically associated warm water with having healing properties. John was asked to picture his body on a screen floating in a “Cloud—seeing warm water easing through the body as you focus on the image, enabling you to clearly see the areas of the body that cause distress. Picture them soften as they are bathed in a warm and gentle soft yellow light. With each breath the pain and discomfort eases, pools of light reflecting the shrinking areas of discomfort …” Feedback Post-treatment: Headaches were gone and anxiety reduced. Three-week feedback: In the first week after hypnosis, John reported that his headaches and anxiety had virtually gone; however, he noted that they “returned with a vengeance.” John planned to see his neurologist, to review medication and discuss unpleasant side effects (i.e., lethargy). 70 Bowring

          Session 3 (Strengthening and Reinforcing Emotional Safety) Information gathering Explored possible secondary gains for pain (i.e., protection from mother: being left alone when unwell; positive attention: mother enquires about his health, expresses concern/care). Induction/deepener “Count Down Induction”, modified from Allen (2004, p. 16).

       Content John had been living in an environment that lacked emotional stability; this session focused on building his sense of safety and letting go of

the stress and tension that he had been carrying around especially since the traumatic incident. Using imaginative involvement John was instructed to create a special place in his inner mind, a place just for him, a place where he could feel safe in both his mind and body, happy and relaxed, leading to a sense of feeling empowered … Feeling every muscle in your body relax, every cell relaxing and softening … identifying the function of the pain and to establish its protective as well as disabling purpose prompted ego-strengthening. This was achieved by asking the painful part to step forward and inquiring as to whether part of its role was to protect John. Using ideomotor signalling, John indicated, “Yes.” When asked whether this part would be willing to step aside or have a less dominant role, if other more productive parts were willing to resume greater responsibility (i.e., confident, happy, social, energetic), John also indicated, “Yes.” Feedback Post-treatment: John felt more energized, happier and calmer. Three-week feedback: John continued to report significant changes towards his wellbeing, namely feeling happier, more energized and confident. He was socializing more and driving unaccompanied. He stated that he had experienced “minimal pain since the last session … a mild headache here and there but nothing debilitating.” After consulting with his neurologist it was decided to cease pain medication (at this stage he had been medication free for 10 days).

        Session 4 (Reinforced Physical and Emotional Strength and Confidence) Information gathering John decided to resume part-time work. Content Ego strengthening: John can take care of himself, that he is capable, independent, strong, assertive, etc.…that pain no longer needs to play the role of the protector … John was invited to ask the parts of himself that he wished would play a more dominant role to step forward (being more adventurous and happy came up). Hypnosis in the Treatment of Anxiety and Migraines 71 Feedback Three-week feedback: More improvement, still medication free. Organized an overseas trip. Fully engaged in all aspects of his life: social, work and university. Sessions 5 and 6 (Reinforce Prior Session Content, etc.) John was taught self-hypnosis. This is considered an integral part of pain management that gives pain sufferers a sense of mastery and control, allowing them to build independence from the therapist (Rose, 1990).


       The focus on counselling interventions was to identify the stressors and trauma associated with John’s relationship with his mother. Hypnosis was utilized to reduce hyper-arousal, promote ego strength and build protective behaviors. After the first session John’s response to hypnosis was encouraging. As the weeks progressed the positive benefits were evident. Despite migraines returning one week post treatment, subsequent pain-free periods at the outset suggested hypnosis was proving to be an effective intervention. John enthusiastically embraced hypnosis and eagerly did his homework (listening to taped sessions) which reinforced the work and probably contributed to the speed at which he reaped the benefits. John presented as a worried, tired and unhappy young man who had started to avoid life in an attempt to manage his anxiety/panic attacks. Within several weeks of treatment John had started to participate in the activities he had been avoiding and within a couple of months was fully engaged in life.


        Although John initially presented for the treatment of anxiety and panic an assessment highlighted the severity of his migraines, the debilitating effects of which he had been suffering for many years. Providing John with pain management techniques and other interventions including hypnosis, which may offer some relief, seemed worth exploring. John’s enthusiasm for hypnosis enabled him to reap the benefits quickly and to notice dramatic physical and emotional changes. Hypnosis combined with behavioral interventions and MBCT reinforced John’s ability to cope with stress. Mind–body relaxation helped him learn to focus on accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment. Activity scheduling and graded exposure tasks 72 Bowring enabled him to confront situations that caused unease.

        Self-hypnosis is a valuable resource for the ongoing management of anxiety. As this case illustrates, hypnosis can be used to strengthen other interventions and help empower the client to feel independent, in control and develop a greater sense of self-mastery.


Allen, P.A. (2004). Scripts and strategies in hypnotherapy: The complete works. Carmarthen, UK:

Crown House Publishing.

Cayoun, A.B (2006). Mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy general principles and

guidelines. Tasmania: Uniprint.

Hammond, D.C. (Ed.). (1990). Handbook of hypnotic suggestions and metaphors. New York:

W.W. Norton.

Riisik, D. (2010). Behavioral regulation and self-control: Relaxation training. (In CPM Training

and Counselling Manual.)

Rose, L. (1990). Overcoming pain. Melbourne: McCulloch Publishing.

Sarafino, E. (1998). Health psychology (pp. 329–354). New York: J Wiley & Sons. (In CPM

Training and Counselling Manual.)

Wilson, S.C., & Barber, T.X. (1981). Vivid fantasy and hallucinatory abilities in the life

histories of excellent hypnotic subjects (“somnambulist”): Preliminary report with

female subjects. In E. Klinger (Ed.), Imagery Vol 2: Concepts, results and applications (pp.

133–149). New York: Plenum Press.

Walker, W.-L. (2010). Integrating hypnosis into clinical practice: The hypnotic session—six stages.

(In CPM training and Counselling Manual.)

Disclaimer: The services we render are held out to the public as non-therapeutic hypnotism, defined as the use of hypnosis to inculcate positive thinking and the capacity for self-hypnosis. Results may vary from person to person. We do not represent our services as any form of medical, behavioral, or mental health care, and despite research to the contrary, by law we make no health claim to our services.

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