Photo by Peter Drinkell
Photo by: Greg Funnell
Hazel Gale is bubbly and bright, a very different woman to who she was a few years ago. A kickboxer who held European and World Titles, she now coaches and works as a Cognitive Hypnotherapist. It’s fair to say she can speak from experience when she talks about fighting and the importance of mental health.
Before she began kickboxing, Hazel worked in the hospitality industry and ‘had every bad habit under the sun’. Persuaded to try kickboxing, she went to her first class and was hooked within 15 minutes. She exchanged her hedonistic lifestyle for the thrill of fighting in competition. However, she says it was like swapping one abusive relationship with another; she invested all of her self-worth into fighting and any injury or poor training session left her feeling depressed.
Hazel won her first national title after two years. Two years after that she had burnt herself out and was experiencing a myriad of physiological symptoms – fatigue, muscle ache, allergies and a perpetual sore throat – as well as chronic anxiety and daily panic attacks. Everything hinged on her performance in the kickboxing world, her friends, clothes, job, partner;
“I was afraid of competition because I had invested so much into doing well that the threat of losing felt like the promise of death.”
A loss would provoke feelings of betrayal. She sought medications and supplements to replicate sleep, she had IBS and her hair was falling out. She couldn’t make weight because she was retaining so much water, but training and ‘performing well were the only things that could promise to me feel better. In reality, of course, pushing myself in that way was making everything worse.'
Photo by: Greg Funnell
Despite all this, she was still having considerable success winning the European Title and two World Titles. Tragically her Dad died around this time and she went through the trauma of an abortion. However, she ignored these issues and pushed on, and as a result her body started to fall apart.
At 29 she was so unwell she was tested for conditions like thyroid disorder and glandular fever; one doctor diagnosed her with chronic fatigue. Hazel started looking for alternative answers and discovered hypnotherapy, which changed her way of thinking and inspired her to train as one herself.
Hazel describes her final few years of fighting as “amazing”. After switching from kickboxing to boxing, she fought in twenty-two bouts and only lost three. She believes she would have competed more often had she been male because there were still so few women in the sport back then.
Every bout was a lesson in how to be ok with fighting, and it was very soon after therapy that Hazel noticed differences.
“The first thing I noticed was the difference when I sat down in the corner between rounds. Instead of being dazed and completely out of breath, I felt like I would do after a round of sparring. Because of this, I could start listening to my coaches and actually absorb the information.”
Hazel used visualisation techniques in her recovery. In her book she talks about visualising a lion to rediscover her aggression, helping her to hit harder and sharper. She would visualise the way it walked into the ring, padding around it and when Hazel got in the ring she imagined stepping into its paws. The first time she did this she won by TKO in the second round.
When we met with Hazel she was preparing for the Circle Haus Retreat. She would be taking people through their issues using expressive writing in the form of targeted journaling. This means following a stream of consciousness and through it building self-awareness. Editing afterwards is a big part of this process she told us; seeing the connections the mind makes without you realising it. This is not part of Cognitive Hypnotherapy, but it helps her clients to explore issues deeply as they see it from an outside perspective.
What is the difference between normal Hypnotherapy and Cognitive Hypnotherapy?
Traditional hypnotherapy (clinical hypnotherapy) tends to consider hypnosis to be a special state into which we must be “put” by a practitioner. In Cog Hyp we see it differently. We view trance as a naturally occurring everyday state.
Any “auto-drive” moment can be considered a trance state – it’s when the unconscious rather than conscious mind is calling the shots. Some trance states will be effective and others ineffective.
The problems that people bring to therapy, therefore, are trance problems: the comfort eater who doesn’t even remember making their way to the fridge; the abusive partner who doesn’t feel in control of their rage. Our job is to help clients de-hypnotise themselves into a state that facilitates a better response.
Effective trance states can be very desirable. Flow is a form of trance – that wonderful automatic state in which everything seems to work. As fighters, we all want to master this but it’s hard to do consciously. The conscious mind, remarkably, takes half a second to register what it sees, hears and feels, etc. That means we’d be working with old information if we were to try and fight using that system of thought. It’d be far too slow.
A common misunderstanding that people have about hypnotherapy is that they’d lose control if “put under”. There’s no loss of control. If a group of people hypnotised on a stage to cluck like chickens were interrupted by a fire alarm, they would snap out of it. Equally, if someone had committed a crime and didn’t want to talk about it, I don’t think any therapist would be able to put them in a trance state deep enough to make them confess.
Photo by: Greg Funnell
Who can you help?
I can help those who recognise there is something blocking them from what they want but don’t know why. For most athletes it will be some sort of anxiety, a behavioural issue like unconscious eating, or anything like an imposter syndrome where we feel like we aren’t good enough to be where we are. Everyone experiences this in one way or another but most of us feel utterly alone while in its grip.
This kind of block can present in any number of different ways; behavioural, emotional or physiological. It could be a psychosomatic injury. For example, a runner who gets a bad ankle every time they go to the final. In therapy, we’d look at the system of beliefs and memories connected to the problem. When I say system of beliefs, I really mean ‘limiting beliefs’ – negative ideas that we have about ourselves, like ‘I don’t fit in’, ‘I’m lazy’ or ‘I’m a fraud’. Mine was ‘I’m not good enough’ and no matter what happened in reality, my mind could warp the story to fit my fear.
How do you help?
The first session with a client looks into these structures of thought that are causing the issue and how they connect to the problematic behaviours. Where did they learn those beliefs? How did they come to that conclusion? Most of the time it’ll date back to formative memories.
The actual issue doesn’t dictate the time it will take to shift. Two people can come to therapy with exactly the same problem, and whilst one will feel that they are making progress after three sessions, the next might take much longer.
With Athletes in particular, it’s not just about beliefs and emotions because you can also use techniques to maximise your performance. We would look at the flow state – when your mind and body work in unison – and ask what is blocking it. We help them learn how to switch it on, anchoring it into a visualisation or mental command. We find pre-play routines that work for them, which could be focusing on their opponent or banging their gloves together. The routine needs to be both simple and the same every time you repeat it (not just at competitions) to get your mind into a ‘yes’ set with comfort and familiarity.
Any therapist has to learn how to make a rock solid rapport with their clients, the relationship you build is crucial to the success of the process.
Do you put your clients in a trance state to talk them through their problems or help them fix them afterwards?
We believe that we are going in and out of trance states all the time. For example, right now we are all in our conversation trance state. This means that a therapist needs to be aware of their language throughout the entire session, not just when the client has their eyes closed.
Words are important and you can’t give negatives to the unconscious mind. If I ask you not to think of a blue tree, what do you think of? A blue tree. You have to think of a blue tree in order to process my request that you don’t, by which point it’s too late. So if I tell myself not to feel anxious, not to eat chocolate, not to trip over, I’m making those things more likely because I am focusing on them. If one of your fighters was fighting with their hands down, what are you likely to say to them? Don’t drop your hands. If you give that as a hypnotic suggestion, all you are telling them is to visualise having their hands dropping. It’ll often have exactly the wrong effect.
The time in-between rounds is a powerful moment. The fighter will be in a trance state for sure, so whatever their coach tells them can be considered a hypnotic suggestion. Rather than giving them a load of blue trees: ‘don’t drop your hands’, ‘stop going back in straight lines’, it’s better to reframe into the positive. You’ll get a better result if you say ‘keep your hands up’ or ‘make angles when they attack’ etc. You want them to walk out feeling good about themselves, with forward thinking, not painful focus on previous mistakes.
Tell us about ‘The Mind Monster Solution’.
To get people to get in touch with the deeper issues associated with their problem I ask clients to think about the part of their personality that creates it. For example, if we’re dealing with anxiety, then this will be the part that makes them feel scared. And then I ask them to visualise and know that part. Naturally we try to fight these parts off – we try to fight our own weakness – but the more we to shut them out the bigger and more monstrous they become.
After I published my book, people started sending me images of their monsters. The creative process can lead to unexpected solutions and it makes way for acceptance rather than resistance. So if you’ve got a fear of failure monster (which is what mine was), the answer to getting over that problem is to accept that part that feels failure, not try to beat it with success. If you’ve given an image and name to your monster, when you get that feeling of fear, you can have a conversation with it. That part of you is just a child self that lives on the inside. It needs to feel loved and part of a team to get stronger.
That is essentially how I got better; I met my monster and I learnt to love it. I started out with the horrible black, omnipresent shadow following me around and feeling like a rising dread. When I had done the work, my monster ended up looking like a 5-year-old version of me.
That evolution from having an amorphous fear, to understanding where something came from and why it’s not true, meant that I could overcome all sorts of performance anxiety. I went from being completely petrified to feeling present, connected and enjoying what I was doing when I walked into the ring. (Order your copy on amazon)
You mentioned psychosomatic pain. Why do some people bring it to training and how do you deal with it?
Whatever the symptom is you look underneath it to uncover the real problem. The hypnotic suggestions I make are formed out of the clients’ words. For example, when talking about the flow state, some people would use the word ‘calm’ while others would use ‘relaxed’, and some would say ‘smooth’ or ‘focused’. I’ll take from whatever they give me so I know I’m speaking their language.
With any kind of physical illness (like psychosomatic pain) it’s always a maybe. There are no guarantees that therapy will help. I really believe that my condition developed because I was so in denial of my emotions that my body made them real (physical). I think that often applies to people who have psychosomatic injuries. Their body would have sent them so many signals using emotions, but we are very good at shutting our feelings out, confusing them with self-judgements. We don’t want to feel fear because we confuse it with cowardice. We don’t want to feel joy because we confuse it with naivety. So, we don’t hear the messages until it’s too late.
I had decided I wasn’t going to feel fear and so my head was not prepared to accept it. Emotional resistance is part of anyone’s problem; it’s not just that they are numbing it, but also fighting it.
To make a fundamental change, I had to realise that I had nothing to prove. I started fighting because I felt like I had to show my worth. I think this is a common story for athletes. If we are doing a sport that is really hard, compromising our immune system and way of life – and if our goal is to be ‘the greatest in the world’ – that kind of purpose often grows out of insecurity. I think if we are prepared to work through that, we can learn to love our sport for its own sake rather than the promise of glory. That’s far healthier and more effective too.