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What if Depression were a REM Sleep Disorder?

by Andrew Richardson(more info)

listed in depression, originally published in issue 172 - July 2010

It has been known for years that depression has something to do with sleep. For example, experiments had shown quite clearly that if you deprive depressed people of sleep, then the depression lessened.[1]

However, it was not until Joe Griffin undertook his groundbreaking research into why we dream,[2] that it became clear what a depression is and thus how it can be lifted. Joe Griffin is one of the founders of the Human Givens (HG) approach, along with Ivan Tyrell.[3]

Tiger in a dream sequencce

Now, many people reading this will have heard of Human Givens. But even those who know something (and may have attended Mindfields College events) may not quite realize what Human Given is about. So let me, as a trained, accredited and busily practising private HG practitioner, give you my take on how the Human Given insights into the causes of depression as well as the practitioner training that Mindfields College provide, can be used to quickly help most depressed people.

Human Givens comprises both neurobiological and psychological insights as well as training to apply these insights in a counselling/psychotherapeutic setting. And though there are original elements to Human Givens, especially around the role dreaming and the REM state, much of the approach (both the understandings and training) can best be appreciated as a brilliant synthesis of what is known to work – "standing on the shoulders of giants" in Isaac Newton's memorable phrase.

In the addendum to this piece I describe the HG Organizing Idea. The Organizing idea is the essential glue that allows the insights and therapy practice to combine to help clients.

REM Sleep and Dreaming

Griffin's insight was to realize that dreams act out our unexpressed emotional expectations (positive and negative) through the medium of metaphor. They are imaginary, metaphorical and perceptual experiences that occur primarily in REM sleep; they have the effect of preserving the integrity of our emotional responses.

Griffin's research showed that all dreams are expressed in the form of sensory metaphors. The reason for this is found in the biology of dreaming and the REM state itself, which is the experience of all mammals. Thus for example, we know that instinctive behaviours are programmed during the REM state in the foetus and the neonate; Griffin could then postulate that the REM state is the state that humans access in order to imagine, remember and learn. Importantly though, the REM state does not just occur when dreaming, but is also accessed as the trance state when learning, or when attempting to remember or focussing on just one thing.

Griffin called his dreaming theory the Expectation Fulfilment Theory of Dreams.[4] The essential points to understand about dreaming, which is the deepest trance state we enter are:

  • Dreams are metaphorical translations of waking expectations;
  • Expectations which cause emotional arousal that is not acted upon during the day are the basis of dreams during sleep that night;
  • Dreaming then deactivates that emotional arousal by completing the expectation pattern metaphorically, freeing the brain to respond afresh to each new day.

Thus it is now easy to understand what a depression is. It is a response to excessive ruminations and arousals, caused by a life which is not working. (In HG terms this is understood as a life where essential human needs are not properly being met – see Addendum.) Those worries of course then require a large amount of REM dreaming in order that the arousals can be deactivated. But dreaming takes a lot of energy, the brain becomes too exhausted to complete the required dreaming, and so the person wakes up in a state of exhaustion and de-motivation. A downward spiral begins – of worry, exhausting sleep, de-motivation and a growing incapacity to act effectively to get the initial problem solved and so get needs better met.

From this perspective, it is also possible to understand psychosis and schizophrenia as dream phenomena which occur while a highly stressed person is awake – i.e. waking dreams.

Helping Depression Clients – My Experience

It is really very easy. All efforts must be just directed in just two directions. First, to get arousal levels down so that sleep improves, and second, to help the client problem solve so that again they can take action to get their needs met.

The two are obviously closely connected.  The high arousal of a depressed person is a trancelike self obsessed focus, which destroys the capacity to problem solve and so correct the underlying lack that caused the depression in the first place. And the mere fact of being able to problem solve and so take control gives a sense of hope and movement, which is therefore a highly effective way to reduce arousal – much more than calming mood music and breathing exercises.

To reduce arousal, I will typically try one or more of the following;

  1. Normalizing and explaining what depression is, so that the person does not feel that they are to blame. This often leads to 'light bulb' moments which are in themselves liberating and relaxing;
  2. Undertake a Needs audit[5] of the client's life now so that the client can begin to perceive their situation differently and in a more empowering way and so can begin to see how they can begin to shift. As part of this I may very well make suggestions and recommend tasks that that lead to understanding of the changes that might be needed and the options that are available. All of this is designed to reduce arousal and to engage the client's problem-solving capacity;
  3. Investigate whether there is trauma or threshold trauma that is prompting high arousal and pattern matching. And if there is then to 'rewind' these experiences away;[6]
  4. Take every opportunity from the beginning to reframe – which may be directed at softening strong black-and-white thinking, or suggesting more empowering explanations of the past;
  5. Explicit trance work – designed to impart an experience of relaxation and to access the client's strengths and resources (which will be well hidden), and so begin to rebuild the client's inevitable loss of confidence;
  6. Teaching relaxation techniques – such as around breathing, meditation and distraction.

To assist these developments, I may well suggest that my client read the self help book How to Lift Depression Fast by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell (if the reading of that book had not brought the client to me in the first place). I will also encourage or even insist that my client listens regularly (daily) to my Lift Depression download.[7]

Problem-solving, which in practice becomes a seamless development from arousal reduction, would comprise one or more of the following:

  1. Setting agreed goals – that has clarity and is achievable and practical;
  2. The encouragement and direction of the client to action, movement and change – however small. This is because human beings are action orientated beings and a depression is a state of inaction;
  3. Task setting, either well focused or more open can often be very helpful;
  4. Rehearsal of desired changes in trance;
  5. Healing of unhelpful emotional patterns. These can cover anything from childhood patterns of shyness to excessive anger episode. The way in which Human Givens practitioners resolve these patterns is beyond the scope of the article – but for me it is an almost forensic investigation of the source of high arousal and then its deactivation by a combination of trance work, reframing, stories and occasionally cognitive work.

Much research has now been undertaken to test the effectiveness of Human Givens practitioners – much of it under the direction of the Human Givens Practice Research Network.[8] This research is in many ways more complete and rigorous than anything out there, especially when you realize that the research work has been undertaken completely privately – without any official funding. The results, soon to be written up in peer reviewed journals, are quite outstanding and demonstrate beyond any doubt that Human Givens trained practitioners achieve results at the very top end of the range. I am part of the main HGPRN study and use my own client results as a unique selling point for my practice.

Of the clients I have seen in the last year who I would classify as purely depressed (i.e. without exhibiting associated anxieties – 30 out of a total of 130 clients seen), 80% or 24 clients experienced significant progress if not complete recovery. And the follow-up work I have undertaken (admittedly somewhat haphazard) is indicative of virtually no relapse.


The Human Givens Organizing Idea

Humans are born with needs and resources to get these needs met. When these needs are matched up in the environment in a balanced way, then individuals (and societies) are emotionally healthy. If resources are misused, damaged or overwhelmed by circumstances such that needs are not met, then there will mental distress.

The distress can take a number of forms – anxiety disorders, depression, phobias, addictions, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, eating disorders, and psychosis. The detail of the distress and the specific 'tools' used to aid recovery are actually secondary. The key is that mental distress is not an illness of the brain.

The Essential Needs and Resource that Comprise our Human Givens

Our Essential Human NEEDS

  • Feeling safe;
  • Having people who are important to you and to whom you are important;
  • Having wider connections beyond your family and close friends;
  • A sense of autonomy and control;
  • Comfortable with your status in society and with your peers;
  • A sense of competence and achievement;
  • Getting your attention needs met – both giving and receiving;
  • A place for privacy and reflection;
  • Being stretched by how you live or the work that you do.

Our Innate Resources – to Get Needs Met

  • Complex long term memory, which enables us to add to our innate knowledge and learn;
  • The ability to build rapport, empathise and connect with others Imagination, which enables us to focus our attention away from our emotions and so solve problems that get our needs met;
  • A conscious, rational mind that can question, analyse and plan;
  • The ability to 'know' – that is, understand the world intuitively through metaphorical pattern matching;
  • An observing self – that part of us that can step back and be aware of itself as a unique centre of awareness;
  • A dreaming brain that preserves the integrity of our emotional inheritance by metaphorically defusing expectations every night that were not acted out the previous day.

References and Footnotes

1. For example Simon Elsinga. Sleep Deprivation and Depression. University of Groningen. 1992. and A. Wirz-Justice. Sleep deprivation in depression: what do we know, where do we go? Biological Psychiatry, Volume 46, Issue 4, Pages 445-453.
2. Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell. Dreaming Reality. Human Givens Publishing. 2004.
3. Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell. Human Givens A new approach to emotional health and clear thinking. Human Givens Publishing. 2004.
4. Joe Griffin. Dreaming to forget: the real reason why . Human Givens Journal Vol 12, No1. 2005. and Joe Griffin. Great Expectations. Human Givens Journal Vol 11, No1. 2004.
5. Emotional Needs Audit – visit  
6. Rewind in described on Human Givens Institute website  
7. E Motion Downloads available from  Search for Emotion downloads under MP3 Downloads.
8. Human Givens Practice Research Network:


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About Andrew Richardson

Andrew Richardson HG Dip P MHGI GQHP worked for thirty years as a professional economist - for the government (in the 1970s), then in the city and finally as a consultant financial economist. His interest in personal development, spirituality and healing emerged toward the latter part of this period and he began his Human Givens (HG) training in 2002.

Andrew had not spent any time in the state funded caring profession or been exposed to any kind of counselling before his Human Givens training. Human Givens attracted him because it made sense, did not require intensive personal therapy and was free of the artificial constraints on how counsellors should work. Most importantly, he had a profound sense that he could do it.

Andrew has been practising as a Human Givens accredited counsellor for five years now and has a thriving private practice. As the approach is still new (dating from the late 1990s), he is one of the more experienced HG therapists. He may be contacted on Tel: 0208 257 0429;  

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