Linking dreams and depression


Sylvia Thompson looks at a treatment for mental problems that is growing in popularity but is controversial in its approach.

A new approach to treating mental health problems such as depression, addictions and phobias is gaining more and more converts in mental health circles in Britain and, more recently, in Ireland.

The approach is based on theories developed by Irish-born research psychologist and psychotherapist Joe Griffin and his colleague, Ivan Tyrrell. Called the Human Givens approach, the method is based on the idea that we all have a set of needs which will cause problems if they aren't being met. Not unlike the hierarchy of needs developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow, these needs include the need for security, the need for attention, the need to be connected to others, the need for intimacy and status, the need to be able to control events in our lives and to be mentally stretched.

Another fundamental principle is that dreams represent unresolved emotional issues from the previous day. The idea is that if we worry too much, we dream too much and therefore don't get enough slow-wave recuperative sleep, which leads to exhaustion and cloudy thinking.

Dreams occur in the REM (rapid eye movement) part of our sleep cycle and earlier research found that depressed people have more REM sleep than average. However, a causal link between too much REM sleep and depression has yet to be scientifically proven. Therapists trained in the approach look out for which needs are not being met, once they have calmed the client down enough for them to focus.

"The first thing a therapist using our approach will do is to lower the emotional arousal of the client [the approach uses hypnosis which they suggest induces a similar trance-like state to REM sleep which allows the clients to process worrying thoughts]. Then they will look at what needs are not being met in their lives while at the same time looking out for good qualities in the person which are then fed back to him/her," says Tyrrell.

The main job is to stop them worrying which has led to their exhaustion and depression, he says. "Then, the therapist will encourage the clients to try to get pleasure back into their lives, helping them imagine themselves doing things they would like to do through guided imagery," Tyrrell says.

Griffin and Tyrrell have self-published several books on mental health including How to lift Depression - the Human Givens approach.

They are critical of drug therapy in the treatment of mental health problems although they don't suggest people should stop taking medication without supervision. They believe many people are "conned by psychobabble" and many mental health problems can be resolved in one to six sessions. They also suggest the basic premise of cognitive behaviour therapy (i.e. the core problem is due to how situations are perceived and evaluated which leads to inappropriate behaviour) is inaccurate. Instead, they suggest thinking is driven by the emotional brain and the more emotionally aroused the brain becomes, the more it reverts to what they describe "the primitive logic of either/or thinking".

"Overall, our approach is a larger organising idea. The medical model is based on a chemical imbalance in the brain. The cognitive-behaviour model is based on faulty thinking patterns. Psychodynamic psychotherapy is about interpreting the past and drawing meaning from that but our view is that strong emotion locks the attention and prevents the individuals from seeing what's really going on in their lives," says Tyrrell.

Through seminars, workshops and a diploma course, Griffin, Tyrrell and associates are training up to 12,500 people a year in the approach, two-thirds of whom work for the National Health Service in Britain.

Piers Bishop went to Joe Griffin for help with claustrophobia and has since become a Human Givens therapist. "I couldn't go into lifts, go on the London underground or get into small cars for as long as I can remember. Then, after less than an hour with Joe Griffin, my whole phobia dissolved. At the time, I was working in television and had to go into prisons for a documentary we were doing. I did the filming and didn't feel any discomfort. And have had no claustrophobic episodes since then. When I discovered how quickly the approach worked, I decided to change my career and become a Human Givens therapist."

Kildare-based hypnotherapist Louise Courtney is doing the diploma in the approach. "I deal with people who are giving up smoking or who have phobias and the Human Givens approach is very useful for these people. Also, the idea that too much worrying leads to too much REM sleep and more exhaustion which causes depression gives people a lot of hope in that we can break the cycle and lift depression very quickly while also looking at what needs are not being met," she says.