We all need to experience some degree of anxiety at times – it would be unnatural not to feel any of its symptoms, such as racing pulse, dry mouth, sweatiness and shallow breathing, just before a big speech or exam, for instance – as it helps get us motivated to act. But excessive anxiety causes problems. Excessive anxiety may develop gradually, starting, perhaps, with loneliness after the loss of a loved one; being too shy to make new friends when moving somewhere new; experiencing unwelcome life changes because of chronic illness and pain; or feeling loaded down with too much responsibility – all cases of unmet emotional needs.
When people worry excessively, it is in essence because important emotional needs, such as for safety, connection or status, are not being met. That’s why the human givens approach, which focuses on helping people in distress find healthy ways to meet their emotional needs, is so effective.
For some people, anxiety can develop suddenly, after they are caught up in some tragic disaster, such as a fire or a crash, or are the victims of violence, and their lives become ruled by fear. (This is known as post-traumatic stress.) Anxiety may also take the form of obsessions, compulsions, phobias or a nagging feeling of foreboding – all of which are attempts to ward off a sense of threat.
Yet, as we know, some people face such circumstances without becoming overly anxious, while others end up almost crippled by anxiety. How we explain the negative events that happen to us has a considerable bearing on whether we are likely to suffer from excessive anxiety. Three particular types of thinking are especially connected with its development and its close partner, depression: how personally people take events (they think everything is their fault or that they didn’t get the job because they weren’t good enough, rather than because the competition was particularly stiff); how pervasive they think the effects will be (if they lose their job, they think everything in their world is going wrong, even though their relationship is still strong and they have their health, good friends, etc); and how permanent (they will never get another job, partner, dream house like that one, etc).
People who suffer badly from anxiety also tend to have a lot of negative thoughts running through their minds that they don’t even notice (“I’ll never cope”; “it’s going to be awful”; “no one likes me”) and commonly catastrophise (“I’m going to be late. My boss will sack me!”) Changing negative self-talk and challenging catastrophic thinking help lower stress levels.
Another major cause of troublesome anxiety is negative over-imagination. Anxious people tend to spend a lot of time worrying “What if?”, coming up with a whole variety of dreadful outcomes for themselves or their loved ones. This keeps them in a constant state of high emotional arousal and can take the extreme forms of phobias or obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Learning to use the imagination positively – by calmly rehearsing mentally tried and tested techniques (such as deep breathing and distracting thoughts) for dealing with feared or worrisome situations – is very effective. Calming ourselves down, when anxious, is extremely important because high emotional arousal makes us stupid. We literally can’t think straight and that makes the situation worse.
Human givens practitioners can show people how to relax, so that they can bring their own arousal and stress levels down, and how to use their imaginations positively, to rehearse successful outcomes instead of bad ones. They can also help people overcome phobias, panic attacks and traumatic memories quickly and painlessly. And, very importantly, they will encourage people to find ways to reduce their stress and also focus outwards on fulfilling activities (maybe involving the wellbeing of others as well as themselves) – excellent ways of getting their own needs met.
Human Givens Therapist
OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER: OCD
OCD is a highly upsetting condition in which a sufferer experiences powerful, intrusive and distressing thoughts or images, usually connected with an imagined disastrous event (perhaps that one’s son will die in a car crash), and devises one or many rituals designed to reduce or ward off that event or make reparation for having the ‘bad’ thought. Usually, the more the rituals are carried out, the more the thoughts recur, requiring yet more rituals.
The condition first occurs because of raised stress levels, often as a result of trauma, physical illness, worry, fear, lack of sleep, some personal setback or crisis, or even a fright. People who develop the compulsion to wash their hands, and who often end up spending many hours a day in this activity, may first have experienced a generalised anxiety about their health or safety and then focused on a fear of germs. The bottom line is that some important emotional need is not being met. That’s why the human givens approach, which focuses on helping people in distress find healthy ways to meet their emotional needs, is so successful.
Rituals can be extremely varied and numerous, may involve walking across a room a certain way, picking up cutlery a certain way, counting or clapping a set number of times, etc, and have to be carried out in exactly the right way, otherwise the whole sequence must be begun again. Yet many sufferers are amazingly resourceful in hiding their condition.
What happens in OCD is that a primitive part of the brain, called the amygdala, which is our emotional alarm system, starts to associate the thinking of the OCD thought with danger, setting a stress reaction in train which leads the sufferer to carry out the ritual to avert the danger and reduce the stress. Sufferers are convinced that something dreadful will happen if they don’t complete their rituals, however many times they are required to do them. When they are caught up in this thinking and carrying out the rituals, they are in a trance state, just like a dream. And, just as our dreams seem totally real and believable to us when we are in them, so the trance state of OCD is equally compelling and believable to sufferers. They are, therefore, absolutely terrified about stopping their rituals.
It is essential to help a sufferer see that they are separate from the OCD – a lot of people choose to call it ‘the bully’, as a means of starting to see it as something outside of themselves. This helps them take a step back and begin to identify OCD thoughts (“if I don’t make and re-make the bed 10 times immediately, my daughter will be abducted on her way home from school”) as very different from normal thoughts. To help them to resist performing the rituals associated with the intrusive thoughts, they need to have distracting activities prepared, which they can launch into instantly – for instance, singing, dancing to music, doing the ironing, calling a friend, taking a walk; the activities need to be varied, so that a new ritual isn’t established.
The more that the OCD sufferer does not carry out the ritual after experiencing the thought, and realises that nothing terrible does happen, the more the rational part of the brain can override the nervy messages from the amygdala. As time goes on, and the messages continue not to be acted on, the thoughts start to fade and stop altogether.
This is not easy for sufferers to put into practice, of course, because they believe so strongly in the power of the ritual. Human givens practitioners use an effective technique to help resolve trauma, if one exists. They also use techniques to encourage them, while deeply relaxed, to visualise themselves, as if on a TV screen, experiencing the frightening thought but not carrying out the appeasement ritual and calmly doing something else instead, such as making a cup of tea or doing the washing-up.
Going through this, in a calm state, in the imagination helps instruct the brain to respond this way in reality.
Just as important, human givens practitioners help sufferers identify what is lacking in their lives (it is quite common, for instance, for sufferers to have ceased to have a social or work life, because the rituals are so demanding) and help them to get their needs met in fulfilling ways.