You may choose to call it a craving, a fancy, a bit of a dependence but the truth is that anyone who becomes overly drawn to or obsessed by any activity – whether drinking alcohol, taking drugs, over- or under-eating, shopping, gambling, sex or even doing good deeds – is trying to fill a void or block out something that is missing in their lives. (Even smoking may start for that reason.)
That’s why the human givens approach, which focuses on helping people in distress find healthy ways to meet their emotional needs, is such a successful method for overcoming addictions.
We know, from research, that people who feel fulfilled in their lives do not need (or stop needing) to indulge in addictive activities. In one famous experiment, rats were offered either morphine-laced water or ordinary water. When rats were kept alone in small cages, they tended to opt for the morphine, but when they were kept in groups in areas similar to their natural habitats, they preferred to drink the water. When the rats in the natural habitat were then put singly into cages, they started choosing the morphine-laced water, while the rats originally in the cages stopped choosing the morphine when put into natural-style habitats. This showed clearly that, when needs were met, rats did not want drugs. The same effect is found in humans. Most young people give up drug experimentation when they start careers and families.
People are much more likely to get caught up in addiction when important needs cease to be met, perhaps because of loss, caused by the death of someone close, a relationship ending, redundancy or illness, or by dissatisfaction arising from boredom or feeling trapped. Sometimes such circumstances lead first to depression and then to addiction.
It is now known that all addictive behaviours work through the same common pathway in the brain – the expectation pathway. So, when human givens practitioners help someone to overcome an addictive activity, they focus first on helping people knock out the expectations of pleasure that addiction falsely feeds us. If you have ever tried to stop an activity you are rather over-partial to, you may recall that, when you first decide not to have that drink or that cigarette or switch on the shopping channel, you don’t feel any great discomfort. It is as time goes on that the craving grows, often until it is irresistible.
What happens in the brain is this: when we first decide not to indulge in the activity, we feel calm; however, there is a structure in the emotional brain, called the amygdala, whose job it is to notice when anything out of the ordinary is happening and raise the alarm if it could mean danger. On this occasion, it notices that we haven’t had our usual cigarette, drink, shopping-channel fix. A sequence of chemical events takes place in the brain, which results in our being flooded with arousing emotional memories of how wonderful it was to smoke, drink, order goods when watching the shopping channel – and so we succumb.
Once a strong desire is experienced, we recall only expectations of pleasure associated with the addictive activity. This makes our craving powerful, even overwhelming, instead of the very mild physiological discomfort we experienced at the start. But the memories are usually false because, as we know, when we feel we are being deprived of something we want, we exaggerate the joys of it. So we remember being the life and soul of the party and not being sick and having a hangover; we remember the thrill of buying new clothing and not the self-loathing while stuffing it, still in its glossy packaging, at the back of the wardrobe. In other words, the satisfaction is all in our heads.
Human givens practitioners help people change their expectations by relaxing them and then guiding them to visualise the downsides of the addictive activity – such as disabling illness, loss of loved ones, financial hardship, etc, instead of the false memories of fulfilment. When only these more realistic associations come to mind on experiencing a craving, withdrawal symptoms remain mild physiological ones, such as the sensation of gentle butterflies in the stomach or a furry tongue. After a while, if all false memories are rejected and only the fearsome ones are accessed from our emotional memory stores, craving ceases altogether.
People then need to be helped to find ways to meet their needs more healthily again, such as by starting or resuming social activities (most people with addictive behaviours gradually give less and less time to what they previously valued); facing whatever may have led to the addiction in the first place, such as a troubled marriage or work difficulties, and finding solutions; and learning ways to deal with future stress – or temptation – without relapsing. This will usually involve changing attitudes towards problems or setbacks, learning to see them as challenges that can be coped with; learning to calm aroused emotions down instantly; and being ready to take ‘emergency action’ to distract oneself from temptation, such as going for a walk or calling a friend.
When people genuinely realise that they have been hoodwinked into false expectations of pleasure and fulfilment from an addictive activity, they find that they can stop, and not miss it, however long they have been in its thrall.
Road rage, plane rage, even art-gallery rage (when an exhibition is too crowded) are becoming all too familiar terms and are just some of the forms that over-the-top anger can take in modern-day life.
Excessive anger can have an obvious trigger or else seem to occur out of the blue; and it can ruin lives, as work and relationships suffer. Excessive anger always results from stress and essential emotional needs 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.
The ability to get angry is natural. It is part of the ancient ‘fight or flight’ survival mechanism, which evolved to help our long-distant ancestors survive when, faced with an attack from wild animals or invading tribes, they either had to stand up for themselves or flee. The pulse races, adrenalin surges, breath gets fast and shallow, blood surges into the muscles of the legs and arms and the body gets flooded with stress hormones, all so that we are ready to take action if we decide to act aggressively to ward off something or someone.
Once action has been taken, the feelings subside.
But, today, there are far fewer occasions when threat is as real and physical as just described. If we get frustrated or feel angry with the boss, we may have to keep those feelings to ourselves, which leaves them circulating with no obvious way of being discharged. Or we may become more and more wound up by little annoyances that build up over the day until we reach a point when, over something seemingly trifling, we snap. There are many other circumstances that can lead us to have lower tolerance for irritations – for instance, overtiredness, feeling ill or hungry, hormonal changes, chronic pain or addictive cravings.
Sometimes people have a tendency towards anger because of chronic low self-esteem, which usually stems from abuse or neglect during childhood. As adults, they may never feel good or worthy enough and tend to lash out if they perceive themselves as slighted in any way. Mild brain damage can cause a loss of impulse control and aggression. And people on the autistic spectrum are often more prone to angry outbursts because of their difficulties and frustrations in trying to relate to other people and make sense of the social world.
More often than is realised, aggression is triggered by fear and sometimes it is a long-forgotten fear. For instance, a man who, as a child, was locked in a tiny dark space under the stairs as a punishment, may lash out, seemingly inexplicably, at his wife when she wants him to check the space under their stairs for damp. This is because an ‘alarm system’ in our brain, called the amygdala, accesses our emotional memories and, on the basis of previous experience, alerts us to anything that may represent a risk. Because the stair cupboard experience was so traumatic and frightening, it stays ‘live’, causing the man to experience terror all over again, usually without knowing why. Sometimes, too, repeated and seemingly inexplicable anger outbursts stem from ‘pattern matching’ to a shocking situation in childhood, when anger was felt but, at the time, suppressed.
Fortunately, people can be helped to deal with their anger, whatever its cause. Human givens practitioners will show people how to calm themselves down quickly (this is essential, as high emotional arousal makes us stupid, stopping us from listening to reason); encourage them to take exercise (doing enjoyable physical activity is a great way to discharge accumulated stress); and help them to examine and change their self-talk – having hostile thoughts only harms us – and to look at situations from other people’s perspectives as well as their own.
Simple, effective techniques can be used to resolve anger outbursts arising from incidents in the past, so that these cease to occur in the future.
Finally, human givens practitioners will help people explore what needs are not being met in their lives, which may be fuelling anger – for instance, a lack of a sense of achievement or status or control or connection with others may cause feelings of inferiority and hostility. Experiencing uncontrollable or excessive anger always means that something is not working well in a person’s life. No one is naturally an ‘angry’ person; they are just, temporarily, overcome by anger and can learn how to cease to be its victim.
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.