Friday, 26 October 2012

7-11 breathing: How does deep breathing make you feel more relaxed?

With mindfulness now all the rage, many online articles are now advocating breathing techniques as a way to lessen anxiety and control stress levels.

We have noticed that several articles (including this Daily Mail one: Breathe easy to combat anxiety: The mind tricks that can alleviate symptoms) fail to explain how such breathing can lower emotional arousal. The answer is very simple, and once grasped, provides an extra layer of understanding which might encourage more of us to try this simple and effective tool to control our anxiety levels. Breathing techniques are not just 'mind tricks', they produce a bodily response that lowers your anxiety in a very physical way.

Deep breathing techniques all have one thing in common, they work by stimulating what is known as the Parasympathetic Nervous System. You may have heard of the 'fight or flight' response, the Parasympathetic Nervous System is simply the opposite of that ('fight or flight' is the term for the activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System) - instead of getting you ready for action, deep breathing activates a natural bodily response that can be described as 'rest and digest'. Out-breaths decrease your blood pressure, dilate your pupils and slow your heart rate – lowering emotional arousal in the process. Practising a breathing technique a few times a day will lower your overall stress levels in the long term.

It's important to realise that it's the out-breaths that stimulate the response, so it stands to reason that a breathing technique with longer out-breaths than in-breaths will be more effective at lowering emotional arousal.

Breathing techniques in which the out-breath is the same length as the in-breath, or during which you focus on your anxious thoughts (as advocated in the above Daily Mail article) are generally less effective at quickly lowering the physical symptoms of anxiety, despite being a good way of being mindful or entering into a relaxed state.

Which breathing technique should I use?

On our Human Givens College training courses, we teach a technique called '7-11' breathing because it's the most powerful technique we know.

Here is how you do it, and it is as easy as it sounds: 

1 - breathe in for a count of 7.

2 - then breathe out for a count of 11.

Make sure that when you are breathing in, you are doing deep ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ (your diaphragm moves down and pushes your stomach out as you take in a breath) rather than shallower higher lung breathing. If you find that it’s difficult to lengthen your breaths to a count of 11 or 7, then reduce the count to breathing in for 3 and out to 5, or whatever suits you best, as long as the out-breath is longer than the in-breath.

Continue in this way for 5-10 minutes or longer if you have time – and enjoy the calming effect it will have on your mind and body. An added bonus of 7-11 breathing is that the very act of counting to 7 or 11 is a distraction technique, taking your mind off your immediate concerns.

This 7/11 breathing technique for relaxing quickly is the most powerful we know and has been used for thousands of years throughout the world.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Date change: Consciousness and attention: The science of spirituality - two day course

Please note: This course will now be taking place on 6th - 7th April 2013
Location: Sunningdale Park, Ascot, Berkshire, UK 

Course overview: 

This weekend offers you the chance to explore the most fundamental, cosmic and intimate aspect of your life: your relationship with the universal nature of consciousness. Although we mostly aren’t aware of this it is the quality of this relationship that determines how meaningful our life feels to us. (‘Meaning’ is an innate human need.) The course is designed for those inspired by the ancient injunction to “Know thyself” since all spiritual self-development requires that we do.

 Topics to be addressed: 

  • What exactly consciousness is for. 
  • Why it evolved with the origin of the Universe. 
  • How it interacts with matter … and why it does so. 
  • The different levels of consciousness. 
  • Is our own unconscious a separate entity from ourselves? 
  • Is consciousness an epiphenomenon or a fundamental given of the Universe as mystics and physicists say? 
  • Bringing us to our senses: How is consciousness connected to perception, creativity and meaning? 
  • How to expand your consciousness by the way you adjust your attention mechanism (consciousness can devolve as well as evolve). 
  • Why the Universe is so extraordinarily favourable to the evolution of life forms. 
  • The claims that mystics and some physicists make about the connection between human consciousness and Universal consciousness. 
  • Avoiding mumbo jumbo: Why it is important to reach for an understanding about these questions that does not insult our intelligence or impoverish our humanity. 

Consciousness and science 

Whilst exploring some of the answers given by many of the greatest minds that have ever lived, we will also show that it is still possible to provide revolutionary new answers to these questions that are compatible with our best scientific discoveries and the insights of the wisdom traditions. We will see that a scientific theory can be right and yet leave out a vital piece of what we all perceive is important: Being an object is something everybody is, but your consciousness and your subjectivity is unique to you. Consciousness is what divides the subjective from the objective, it is the lens through which all levels of awareness reach your core being, the means by which you connect to everything you experience. Understanding what your consciousness is and can do is essential to self-development. 

How the course is structured: 

The course is a blend of talks, discussion and exercises with breaks for networking and refreshment. 

Who should attend? 

Anyone who has wondered about who or what they are.

This is the LAST course of it's kind that we will be offering and there are limited places available.

To find out how to book, please visit the Human Givens College website.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

HG Library: Dr Aric Sigman interview - Television: paying attention, paying the price.

Dr Aric Sigman talks with Ivan Tyrrell about the insidiously devastating effects of television on brains, bodies and cultures. Published in Vol 13, No 1 (2006) of the Human Givens Journal.

Tyrrell: Your brilliant but shocking book Remotely Controlled has put television in the dock. It brought home to me that the scientific jury is back in and the verdict is that TV is one of the greatest dangers to mental and physical health imaginable. Over a period of 14 years, we have been publishing in this journal material we’ve come by about the harmful effects of television. But, in your book, you have unearthed and pieced together in one place, for the first time, the diverse mass of research that supports that view. What started you on this quest?

Sigman: The catalyst for me was travel. I was always keen on going to cultures that have been sealed off from modern media, particularly Western media – places with few televisions. As a psychologist, I wanted to see what life is like when it isn’t influenced by our culture and, more importantly, when it isn’t influenced by images seen on a television screen. Some of the best cultures in which to do this are military dictatorships. You end up with a guinea-pig population that we don’t have access to here: a control group. I went to Tonga, Timbuktu, Bolivia and other places and saw cultures as they were, either before television had arrived or just as television had arrived but before Western television images took hold, and that is why I was able to see what happens.
American television dominates international TV and even local programme makers soon begin to copy the American style of programming, so rapid changes are evident within a year – for example, in body language. The way people in foreign countries walk is rapidly transformed into a funky shuffle, the kind of shuffle that British boys exhibit on the streets now, with their baseball caps and American-style body language. This is not indigenous or natural. Previously, such changes would occur slowly, through interaction with real people from different countries. Americans, for example, would land on foreign shores with either guns or goods to trade and would influence people that way. British people, or people from Timbuktu, for that matter, would go to Los Angeles and pick up the funky shuffle and breakdancing from seeing real, live Americans doing it, and vice versa. But now flimsy electronic images are creating phenomenal body language changes overnight.
When I spotted this, I was shocked at how quickly it happens. I became suspicious about why television has eluded the type of scrutiny that it should be given, not only as a cultural force but also as a health force. In the various countries I have visited, I asked policemen and teachers and health officials about the arrival of television and what changes they had noticed since. I consistently heard about an increase in aggression and the change in people’s view of their self-worth. I heard how girls started hating their body shape and began dieting almost instantly and using strong chemicals to lighten their skin, because they thought their own skin colour was ugly, or having cosmetic surgery to make themselves look like Westerners. Epidemiological research shows that murder rates have doubled within 15 years of the introduction of TV in every community studied. I am utterly convinced that those studies are correct. In many countries I’ve been to, I was told that TV had caused an explosion in crime rates of all sorts, not just greed and robbery but also gratuitous violence and disrespect.

Tyrrell: In your book, you also describe medical research showing an enormous array of problems that can be attributed to television.

Sigman: Yes. I came across a number of medical studies and I thought to myself, “Why aren’t these findings appearing on the front pages of our newspapers, and why don’t my colleagues in psychology know about this?” Most psychologists are under the impression that television, particularly educational television, is an enormous benefit to children. They have no apprehension of the harmful effects of the medium itself nor of the amount of time children spend watching it, nor that there may be a differential effect according to the age at which children are exposed. This concept seems unknown to educational psychologists I meet, and to psychologists in general – just as it was to me, I should say, before I started to travel and before I had four children and began to see the effects of television on them.
So I thought it would be worthwhile doing a medical research review of disparate areas of medicine and other sciences that are usually unrelated. Scientists nowadays tend to work in specific areas because that is the way the research market has gone. And we often don’t communicate with one another – there are so many publications that it is often difficult to ‘join up all the dots’.
So that’s what I decided to do, and a pattern emerged connecting watching television to a whole range of health and behaviour problems. There are so many that I don’t have time to tell you them all. The problems seem to magnify the more television people watch, irrespective of what kind of television programmes they see. It was this that made me suspicious about television’s power, irrespective of programme content.
Tyrrell: Yes, I was particularly interested in the biological evidence that the form television takes is as damaging as the content of much that we watch. For example, human beings have a limited amount of attention-giving capacity. Our attention mechanism can be captured, distorted, perverted, worn out, used up. And, because of this, it is important that we give attention to appropriate, fruitful forms of experience, something rarely encountered through electronic media. This is particularly so for children. So let’s take a detailed look at what you have found out about how TV affects our attention mechanism.

Sigman: Well, first of all, your observation that attention is something valuable has been borne out in the financial world. Financial academia now has a field called ‘attention economy’, where access to attention, how much people pay to gain someone’s attention, can be quantified. At Harvard University Business School, it is a formal field. Economists have a great deal of respect for attention and value it highly.

Tyrrell: I wish others did!

Sigman: Most people, including academics, take it for granted. It is not widely realised just how much television damages our attention mechanism, particularly during the formative years. The ability to pay attention is necessary for experiencing life. It is a prerequisite for introspection, as anybody who has tried to meditate knows – it is difficult, for example, to turn inward and pay attention to the rhythm of your breathing for any length of time. Giving attention is a prerequisite to having a relationship; to enjoy sex, you have to turn inward and pay attention to bodily sensations. And for children to learn through reading, or from a teacher, or from their peers, they must, of course, pay attention. Listen- ing attentively is an essential for learning.
I can’t even put into words how important this is. Attention is the lens through which we view life. Before we can talk about anything else, about memories, about emotional reactions, about consciousness, we attend to things. We have to, before we can respond to them, encode them and turn them into memories. So, if our ability to give attention is being compromised by anything, it means the quality and richness of our life and our ability to live well are also compromised.

Tyrrell: And neuroscience is revealing this?

Sigman: Yes, it is. The big concern among some scientists at the moment is that, during a child’s formative years, the ability to give attention is developing. We can now see neurological attention circuits as they grow in a child’s brain. In particular, there is a neurotransmitter called dopamine that responds to novelty. It evolved because, when we see something new, it is important we attend to it. We need to gauge whether it is a threat or not, or whether it is something we should pursue. And that can be just as much pursuing a line of thought as chasing after something tangible, such as food. Television misappropriates that natural biological response: be- cause it provides constant novelty and changing landscapes, it mimics a real changing environ- ment, but a massively condensed one, and pro- duces a novelty response over and over and over again. Probably more novelty responses are fired off by watching a day of television than our caveman ancestors experienced in an entire life!

Tyrrell: This must be putting the developmental attention systems of children under enormous pressure.

Sigman: It is and it seems to corrupt them. This may sound simplistic but the medical and scientific evidence is now compelling; something is going very wrong, particularly during the early developmental years of children.

Tyrrell: Do you mean the steep rise in childhood attention disorders, depression, etc?

Monday, 8 October 2012

Therapy for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

A quick overview of OCD and how a human givens therapist would go about treating this debilitating anxiety disorder.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is the name given to a condition where people are having uncontrollable and unreasonable obsessions or compulsions that are excessive.

Obsessions could include form of a preoccupation about contaminations and germs, or anything 'unclean', an obsession with things being kept tidy, having constant doubts about whether they have done something like turning off the taps or locking the door or constant thoughts about doing something aggressive or embarrassing which they may or may not be able to control.


Compulsions are repetitive behaviours and rituals that the suffer feels compelled to do to lower their anxiety levels. The relief is only temporary so the rituals are woven into the person's daily routine and are not necessarily directly related to the obsessive thought, for example a person who has angry thoughts may count objects to control their thought. Common compulsons are cleaning, checking, repeating, hoarding or going excessively slowly and methodically about their daily activities.
'Official' diagnosis 
For a diagnosis of OCD the obsessions and/or compulsions must take up a considerable amount of the person’s time and interfere with normal routines and activities including domestic, social and working relationships.
OCD, like all anxiety disorders and highly emotional states, interfere with the ability to think and concentrate. It is not uncommon for a sufferer to avoid certain situations, for example, someone who is obsessed with cleanliness may be unable to use toilets other than ones they have cleaned themselves.

Onset of OCD is usually gradual and most often begins in adolescence or early adulthood. Children with OCD, unlike adults, do not usually realize that their obsessions and compulsions are excessive.

Treatment of OCD

Effective therapeutic treatment of OCD would include a mix of all of the following:
  • Relaxation techniques,
  • Doing an emotional needs audit, formally or informally, to see where stresses are coming from,
  • Separating the person’s core identity from the OCD so they can challenge the obsessive thoughts and behaviours,
  • Educating them about how the OCD process works,
  • Instilling in them the idea that the OCD is ‘bullying’ them and that they must not allow themselves to be bullied,
  • Rewinding extreme examples of the behaviour and any traumatic incidents that may have triggered it in the first place.
  • Guided imagery to rehearse not doing the behaviour in situations where they have been doing it.
  • Showing them how to get their innate emotional needs met in their lives.
To find a Human Givens therapist with these skills, please see our online therapist register.

For training in how to help OCD sufferers please see our anxiety training days from Human Givens College.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

HG Library: Expecting the best: midwifery and the human givens

Caroline Brunt and Bindi Gauntlett describe how midwives are using the human givens approach to help support women during pregnancy and after birth.

Pregnancy and new motherhood, while commonly a time of excitement and joy, are often a source of anxiety and stress for many women. While midwives are routinely taught to deal with both normal and out-of-the-ordinary pregnancies and births and the principles of healthy living, they are not taught how to deal with the emotional and psychological factors that may put women’s health at risk during pregnancy and after. They are not taught how to deal with addictions, aggression, emotional distance, anxiety and fear. So, while feeling enormous compassion for women in difficult circumstances, midwives commonly feel quite ill equipped to help them. In Salisbury, however, we are now routinely introducing midwives to the human givens approach. It offers a practical means of giving midwives the confidence, and greater knowledge and skills, to offer appropriate help to women with mental health problems, whether mild, moderate or severe.

For, while deaths, thankfully, are relatively rare (although suicide has repeatedly been highlighted as a leading cause of them) Martin Fletcher, Chief Executive of the National Patient Safety Agency, which funds three-yearly confidential enquiries into maternal deaths, commented after the latest report,1 that “we must redouble our efforts to provide safer, better health care for vulnerable women during and after pregnancy”. Midwives are seeing more and more women who are in poor physical and mental health during and after pregnancy because of compromised life circumstances. Every area of Britain has its own challenges and our own area, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset, is certainly no different, having significant pockets of deprivation.

The publication in 2007 of antenatal and postnatal mental health guidelines by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) prompted the introduction of human givens training for our midwives. For some time, there has been an understanding of the need to screen women for serious mental health disorders and healthcare professionals have asked questions about past or present severe mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis in the postnatal period and severe depression. If the healthcare professional or the woman herself has significant concerns, her GP has sought further assessment and possible referral to specialist mental health services.

However, the NICE guidance goes further, recommending specifically that all women at their first contact with antenatal and postnatal services should be asked two questions to identify possible depression. These are “During the past month, have you often been bothered by feeling down, depressed or hopeless?” and “During the past month, have you often been bothered by having little interest or pleasure in doing things?” If the woman answers ‘yes’ to either of these, a third question should be con- sidered: “Is this something you feel you need or want help with?” Caroline, as head of maternity services, was aware, from her conversations with midwives, that, if they got a ‘yes’ to the question about wanting help, they would rapidly feel out of their depth, and she wanted to be able to address this, using human givens principles.

Strategies to help

NICE advises that, for mild or moderate depression, the following should be considered: “self-help strategies (guided self-help, computerised cognitive behavioural therapy or exercise); non-directive counselling delivered at home (listening visits); brief cognitive behavioural therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy”. NICE also puts emphasis on the prevention of mental ill health. For pregnant women who have suffered depression or anxiety previously and who currently “have symptoms of depression and/or anxiety that do not meet diagnostic criteria but significantly interfere with personal and social functioning”2, it recommends that individual brief psychological treatment (four to six sessions) such as inter-personal psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy should be considered; for those who have not suffered previously, regular, informal social support, individual or group based, can be offered during pregnancy and the postnatal period.

The recommendations for intervention, for both mild and moderate depression, subclinical depression and anxiety, clearly allow the incorporation of human givens techniques. Applying human givens principles can certainly qualify as “guided self-help” and informal social support, and therapy based on the human givens approach is certainly an individual brief psychological treatment. So Caroline, herself a human givens counsellor, arranged training for all the community teams. Forty members of staff, spread across six teams, who carry out the risk assessments early in pregnancy, have attended in-house workshops on the human givens approach to dealing with depression, anxiety and understanding addictions. Although NICE urges that pregnant women who need psychological help should receive it within one to three months of initial assessment, pressure on services means that this doesn’t always happen. Therefore, the training aim is to equip midwives with sufficient basic tools, so that they have the confidence to decide whether they themselves can give vulnerable women the support required.

Senior midwives who support women who experience birth as traumatic or present with psychological distress have also undergone the training and, in addition, have learned how to carry out the rewind technique, so that they can offer women simple detraumatisation, if and when appropriate. (See Reducing Fears of Birth, at the end of this post)

Bindi, a former nurse and health visitor as well as a human givens counsellor who works from the Wiltshire Human Givens Centre, tops all this up by visiting our six community teams at intervals to offer supervision and further support their understanding of emotional and mental health. For instance, whilst recognising the vital importance of identifying and offering appropriate help to women suffering with depression, she helps midwives to feel more confident about asking the NICE-recommended questions to identify depression by framing them in a more positive way, and to help women cope with depressive thinking by normalising mood changes in pregnancy and helping them to use their own resources for change. Bindi also works with nurses and midwives based in the neonatal unit at Salisbury District Hospital, who care for over 3,000 families a year. A particular focus has been the neonatal intensive care unit where, every year, about 250 premature or sick babies are nursed. The aims are to help staff manage the very high emotional arousal and stress experienced by the parents of ill babies (some of whom are in intensive care because of the effects of parental addiction), to promote bonding and attachment between parent and baby – and also to learn how to recognise and lower their own high arousal during the highly stressful work that they do. In addition, Bindi provides human givens counselling sessions for pregnant or postnatal women whom midwives refer to her because of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress, where support is needed for complex issues.

Enhanced skills

Staff say that they have found their human givens training both professionally and personally valuable. Sometimes, they have absorbed information and learned skills that have completely changed their practice; at other times, it has been more a case of looking at why what they are already doing works, to encourage them to do more of it. We stress that the aim is not to turn them into mental health specialists, thus increasing their workload, but to use some simple techniques, to enhance their practice.
During the training, psychotherapist Joe Griffin encouraged midwives to view their initial interview with a pregnant woman as, in effect, a therapy session and to conduct it using the simple RIGAAR model used by human givens therapists (rapport building, information gathering, goal setting, accessing resources, agreeing strategies and rehearsing success) to get best results most quickly. Midwives have learned that building rapport is about active listening – letting women express and unload their concerns and summarising these to ensure that they have been heard correctly – rather than challenging or giving advice at too early a stage. Patients are more likely to be receptive to advice about, for instance, stopping smoking, eating less or reducing or stopping alcohol consumption if they feel heard, accepted and respected. But these are aspects of effective communication that can often get rushed or overlooked during consultations. Understanding and helping women deal with addictive patterns of behaviour assists midwives in their public health role of helping women and their families have a healthy lifestyle.

Using imagination

Midwives have also been shown how to use patients’ imaginations to motivate them to change unhealthy behaviours, and to help them experience for themselves that, say, their dreams for their child or their wish to be a healthy active mother and their fears of serious illness are stronger than the desire to eat addictively. (“You can say no to over-eating and yes to life!”) Many of us will know, from our own struggles with excessive behaviours, that willpower emerges without effort when change is positively chosen.

Belief in ability to succeed is crucial, so midwives learn that building on women’s past successes and the skills that they already have, which they can put to use to help them achieve their goals, is time well spent. It is also important, of course, to agree realistic strategies and, in imagination, to rehearse success. Much of this can be achieved in the course of normal booking interviews in early pregnancy.

Midwives have told us that they found learning how to calm down anxious women and agitated partners extremely helpful. Women who have had previous miscarriages or still-births are, understandably, often highly anxious. The clues for how to help are often in the language that they use. One woman, who had had two miscarriages and one stillbirth, used to ring the maternity services every day, complaining that no one was listening to her and seeking re-assurance that her new pregnancy would be fine. By using reflective listening skills, and normalising the many symptoms of pregnancy, midwives enabled this mum-to-be to feel that she was being heard and to recognise how she could feel better in her current pregnancy. She learned that simple breathing techniques could lower her stress and that of her unborn child, and make her more able to hear and act on the advice given to her. She regained confidence in her own capabilities and those of the team in the maternity unit.

Handling panics

Another midwife also reported back to us a specific example of how helpful she had found the 7/11 technique for relaxing (in-breath to the count of 7, out-breath to the count of 11). After learning it, she had seen a highly anxious pat- ient who had apparently been told that, if she kept having panic attacks, she could lose her baby. Unsurprisingly, she was feeling even more anxious and fearful. The midwife taught her the 7/11 technique, used guided imagery to encourage her to visualise a favourite, peaceful place as she relaxed more deeply, and then to see herself eating well, sleeping well, breathing deeply and feeling relaxed and happy. The patient agreed to practise this visualisation often, in her own home. Having something to do that could control, rather than worry about what she mustn’t do, soon stopped the panics.

For staff on the neonatal intensive care unit, learning how emotional arousal can make us stupid, and thus prevent highly stressed parents from understanding seemingly simple communications, has been highly instructive. They have realised that they need to be exceptionally clear with their use of language, to reduce any risk of misinterpretation, and that they need to work at keeping their own arousal down too.