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Human givens: a radical new approach to mental health

Richard Brook
Primary Care Mental Health Worker
Norwich Family Support Team

Finding your way around the world used to be much harder. When myths outnumbered maps and primitive transportation left much to chance, travel was not for the fainthearted. Thankfully, voyages of discovery and technological advancement have given us much greater knowledge of the world and the means to explore it safely.
Likewise with human behaviour. Helping services of the past depended on curious unscientific ideas about people and unsophisticated methods of intervention. We now know much better. Behavioural psychology and neurobiology have yielded fascinating insights into how the mind-body system works. Those who occupy the frontline, delivering services to people affected by emotional and psychological problems, at last have access to a scientifically based approach to common psychological problems.
The "human givens" approach is not a new therapy, but an "organising idea", developed by Joseph Griffin and Ivan Tyrell of Mindfields College. It is outlined in their recent book(1) and has been taught to 12,000 health, education and social services practitioners at a range of seminars, workshops and an intensive diploma course. Griffin and Tyrell are practising psychotherapists who have been striving to bring psychotherapy, counselling and other helping services into line with current knowledge about human development and behaviour. Drawing on a range of therapeutic ideas, from Rogerian counselling, neurolinguistic programming, narrative and cognitive therapy and clinical hypnosis, they seek to make the best of what works and replace what does not, setting the whole enterprise on firm theoretical foundations.

What are the human givens?
The human givens consist of our basic emotional needs and the resources or tools with which we go about meeting those needs. Thus, the needs for attention and stimulation, the need to have autonomy and control, and a sense of meaning in life are all human givens. So are the resources of imagination, objectivity and the ability to communicate with others at many levels. Psychological problems arise, so the theory goes, when our needs are not being consistently met or we are misusing our resources to generate, rather than solve, problems (such as the overactive imagination that generates anxieties and worries). This model gives practitioners from many disciplines a sound basis for assessment of people with psychological and emotional problems.
Arising from this theoretical base come a number of brief and straightforward intervention techniques that help people quickly and undramatically get the better of depression, anger and anxiety disorders, phobias and post-traumatic stress, chronic pain, addictions and many psychosomatic disorders.

Guiding principles
Human givens training, at diploma level, offers a comprehensive model for counsellors and therapists. However, its techniques are based on principles that can guide and inform practice in all the helping ­professions.

Emotion precedes thought
Those who subscribe to the idea behind cognitive therapy - that unhelpful emotions are the consequence of faulty thinking - have been looking at things the wrong way round. Neuroscientists have known for several years that all new information entering our senses is processed down two channels, and the fast track goes via the amygdala, the emotional filter within the limbic system. The result of this is that emotion precedes thought. We know what we feel about something before we know what we think about it, and in the case of strong emotional experiences, when we confront real or perceived threats to life or limb, our emotions can have us charged up, focused and running before we have consciously registered what the danger is. While it cannot be denied that thinking is part of the loop that causes and sustains emotional distress, it is not the obvious place to start looking for an intervention. Many people find that simple strategies designed to help them calm their emotional responses to everyday stresses, or change the patterns by which benign stimuli are wrongly interpreted as threatening, are all they need to rise above anger, anxiety or depression.

Strong emotions make us stupid!
We have all experienced that morning-after feeling following a strong emotional outburst: "What was I thinking of when I said …?" The fact is, we probably were not thinking of anything at all, and people, like the teenagers I often see slouched in the head teacher's office, are probably being truthful when they say they "can't remember" what they said derogatorily to Mr or Mrs Smith.
Biologically speaking, we now know that strong emotional arousal inhibits the logical processing functions of the cortex and renders us temporarily stupid. In this case it is essential that all helping professionals know how to help people relax. Simple breathing exercises, physical activities, guided imagery or cognitive tasks can all help a distressed person regain control. Only then are they able to process information effectively and hear our advice.

What you focus on is what you get
It is a human given that people are able to achieve only what they can imagine (consider whether you ever made or did anything that didn't first feature in your imagination), and that how we configure things in our mind usually provides a pretty good indication of the outcome of any activity. Witness England rugby star Jonny Wilkinson using visualisation to improve his chances of a successful kick. He says he won't strike the ball until he has imagined it gliding along a wire between the posts. This same principle is what lies behind the placebo effect. A strong belief in the effectiveness of a cure is often sufficient to promote healing, when in fact no active ingredient is given. This places upon all of us a responsibility to use language carefully, to speak to people in a way that generates hope, focuses on aspirations and successful outcomes, and encourages them to use their imagination in a ­positive way.
Some practitioners have the luxury of a context that allows us to use guided imagery. Even teachers are learning the value of visualisation with students facing exams and other challenges. Others have to be more inventive, but the need to focus on solutions is ­paramount.

Matching and metaphors
We make sense of the world through metaphor. We can understand a new experience only by matching it with other similar experiences stored in memory. When this process works well we are fine, but when we wrongly match a stimulus to some element of a traumatic event, and experience an inappropriate emotional reaction, as in post-traumatic stress disorder, or find that totally benign stimuli, by means of faulty pattern matches, ring our emotional alarm bells, as with anxiety disorders, we are in trouble. Simply knowing this, however, can be a great help to many patients.
Since metaphors are the cause of the problem, it is not surprising that metaphors and stories can point the way to the answer.  For example, talking about a faulty smoke alarm, to convey the idea that there is sometimes smoke without fire, can help a person to take a more objective view of a persistent anxiety or phobia and learn how to switch off false alarms.

Emotions are contagious
Human beings naturally and automatically seek to establish rapport with one another. This is seen in the matching of body language and speech pattern that develops as two people converse, or the groups of like- minded people who dress and act similarly. This human given also explains why we can catch emotional exhaustion from our clients.
A person whose language includes many "nominalisations", words that carry no concrete meaning but express strong negative emotions, can send us on an internal search for meaning and stimulate negative emotions of our own. Before we know it we feel as depressed as the person we are talking to. The human givens approach gives us ways to protect ourselves from this pitfall and remain at our objective, clear-thinking best for longer.

It will never work!
Many are sceptical: "it is too simplistic"; "it fails to address the root of the problem"; "it's just another therapeutic fad"; "it makes me think of the Funky Gibbon!" These are just a sample of the objections I have heard to this emergent therapeutic approach. However, having recently completed the diploma course and begun to apply the ideas and methods of human givens therapy in my work as a primary mental health worker, I am beginning to see that we have here a radical and powerful tool that has the potential to improve the practice of all who work in frontline helping services.
A broken-down car will fare better in the hands of a good mechanic for an hour than a whole weekend with a hopeful amateur. It makes sense that those of us seeking to fix broken people should have at our disposal a reliable model of how healthy people function. This cannot fail to make our practice more effective.



  1. Griffin J, Tyrell I. Human givens. A new approach to emotional health and clear ­thinking. Chalvington (East Sussex): Human Givens Publishing; 2003.

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