What is an anchor? A-Z of hypnotherapy terms

The first in my A – Z of hypnotherapy-related terms is anchoring – a fantastic NLP technique which I use with most of my clients, most of the time.


Natural anchors

Although anchoring is usually thought of as an NLP technique, it’s useful to think of anchoring as a completely natural response and reaction to a range of situations, which we, as hypnotherapists, simply manipulate in a positive manner to help people. So what is a ‘natural’ anchor? An anchor is something which immediately – at an unconscious level – triggers a memory or response in us. Anchors can trigger both positive and negative responses, and any of our five senses can be triggered in a number of ways. Let’s imagine you walk into a room and smell a familiar smell which immediately makes you think of your grandmother. Your response to the smell is immediate – you don’t consciously register what is happening. Without realising it at first, you have smelt your grandmother’s favourite perfume and are transported back to the memories and feelings of being near your grandmother. Or perhaps you are walking past a man and smell his aftershave, and unconsciously find yourself lost in thought about the time you met your husband for the first time in a nightclub. If you are working on a difficult project, which is stressing you out, and an old song which you loved as a teenager suddenly comes on the radio, you may find yourself feeling calmer and happier, lost in the feelings that the music is invoking. When I walk along the beach near my home in Prestwick, on the west coast of Scotland, the sound of the waves often evokes early memories and feelings associated with childhood holidays in Shetland. Perhaps someone says or touches you in a perfectly innocent way, but it immediately anchors you to a negative experience. My brother, who was 9 years older than me, used to tickle me until I was in pain and crying, and sometimes hung me over the bannister as part of the tickling experience. If my sons or partner dare to give me a friendly tickle, I react in a very extreme way because – unconsciously – I am anchored immediately to this earlier experience (having been warned on several occasions, and having received the occasional extreme response from me, they all know not to tickle me now). These are all examples of natural anchors – a stimulus which immediately and suddenly takes you to a particular memory and state of mind.


How do we use anchoring in hypnotherapy?

Although anchors are completely natural, we can manipulate them in a positive way. Instead of just randomly letting an anchor ‘happen’ we can set one up, so that you can choose a trigger which will anchor you to a state of being of your choice. Again, some people have a tendency to do this naturally. For many years – long before I trained as a hypnotherapist – I used some anchors on myself. When I was at the dentist, I would find myself digging my thumb nail into my finger so that I would focus on that instead of the dental work which was taking place around me. I discovered through chance that certain pieces of music helped calm me down considerably whilst driving, and would play these songs when I was approaching a driving experience which I found difficult. If you take a minute or two now to think about it, you might find that you have specific things that you do or say to yourself which help you to stay calm and in control in particular situations. Children may find themselves hugging their favourite teddy, which immediately takes them into a calm and safe state. And sportspeople are famous for having specific tools and techniques which help to ground and anchor them before a performance. Anchors, therefore, are not only natural, but we often have the innate sense to create our own personal anchors.


We can take things a step further when it comes to utilising anchors in hypnotherapy. Firstly, we don’t leave things to chance, or rely on the fact that you will just inherently ‘know’ what is a good anchor for you in a particular situation. If there is a situation which tends to trigger a strong stress response, or which makes you act in a self-destructive manner – say, driving in heavy traffic, or binge eating when you feel low – I start off by asking you how you would prefer to feel in these situations. People would generally like to feel calm, confident and in control of the difficult situation – rather than the situation being in control of them (which it currently is). I then go on to ask my clients if there is a time when they have felt confident and in control of a situation, perhaps a time when they have achieved something good in their life, completed a task or simply felt like they were that ‘best version of themselves’. Even if it was a long time ago, we all have had times when we’ve handled a situation well, or utilised our best qualities, and I spend some time talking with my client to help them remember the right sort of memory. I then help them to use this good memory to ‘anchor’ them to the more positive state of mind they told me they experienced when they passed their driving test/ completed their work ahead of time/ achieved their weight loss goal. I create some kind of a tool to help them access this state whenever they need to. For instance, I will give them a word, or a scent, or a task to do – such as firmly clasping their thumb and finger together – which is, from then on, strongly associated with their good memory and state of mind.


I work with the client, in a state of hypnosis, to strengthen their anchor and to use their strong imaginations to experience how it feels to use their anchor during the situation they usually find difficult. For instance, if you came to me with a phobia of thunder, I would create a strong anchor with you – based on what you told me was a time when you had felt strong, confident and in control – and then, in a state of hypnosis, I would ask you to imagine yourself in a thunder storm, using your anchor. If you had an issue with alcohol, I would ask you to imagine yourself in a situation which usually triggered your drinking – such as feeling bored or lonely during the evening – and I would then ask you to use your anchor, so that the next time you were bored and lonely, you would be immediately transported to that ‘best version’ of yourself.


It’s impossible to overstate how powerful anchoring can be as a means to immediately and effectively access your ‘best you’ – whatever that ‘best you’ is. It seems like such a simple technique. But it’s beauty really lies in its simplicity. Because it is so natural, and so easy to do, it works at a very deep level which bypasses any need to have to think about it. In fact, in some ways, it’s the opposite of thinking. When we are in a state of panic, we’re in our ‘fight or flight’ system, and its impossible to think straight. One of the things to go when we’re in fight or flight is the ability to calmly and rationally think things through. Logic goes straight out of the window. The anchor works in a very different way to trying to think things through by quickly and fundamentally triggering a new, favourable response. Simply by breathing in a scent, or squeezing together your thumb and finger, or saying a special word, you automatically go into your desired state of confidence and being in control. You IMMEDIATELY feel a sense of calmness which means that the fight or flight response subsides, and which allows you back into the land of rational, logical thought.


Anchoring – as well as mentally transporting you into a very helpful frame of mind exactly when you need it – also provides some ‘time out’, which is especially useful for habits and destructive behaviours. I had a client recently who had a nail-biting habit which was causing them a high degree of distress. I helped them to create an anchor, based on a time when they had felt really good about themselves. In a state of hypnosis, I then encouraged them to imagine the types of situations which usually triggered their nail-biting response, which tended to be when they were bored and usually when they were at home after work. I got the client to replace the nail biting with an anchor or rubbing their thumb and forefinger together, which produced a sensation of feeling calm and satisfied and which replaced their old desire to nail bite, and which created a break between the feeling of boredom and the old behaviour of nail biting. A client with an over-eating issue found that her anchor gave her some time out and that she used it to manage the old cravings until they disappeared. When – with the help of the anchor – she felt calmer and more in control, she could make a rational decision about whether she wanted to eat the food, or whether to choose a healthier option, or no food, instead.


If you feel that you have a behaviour which is out of control, or that some situations cause you such stress that you feel unable to deal with them, an anchor may provide a very effective solution. Please get in touch if you would like to make a hypnotherapy appointment at my office in Prestwick, or would like to arrange for a Skype hypnotherapy session.