How a single trip to the vets created over a decade of intermittent anxiety attacks.
Or did it? Here’s my personal story on overcoming anxiety around eating in restaurants and witnessing medical procedures. Maybe it will inspire you and help you too.
I am not much of a cat person anymore. Yet, I was once very close to my pet cat, Boris, a beautiful black British shorthair cat. He was the kind of cat that could belong anywhere from an English country garden to the cruel cradling arms of a James Bond villain. He had a striking resemblance to the talking cat Salem in Sabrina The Teenage Witch. Except mine couldn’t talk, unfortunately for me.
Boris was alive a few years before I was born, and he had a brother who was tragically run over before I really was aware of him. But these things happen when growing up in London. The roads were still just as busy and people drove just as fast.
As an only child, I very quickly learnt to become independent, I didn’t connect as well to the other kids, who were more interested in kicking footballs into walls and into the faces of passers by.
Boris was the typical cat, a keen hunter, you’d have to work to get his attention and appreciation and he’d certainly let you know when enough was enough. He was not particularly playful, and he seemed to enjoy his food, and his thick black fur kept the vacuum cleaner in frequent use.
So through my childhood and early teenage years, he was always there, from morning ‘til night, with long naps during the day. What a nice life.
One day we discovered that Boris was having trouble walking, he wasn’t eating his food. So off we went to the vet. For some reason many cats do not travel well, and he meow-ed constantly for the short 10 minute car journey.
“The next thing I knew, I was on the floor“
Upon arrival at the vet, the vet’s voice was caring but by the serious tone of her voice, I could tell something was up, she began to list all the things wrong with him and within a flash, I started seeing little stars in my vision, my heart started to race, I felt cold. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor. I opened my eyes as if I was waking up in the morning again, but this time people were staring at me. I had passed out for the first time. My parents and the vet were just happy that I didn’t smack my head on the metal operating table.
“You don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone”
Boris was 16, roughly 80 in cat years, pretty good innings if you ask me. The decision was made to put Boris out of his misery. It’s true what they say, you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Weeks later, a new beautiful cat from the local rescue centre was introduced into the family. Similar in nature, but a bit fatter and more playful.
Just a “Blip”?
At the time, I shrugged it off as an isolated blip. I was old enough to know that people faint sometimes and it’s relatively normal.
But little did I know, this was one of the contributing events to a series of anxiety attacks that would last over a decade, and left me wondering for a long time. What on earth is wrong with me?
School Health Talks Became a Nightmare
A few years later in my last years of high school, we were watching an educational video on sickle cell anemia, some parts were graphic, there was imagery and a medical operation was being shown. All of a sudden, my palms started to sweat, my heart began to beat faster and I could feel the blood draining away from my head, it was happening again, and I was desperate not to fall off my chair in class in front of everyone, what would people think? This time I didn’t faint, I put my head down and took some slow breaths and eventually it faded.
I started to wonder to myself, “How can I be so squeamish to blood?” I’d played enough violent video games by then to surely be desensitized to it. It didn’t make sense to me.
A number of years later, something similar happened. This time it was a sexual health speaker who’d come in to frighten us about unprotected sex using quite graphic imagery and descriptions. The same thing happened, and in my mind I was thinking. “Of all the classes, why this one?” Fortunately, I managed to get it under control and not be noticed. I could not imagine the ridicule that would happen if I had passed out during a description of genital warts and HIV.
I started saying to myself. “I’m not good with medical procedures and people in distress”
I then found myself becoming nervous around medical injections and needed extra time to be sufficiently calm, despite as a child having many many vaccines without a hitch.
By this time I started saying to myself. “I’m not good with medical procedures and people in distress”. This is what us hypnotists call an identity statement. This is a double-edge sword, as they define who you are. As I soon came to learn, what you call yourself has a big impact on who you are and what you do.
Caution with Identity Statements
If you call yourself confident, it’s likely you will be. If you tell yourself before an exam: “I am crap at remembering all this, I am going to fail” – there’s a good chance that will happen. Where we put our attention directs our behaviour.
The observant of you, will notice such a statement in my opening line of this article.
I Developed a Random Cat Saliva Allergy
I went to university, and in the holidays I came back home to discover I could not breathe properly, I was short of breath and felt a tightness in my chest. Initially, I put it down to perhaps the paint, the dry air in the house, but upon doing medical tests I had developed a severe dog and cat saliva allergy.
My doctor could not really explain it. “People have allergies, and yours is very severe so you should carry an epipen just in case”, she said. I had lived with cats all my life, yet had never had an issue, but at the time I just assumed I had been desensitised to them over time.
With what I know now, this may well have been a reaction of my unconscious mind to protect me from further hurt and pain. I could of course be completely wrong on this, but I believe things happen for a reason.
Fear and Anxiety of Restaurants and Eating Out
The next incident occurred a few years later in a restaurant during a family meal. A family member started to feel unwell due to the heat of the restaurant. I became obviously concerned and all kinds of unpleasant images, worse case scenarios started to flash into my head, I felt like I was about to faint. Before long, I was sat on the floor, taking slow deep breaths. I felt absolutely pathetic, here I was, a grown man needing help in a restaurant full of other guests, who must have been thinking I had been poisoned by the food. On the contrary, it was delicious!
“My palms would sweat, my heart would race, and I’d get that cold feeling as if I was about to faint in the middle of a busy restaurant“
A number of similar incidents occurred after this, it would be as simple as someone saying that they feel hot or describing some medical procedure that a relative was going through that I’d start to panic. My palms would sweat, my heart would race, and I’d get that cold feeling as if I was about to faint in the middle of a busy restaurant. Each time it was either in a cafe or restaurant. It seemed to be getting worse, once whilst on my own, even just reading something slightly graphic about a medical procedure, I would start to get light headed and the same thing would happen.
Each meal I got through was a mini victory
Consequently, before going for a meal out, something which I love doing, the thought would pop into my mind: “Am I going to be ok? I hope I am ok this time”. Each meal I got through was a mini victory and nobody knew what was going on inside me. I would use breaks to the toilet as a chance to breathe properly and calm down.
One morning on the way to work, I saw a young woman, pale, passed out lying down next to the bus stop where I was due to take my bus to work, she was being attended to by the ambulance crew. I tried not to look, but it was too late and began to feel real empathy for the poor woman and found myself starting to feel faint again. In my panic, I had to get out of there as soon as possible otherwise I’d be following them in the next ambulance!
It started happening with increasing frequency, it felt like it was getting worse. So I knew I had to take action, otherwise who knows where it would lead. Doctors shrugged it off as just a normal thing that some people have, my blood pressure was fine and I hadn’t really considered what might be happening at an unconscious level until I began to experiment with hypnosis.
Hypnosis Has Helped Me Changed My Life
By this time, I had already been practising hypnosis in a rather informal context for friends, more as a party trick and for a while, I always considered it more of an entertainment trick that you could do to people.
I was wrong. As my fascination grew with hypnosis, I started to realise that you could seemingly change people’s reality, laughter could appear out of nowhere, the shy person at the back of the room could suddenly gain confidence to dance like never before.
More Than Just a Cheap Trick
As I began studying the therapeutic aspects of hypnosis, I began to experiment with self hypnosis. I began to understand more about how anxiety, phobias and fears are learnt and developed as ways to protect us. So I turned the tools on myself, and now for the last few years, the old anxiety pattern that I used to have seems to be well and truly broken. I can eat out as normal, without the irrational worry that would build up throughout the process.
I know many of you reading this, may have even more extreme stories to tell which make my experience trivial. The key thing to understand is that there is a pattern to all this behaviour and a reason why it occurs.
Hypnosis, first of all, is not magic but the results can be, nor is it just a party trick. I see it mostly as a tool, and like all tools it’s how it used which matters. If you take a hammer, it can neatly bash a nail into the wall, just as you can make a total mess and cause hundreds of pounds worth of damage to your walls. Fortunately, hypnosis is much gentler.
What is Hypnosis?
There’s many definitions and not even the academics or practitioners fully agree. I see it’s simply a state of focus, where the usual critical thinking takes a back seat.
You experience this all the time, when you watch a movie. People will laugh, cry, scream or get excited at all the moments the director has designed, as if it were almost real. Despite the critical part of your mind knowing that it’s not real, and in reality it’s just a script, special effects, lighting and a ton of money.
Compare this to my situation, in the moments where I felt that anxiety, the critical part of my mind knew it made no sense. This critical conscious part of the mind is only roughly 5% of our awareness. There’s another 95% which is the emotional, which has all the past experiences, memories, and stories stored away. It was this part which was driving that anxiety.
Self Hypnosis – Hypnotizing Yourself
So through exploration in self-hypnosis, I realised something I had totally forgotten about. I found myself back in primary school aged around 7 or 8 years old, one of my classmates had shocked us all by falling dramatically out of a chair during a class where the teacher would read to us. He had passed out, at one particularly gruesome part of the story.
When we encounter a sudden shock, it activates our fight, flight, freeze mechanism. It’s super fast, it’s your internal protection, your invisible bodyguard, always there to protect you when needed. It’s also one of the most reptilian parts of our brain, the amygdala.
With the understanding I have now, I know that at the time, having never experienced anything like that. My brain essentially took a snapshot of that moment, and it focused and captured whatever it heard, saw, smelt or tasted at that time. So it knew what to do in the future.
It’s useful when it comes to crossing the road or driving a car. Less useful, in some ways because it can perceive things that are actually harmless and not dangerous. As you can imagine, the more often something potentially dangerous happens, the more vigilant you become, and consequently the worse the symptoms become until it fades or it gains a new understanding.
My story describes an example of Hebb’s Law: neurons that fire together, wire together. The neurons in your brain can be simply described as a kind of mindmap, one idea is associated with another. What started out as an isolated event in school, prepared me for the event with my cat at the vets, which spiralled out to associate beliefs about anxiety around medical procedures and even eating out in a restaurant over the course of more than a decade.
Using self hypnosis I was able to learn how to diffuse and essentially update my own mind, with all the understanding I have now as an adult. I also learnt ways to interrupt the pattern, before it becomes too severe.
The Power of Self Talk
I also learnt the power of self talk, really pay attention to what you say to yourself. If you go into an environment, hoping or trying to ensure that everything is ok, you’re setting yourself up for a high chance of failure.
Essentially, with hypnosis we are rewiring the connections in the brain, providing a software update if you like.
I can safely say today, I am free of this particular issue. Anxiety is of course a natural response and sometimes very useful when you are in immense danger, so we cannot shut it down completely.
So, let’s talk about you. If there’s something that’s been holding you back or getting in your way. Hypnosis can help you in a very short space of time, I have seen people’s life-long habits or phobias simply evaporate right in front of my eyes, sometimes even in the very first session. It’s at least worth considering.
Nothing is a wonder cure, you have to be committed to the change process, but if you want to change something, you can.
I’d like to think that his way of thinking about things can help you realise the potential you have to become free of those things which have been holding you back.
Hypnosis for Allergies?
Concerning my cat allergy. I have also turned self-hypnosis with on this too combined with the help of the NLP Allergy Cure, developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, founders of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). I am not certain yet if it has completely gone, but I have not had those symptoms for many years now.
So what could you change today?
About the Author:
Oliver M. James is a Clinical Hypnotist at Boost Hypnosis. He helps young professionals, students and athletes overcome mental blocks, habits, anxiety, fears and phobias.
Guide – 5 Ways to Reduce Anxiety