The Human Givens Approach - How we can maintain mental and physical well being

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Cath Davies

The Human Givens Approach - How we can maintain mental and physical well being

Posted by Cath Davies 355 Days Ago


We tend to know if we are in good health or not, but good health is more than a matter of not being physically ill.  One study has suggested that Good Health depends on a good balance between 5 main areas, or Domains, of health:  Physical health (looked after by doctors), Mental health (the Psychiatrist’s and Psychologist’s domain), Social health (which Social workers and, perhaps Elected Representatives will attempt to address), Spiritual health (the responsibility of ministers and priests and whatever other spiritual leaders take our fancy), and Emotional health……  No one really has taken on the responsibility for Emotional health, and yet if our Emotional health is compromised then every other area of health will be unbalanced.  As was observed in the study, “It is curious to note that, despite the pivotal role played by emotion in health and behaviour, this dimension of human experience has received remarkably little attention in both the theory and the practice of health care”.

Human Givens is an approach to living that is designed to fill that gap with a scientifically-based model on which to address emotional health and wellbeing and thereby to help bring into balance all the domains of our health.  It has been developed by Joe Griffin, an Irishman, and Ivan Tyrell, an Englishman.

Where did it all start?

How has humankind survived?  Actually, not for that long so far, in the scheme of things, but we are the product of evolution and at every stage of that evolution survival has allowed the next step.

That survival has depended on evolving an efficient way of avoiding trouble:  our ‘mammalian brain’ has been perfectly adapted to protect us in times of danger by the FIGHT OR FLIGHT reaction.  Any alarm can trigger the mammalian brain in 1/100th of a second to prepare to fight for its life or to run like hell.  The body is instantly readied by a raised pulse rate, a raised breathing rate, blood pumping through the muscles, adrenaline coursing through the veins, feeling no pain, thinking no thoughts except survival.

Thought and logic are no help when speed and strength are all that matters.  But, as we have developed, the circumstances that are life-threatening have receded.  Our social existence has reduced our vulnerability.  Our ‘civilisation’ has made us all safer.  Somehow, when a door slams, we have evolved an ability not to be startled into fight-or-flight mode; we have learned to conserve energy (because getting into fight-or-flight mode takes a lot of energy) and to recognise what is safe and familiar.  We have developed a thinking brain on top of our original mammalian brain which responds to logic and not to panic.  The fight-or-flight response with its black-and-white, all-or-nothing, live-or-die thinking has been tamed into a thinking response with every shade of grey between the black and white extremes, a bit of this and a bit of that, on the one hand and on the other, a more comfortable and infinitely less energy-sapping existence.

Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, addictions, all these unhappy emotional states represent a dysfunction or imbalance of the normal relationship between the mammalian – or ‘emotional’ – brain (in anatomical terms, the mid brain of the amygdala and the thalamus and the limbic system) and the thinking or logical brain (anatomically the neocortex – and that is as scientific as we have to get!).  The emotional brain is inappropriately aroused and when it is aroused the thinking brain is over-ridden and put on standby.  The arousal into the fight-or-flight state is especially evident in a panic attack:  the sufferer genuinely and sincerely thinks that he or she is about to die;  the heart pounds, the lungs gasp for air, blood and adrenaline flow, the body is prepared for one last great battle to survive…… for no logical reason.  The thinking brain is shut off, the emotional brain has control.  Recovery from such an attack requires a lowering of the emotional arousal and re-engagement of the thinking brain.

And so it is with all the emotionally aroused and more-or-less dysfunctional states that we get into.  Where is the thinking brain when we are in the first throes of love?  Or when we get really angry about something?  Or when we are terrified of a harmless little spider?  Or when we wash our hands a hundred times a day for fear – irrational fear – of contamination of some sort?  Or when we retreat into a dark place with no colour and no cheer even though we are surrounded by love and good things?  Or when we choose heroin or alcohol and destruction over normal life and supportive relationships?  The thinking brain is AWOL.  The emotional brain has taken control.

So how do we get into these states, and how do we get out of them?  We get into them because there is some unmet NEED or because we are lacking some RESOURCE to meet those needs.  We get out of these damaged states by understanding our Human Givens – those basic needs and our resources – and how to balance them and regain thinking brain control.

A taste of HG Theory

Dreams are very much involved in the Human Givens approach.  Why do we dream?  We don’t evolve the ability to do things for entertainment:  there had to be some evolutionarily beneficial reason for dreaming.  Joe Griffin woke himself up every 2 hours for a couple of years to write down his dreams and work out a convincing hypothesis for the role of dreams and the place of sleep in maintaining our emotional as well as physical wellbeing.  He concluded that dreams are unfulfilled expectations (as opposed to Freud’s contention that they were unfulfilled desires, and we all know about Freud):  that through the day there are emotional issues that are unresolved because life keeps moving, and that these unresolved emotional issues pile up in an ‘In Tray’ in our brains;  when we dream in REM sleep we go through the In Tray to defuse and dispose of those outstanding emotional issues:  we do this in metaphor and in a sort of parallel existence that is, as we dream, just as real as our waking lives, and it allows us to wake up with an empty In Tray and a clean emotional sheet ready to start a new day.  Provided we have had our share of slow wave sleep as well, we will also have a repaired and restored physical body fit for a new day of action.

Pattern Matching is one of the keys to our behaviour.  From a few weeks post-conception to the age of 12 or so, much of our time is spent in establishing patterns, that is, laying down patterns of activity and events in our brains:  these patterns or templates of behaviour can be instantly referred to by our brains in normal life, and by this our emotional brains can immediately judge the Danger Quotient of the events that we experience.  Take the slamming door again:  if a door slams behind us, the noise and the circumstances can be matched with a non-threatening pattern, “oh, just a door slamming”, which lowers arousal of the emotional brain (fight or flight reaction not required) and we can get on with our thinking and our life again;  alternatively, in a silent dark and empty house with not a breath of wind and not a person within miles, a door slams behind us and the emotional brain can swing into Panic Mode, matching the pattern with our darkest nightmares, “you’re going to die - Run!? or Fight!? or HELP!” – no point in thinking, SURVIVAL is the only thing that matters.

The templates and patterns that we build up are endless:  they enable a new-born baby to recognise a human face moments after birth and to recognise a nipple as a source of food – innate patterns of human behaviour, Human Givens.  And as we progress through childhood, the patterns increase exponentially based on our experiences of life.  Does this provide a clue as to why children should not watch TV at all before the age of 3 and for not more that an hour up to the age of 12?  What patterns are we allowing to be established in our children’s brains when they watch violence and distortions of normal life on the box which become an established part of their thinking and experience?  Their Human Givens can become as distorted as their experience.

What has this to do with being anxious and depressed?

Our normal sleep pattern consists of two main types of sleep – “slow-wave sleep” and “REM sleep”.  To be healthy, we have to have both forms of sleep in the right proportion.  For adults, the right proportion is about ¾ slow wave and ¼ REM;  for very young children, it is the other way round.  Slow wave sleep is when our bodies relax and repairs are done, and if we don’t get enough then we wake up with aches and pains and fibromyalgia-type symptoms.

REM sleep is when we dream (mainly at night, but we also daydream).  Babies start REM sleep when they are still in the womb, and 80% of their sleep is taken up with it.  It is the time when developing brains establish patterns or templates against which events in our daily lives can be matched so that we can respond to them appropriately.  The ability to respond appropriately to events is fundamental to our survival and to our ability to meet our emotional needs.  Dreams and pattern matching are, therefore, fundamental to our emotional health.

When we are depressed, changes occur in our sleep pattern.  Firstly, our In Tray is piled to overflowing.  Our emotional brain reacts to this in sleep by cutting short the slow-wave sleep (so we wake up aching all over) and starting REM sleep as soon as possible to get through the backlog of unresolved emotional issues.  We dream too much, and that uses up huge amounts of energy.  When we wake up, not only do we ache and creak, and we are exhausted by the dreaming:  we don’t want to get out of bed, and no wonder!  We stop interacting normally with family and friends, and the downward spiral goes ever downward.  We feel remote and alone, and we keep it that way.

When you are in a downward spiral, the most important thing is to stop spiralling, just as when you are in a hole, you need to stop digging.  Human Givens is about stopping the spiralling and regaining control.

So what are the Human Givens?

Innate Knowledge

Incomplete until ‘pattern-matched’ in the environment
Learning ability
Ability to communicate
Ability to learn language (up to age 10)
Swimming (up to age 1 or 2)
Desires (from 8/12 – may conflict with others – passive till then)
Empathy (from 2 yrs)

Physical and Emotional Needs

Security, safe territory, the space to grow
Connection to wider community, social network
Attention – to give and to receive
Sense of autonomy and control over events
Self-esteem through competence and achievement
Intimacy, especially emotional intimacy
Meaning - to be stretched: the brain needs to have problems to solve

3.    Resources which we have evolved

Pattern matching
Long term memory patterns (experience)
Imagination (to allow objective problem solving)
‘Observing self’ - the ability to reflect on our own thoughts and actions
Ability to empathise and connect
Rational mind – the Thinking Brain, right neocortex
Dreaming mind – the Emotional Brain, amygdala and limbic system

The Human Givens approach shows a way towards a lifestyle in which needs are met.  It is not just about mental illness, it is about living to our maximum potential.  If these needs are fulfilled and the resources are available, then we are well prepared to take on everything that life might throw at us. If, however, there are unmet needs or resources that are lacking, then life is out of balance.  This is emotional ill health, and the brain responds to emotional illness by engaging the emotional brain.  Once the emotional brain is aroused, our thinking becomes black and white and all sorts of emotional states descend on us, from unhappiness to anger to anxiety to phobia to depression to physical ill health.

So what is the Human Givens approach?

Essentially it involves a process by which we lower the arousal of the emotional brain and re-engage the thinking brain, the neocortex.  This is done by relaxation, with techniques such as 7-11 breathing or by Guided Imagery:  once the arousal is lowered, we have a chance to think again, and to see our situation for what it really is, a mixture of plusses and minuses, some things good and some things bad, not the black-and-white emotional brain analysis of doom and disaster but a variety of shades of grey tinged with brightness that we can move towards. 

When we are depressed, our serotonin levels drop – serotonin is a chemical round the brain that keeps us mentally well-balanced.  Drugs prevent serotonin from being re-absorbed, thus raising levels, but we can boost serotonin production, a far more natural approach.  We can do this by exercise, by laughter, and by eating healthily.  Boosting production is a positive way of dispelling depression, and we start to think positively about ourselves and value what we have and what we are.

What, then, are the important features of the Human Givens approach?

It is based on a thorough and scientific understanding of how our brain has developed ….
…. and how it works
It is simple
It covers all aspects of our emotional life and health
It is flexible
It is safe
It has an 80% success rate (off the scale for psychological interventions)
It is a drug-free (drug-light) zone
It is the missing piece of the clinical psychology / psychiatric puzzle

What is the next step?

Visit the official website, which contains lots of useful information.  Buy one of the books listed below.  Read further first, more information and understanding might be all you need.

No antidepressants; no valium.  You have a project, a purpose, and most importantly, you will be in charge again.  You are already half way to being restored.  It really does work!  After you have been genuinely depressed, this may be the most positive action you have taken for weeks.  And that is without drugs.

In conclusion

As you can see, there is a lot to explore, a lot to read.  Reading a book several times will result in it becoming part of your sub-conscious so that you will act on HG principles without thinking about it.  Read about “Guided Imagery”, a type of relaxation and “7/11 Breathing”, another way to relax at any time of day or night;  understand the why and how of depression and anxiety.   Most of the time you will think “Of course that is true, why doesn’t everyone think that or act like that?”.

Everyone does, of course:  it is just that we blind ourselves with pseudo-science and complicate everything by over-estimating the power of pills to make us feel well and by under-estimating the contribution of our own abilities, with support, to meet our needs with our resources.  We end up overlooking the obvious, but when we think about it, it just makes sense.  I commend the Human Givens approach, unreservedly!


Google - “Human Givens”

Acquire the books from by going to ‘Books’ and enter ‘joe griffin’ in the search box.  That will bring up, among others: 

“HUMAN GIVENS:  a new approach to emotional health and clear thinking”

“How to master anxiety:  All you need to know to overcome stress, panic attacks, phobias, trauma, obsessions and more”

“Freedom from Addiction:  the secret behind successful addiction-busting”

“Release from Anger:  practical help for controlling unreasonable rage”

“How to lift depression … fast”

“An Idea in Practice:  using the human givens approach”

“Dreaming Reality – how dreaming keeps us sane – or can drive us mad”

all by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell.

HG Therapist

I am a qualified Human Givens therapist practising in central Edinburgh.  I have put this information together to help you understand and take action to get your emotional needs met.  If, however, you feel you need more help, you can contact me at or on 07855 469252.

The average number of sessions of Human Givens therapy is about 3.  Sometimes 1 session is enough, sometimes as many as 4, rarely more.  It is not, therefore, a long-term time and financial commitment.

Cath Davies

Article written by Cath Davies - Edinburgh

I am a psychotherapist in private practice working in a therapy centre in central Edinburgh. I use the experience of being involved in personal development and leadership training using experiential mediums throughout my career to inform my work, which aims to help individuals overcome their challenges and develop personal strategies... [read more]


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