Stress results from a build-up of mental and/or physical pressures to a level that we find overwhelming. The amount and type of stress we can stand will vary from individual to individual – for instance, one person may get a buzz from giving a talk to hundreds of people whereas someone else will be a nervous wreck in similar circumstances. We may all have to go through different stresses in a lifetime – such as bereavement, job loss, relationship breakdown, serious illness, or the demands of caring for children or sick relatives. We have to cope with challenging life changes, such as leaving home for the first time, taking on new responsibilities at work or settling down with a new partner. Even when these are pleasant developments, they can still take a mental and physical toll on us. When lots of little stresses and some big ones happen in a short period of time, we may lose our ability to cope well. If we feel defeated by all we have to do, and lack drive and energy, that is stress.
Stress is the modern-day effect of an evolutionary mechanism known as ‘fight or flight’, designed to save our distant ancestors from dangers in the wild. For instance, when under physiological stress, our muscles may tense, blood pressure soar, the heart race and the chest hurt, as breathing becomes shallow and quick; saliva may dry up and we might sweat and shake. When these bodily changes took place for our ancestors, it was because they faced a major threat, such as a wild boar attack, and they needed to gear up to run for it or to fight for their lives. Once they had taken action, and survived, all the physiological arousal would quickly subside.
But in modern times, it is rarely a wild boar that makes us feel threatened. More often, it may be an over-demanding boss or not having enough control over our work (stress is now the most common cause of long-term sickness absence) or the demands of taking a sick relative to regular hospital appointments while trying to hold down a full-time job. The stress doesn’t end and so the physiological effects don’t ebb. That’s why we get physical symptoms from severe stress, such as disturbed sleep and ailments such as frequent migraines, backache, angina, skin eruptions, bowel problems, stomach cramps or high blood pressure. And we commonly feel highly anxious or depressed.
All these symptoms are warnings that important emotional needs are not being met (maybe our lives feel lonely, too demanding or meaningless) and that something has to change, to bring the harmful stress levels down. That’s why the human givens approach, which focuses on helping people find healthy ways to meet their essential emotional needs, is so effective.
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.
Contrary to common belief, depression is not primarily a biological illness, inherited through the genes. Nor is it the setbacks, crises or tragedies in our lives that cause depression. It is our response to adverse events that determines whether we get depressed or not. Research shows that people most likely to suffer depression are those who react to adversity by taking it personally, seeing all areas of their lives as blighted by it, and the misery as going on forever. Depression is always a second and unnecessary problem, and just makes problematic circumstances worse. This is good to know because it means that, instead of feeling helpless or hopeless, people can learn to take back control over their lives. They may not be able to change certain circumstances but they always have options about how they react to them.
The symptoms of depression include low mood, loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities, loss of appetite and energy, sleep disturbance, feeling agitated or lethargic, worthless or guilty, difficulty in thinking straight and having repeated thoughts about suicide. Antidepressant drugs may help some people because they lift levels of a ‘feel-good’ chemical in the brain; unfortunately, they do nothing to change the underlying circumstances or thinking patterns that led to the depression. Depression is always related to unmet essential emotional needs and that is why the human givens approach, which focuses on helping people in distress find healthy ways to meet their emotional needs, is so successful.
Depressed people may seem deflated and flat but, in actual fact, they have raised levels of a stress hormone called cortisol, which means that they are in a state of constant high emotional arousal. When our emotions are aroused we can’t think rationally, so this is why people deep in the grip of depression can’t concentrate well or even make simple decisions. Learning simple relaxation techniques to calm themselves down will start reducing those cortisol levels.
The main reason that depressed people are so emotionally aroused is that they spend a vast amount of time worrying about the future or beating themselves up about past events. Perhaps they still feel guilty about something that happened recently – or years ago; perhaps they are frightening themselves with dire ‘what if?’ scenarios (likely or unlikely), in which loved ones encounter dangers or they themselves lose their jobs or their homes; perhaps they feel beaten down by chronic pain or anger (“Why did this have to happen to me?” “How could he have been so cruel?”); or maybe they experience a combination. They also have a huge tendency towards negative thinking – “I’ll never be good enough”; “I’ll never cope”; “nothing ever goes right”; “the pain will only get worse”. All this kind of negative imagining and thinking saps an enormous amount of energy – and makes people utterly miserable.
Far from feeling more refreshed after a night’s sleep, most people with depression wake up next day still exhausted and feeling totally unmotivated. It is hard for them to get out of bed and do anything at all. We now know why this happens. Psychologist and co-founder of the human givens approach Joe Griffin carried out research over many years which showed that, when we dream at night, we are discharging unexpressed emotional arousals from the previous day. If earlier we were upset about something our spouse did or didn’t do, but kept it to ourselves, we would later dream that out, perhaps in the form of getting angry with someone else (dream content is never straightforward); that would have the desired effect of lowering our levels of emotional arousal, so that we can start next day afresh, even though we are unlikely to remember we had the dream. (If we did express our feelings with our spouse at the time, we wouldn’t need to dream about it. And, of course, if we wake up and remember what our spouse did or didn’t do, we may get emotionally aroused about it all over again, requiring more dream discharge that night, if we still don’t resolve it.)
Too many dreams?
Research shows that depressed people dream much more than non-depressed people, distorting the balance between recuperative slow-wave sleep and energy-burning dream sleep. Clearly, because they spend so much time worrying and imagining, they have far higher amounts of unexpressed arousal to discharge. With so much energy spent on all the excessive dreaming they have to do, they wake up exhausted and lacking in motivation.
It is necessary for people in depression to be helped to challenge their negative thoughts, imagine more realistic outcomes and futures and to find ways to put meaning and purpose back into their lives. This could be through exercise, team sports, doing something for other people, learning a new skill, calling up old friends, and so on. Very often, people who are depressed start to withdraw from their usual routines, stopping going out or phoning or seeing friends, and this makes them dwell on their misery even more. It is essential, therefore, that they are helped to start meeting their emotional needs again, in healthy and satisfying ways. If the depression is due to post-traumatic stress, it is also necessary to stop the traumatic memory from continuing to interfere with life in the present. The rewind technique, a simple, non-invasive method of detraumatisation that all human givens practitioners learn, can achieve this quickly.
Dwelling on and digging up the past is dangerous. Neuropsychological research has shown that this has a physical effect on the brain, strengthening the neuronal connections with misery and negative thinking. We get better at piano or football with practice and, unfortunately, we get better at depression with practice too! So, it really is important to think to the future instead – to learn to shift unhelpful thinking patterns, take back control, find ways to bring meaning and purpose back into life and to look forward with hope.