Utilizing Integrative Psychology and Psychedelic Therapy with Australian Psychologist Nigel Denning  

What is Integrative Psychology? What is “organization of mind?” If a person is interested in embodied mind practices, which include concentration meditation training, it takes very specialized training and practice to navigate this terrain effectively. I wanted to ask my colleague Nigel Denning to share his decades of experience. We know each other because we both have received training from the famous forensic psychologist and Tibetan Buddhist teacher Daniel P. Brown. Sadly, Dr. Brown passed away last year, but his work lives on. Nigel and I are planning for me to travel to Melbourne in early 2025 to offer training together, which we plan to record and put together as an online course. Hopefully, we hope to empower individuals with the knowledge and tools to optimize their minds, create a nurturing environment for growth and healing, and develop awareness of and resilience against the numerous forms of undue influence that permeate our culture.  

Nigel Denning is a Counselling Psychologist and managing director of Integrative Psychology in Melbourne, Australia. He has master’s degrees in English Literature and Counselling Psychology. Nigel was formerly a member of the Victorian State and National executive of the College of Counselling Psychologists, where he was responsible for creating many learning opportunities for his profession. He has held roles as Vice-President of the In Good Faith Foundation, a charity dedicated to the amelioration of suffering of survivors of Institutional abuse; Clinical Director of SANE, national mental health, lived experience service; Family violence co-ordinator for Relationships Australia, where he ran and supervised clinical work; Director of Mind Medicine Institute, a training organization dedicated to equipping professionals in the use of psychedelic medicine for people who have not responded to traditional approaches, Educational Board member Ikon Institute. Nigel is the clinical lead in several trials of psychedelic medicine in clinical practice in Australia. In the mid-1980s, Nigel pioneered the training and application of Holotropic Breathwork, which he studied under Stanislav Grof and Tav Sparks. He has also trained under many leading therapists internationally, including John Gottman, Dan Wile, Les Greenberg, Daniel Siegel, Pieter Rossouw, Giancarlo DiMaggio, Paul Lysaker, and Daniel P. Brown.   

Nigel’s interest in high demand/high control groups began in the 1990s when he first encountered respondents to the now infamous Melbourne Archdiocese Response, developed by the late Cardinal George Pell to silence complainants of abuse within the Catholic Church. Nigel went on to take a significant role in supporting whistle-blowers to this abuse, leading to close involvement with the Pell prosecution. He delivered his findings during a group visit to the Vatican in 2017. He also became involved in the collapse of a Hindu cult based in outer Melbourne in 2013, where he co-developed a group approach to support almost 100 survivors of the cult. This led to his increasing interest in high-control/high-demand groups. Nigel has now had direct involvement with survivors of more than 20 different groups ranging from religious cults, self-development groups, and new age groups. Nigel’s clinical interest now lies firmly in the theory of mind, and he has studied metacognition extensively with leaders in the field. It is a study of the mind and its nature that genuinely articulates our vulnerability to undue influence. Nigel guest lectures at several tertiary schools and provides regular training and conference presentations locally and internationally.  

The late Daniel P Brown taught Nigel and me about his clinical psychology education and meditation approach. As a therapist, he believes that one of the most essential things is understanding how the mind works, optimizing it, and protecting it from negative influences. Nigel became interested in Daniel P Brown’s work with David Elliott, which introduced the three-pillar approach to psychotherapy, which presents a type of meta-view of psychotherapy. In Pillar 1, by creating an overt therapeutic collaboration between therapist and patient, one exemplifies the trusting therapeutic relationship, which models openness, trust, and transparency. In Pillar 2, by focusing on metacognition, through mentalizing practice, we explicate the features of mind, such as sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Pillar 3 is the therapeutic application in Dr. Brown’s work, which involves systematic imaginal work to repair adult attachment disturbances. This is a shift of Pillars 1 & 3 of Dr. Brown’s original formulation.   

The Three Pillars of Comprehensive Attachment Treatment include the following:  

Pillar One- Fostering collaborative nonverbal and verbal behavior.  

Pillar Two- Fostering a range of Metacognitive Skills;  

Pillar Three- The Ideal Parent Figure (IPF) Protocol;  

The first Pillar sets the conditions for the working therapeutic relationship. The second pillar fosters metacognitive skills and awareness of how the mind is organized, followed by treatment and education about this and the various stages of the mind to treat attachment issues. The third Pillar, the therapeutic innovation in this therapy, involves setting out the ideal parent figure and includes essential needs such as feeling secure, seen, comforted, reassured, and valued using attachment-based imagery.  

The foundation of effective parenting involves creating a nurturing environment where children feel secure, valued, and supported. This can be achieved through attachment-based imagery, which helps meet their essential needs for comfort, reassurance, and validation. Developing metacognitive skills and understanding how the mind works is crucial in addressing attachment issues. Nigel Denning emphasizes the importance of using these pillars to help individuals heal from their traumas and neglect, including those who have been part of cults. By harnessing the neuroplasticity of the mind, clients can regain control over their thoughts and emotions.  

Children raised in cults often suffer from a lack of knowledge about healthy family dynamics and community life. The three pillars of ideal parenting can help them explore and understand what a normal upbringing should look like. Furthermore, the concept of omission and the absence of healthy influences led to my development of the Influence Continuum model, which helps practitioners identify variations in healthy and unhealthy influences. The BITE Model of Authoritarian Control model benefits individuals who have been part of high-demand and cult-like groups and can be found here. People raised in cults have, by their very definition, have not been exposed to collaborative relationships, but rather power over relationships. Clarity and organization of mind have also been significantly distorted to meet the needs of the cult, as outlined in my numerous texts on mind control. 

Understanding the organization of the mind and recognizing the impact of family upbringing on a patient’s reactions is crucial for therapists. Clinicians need to differentiate between normal responses to abnormal systems and mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. This avoids the common misdiagnosis of cult survivors as having personal psychological problems rather than logical responses to undue influence. Many individuals also carry trauma from neglect and a lack of attention during their childhood, which can lead to psychological distress and traumatic responses. Such vulnerabilities are often exploited in cult indoctrination.  

Paying attention to a child focusing on a task can make the child feel good about themselves, focused, and connected to those around them. Nigel Denning explains that this builds linkage around the anterior cingulate gyrus (cortex), a part of the brain that links the limbic and prefrontal, relating to the ‘animal’ and the human brain. Developing the anterior cingulate gyrus leads to the development of dopamine concentration in those regions. This allows for developments in focus and self-esteem.   

Often, children raised in cults are distracted from the focus on developing a healthy self by dogma or demanding chores. Many cults treat their children like adults, not allowing them to play, explore and learn. Strict obedience is trained early on, and there is no allowance to think for oneself or develop one’s authentic self. Therefore, these children are not given opportunities to learn to focus their attention and have an acquired brain reward system and strong self-esteem. Dopamine production is subverted, and dependence and fear are amplified instead. 

Practicing concentration is a way to stop the mind from wandering, and tracking the breath allows you to focus and keep your attention for ever-increasing amounts of time. Nigel talks of a term called striatic anxiety, a term coined by Dr. Habib Devanloo of Tavistock Institute. which refers to generalized and unconscious muscular tension correlated with anxiety, whereby when we are anxious, our musculature tenses, including our diaphragm, which reduces oxygen concentration, which stimulates adrenal response, meaning a person is in a reactive and non-reflective state. Biologically, the body is saying that there is a threat when we tense up and hold our breath. When the body tenses and tells the mind there is a threat, the diaphragm tenses and reduces oxygen intake, which further discharges adrenaline to condition our body to act. Environmentally, there is no threat, but there is physiological tension. Relaxing the entire body, slowing down, allowing air to circulate, and taking conscious breaths will calm stratic anxiety and focus the mind. These practices align with the three pillars by Daniel P. Brown as they teach individuals to gain mastery over their minds and regulate their thoughts and emotions.  

We can regulate our breath and state of mind. Nowadays, we are busy at work, too quickly changing from task to task with active minds, holding our breath, and feeling tension, which leads to anxiety. We can become more productive and creative when we learn to give ourselves time for deep relaxation, breath, and thought.  

Throughout the 1950s-1970s, there was a large body of literature and studies on the potential and efficacy of LSD and its clinical application. Prohibition was then introduced by Nixon, which meant that for a long time, there was very little study of LSD. Recently, the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) developed a lot of work and studies on MDMA as a treatment for PTSD. Their two trials showed effective treatment results for participants with PTSD, which can be read here.  

Nigel explains that Robert Carhart-Harris and others hypothesize that psychedelics can break the rigidity of the brain’s mental organization called the default mode network. This construct links the brain stem, limbic, and cortical brain regions in a fixed, survival-oriented, and resilient pattern. Early in life, people can adapt to a way of experiencing that is based on the interaction of genetics and lived experience. So, when they don’t respond to psychological treatments, it can be due to this fixed way of experiencing and processing information. It is theorized that when someone is given a psychedelic in a supported environment under certain conditions, this rigidity can break down, and new opportunities for neuroplasticity can arise. Through neurogenesis, new pathways in the brain are possible.  

Australia has permitted limited use of certain psychedelics in therapy for PTSD and treatment-resistant depression. Nigel has now trained around 300 clinicians in Australia in the use of psychedelics in therapy and has recently run the first sessions surrounding MDMA and clinician training. The significant issue is not the psychedelics themselves but the importance of dosage and a controlled environment when people have this disruption to the rigidity of their thinking. The process should be done with the correct doses and in the right environment with an educated clinician, or issues can arise. There needs to be support in the emergence of these new functions of the mind, and the therapist should not impose their solutions on the impressionable mind. The new functions of the mind will be self-regulating and stem from when the patient is impressionable and in a non-ordinary state. Impressionability is very significant during the process of neurogenesis. A person is usually impressionable for around five days after inducing a psychedelic, and as therapists, we must be aware of our impact on the person.   

Nigel explains how we can all benefit culturally from the mind’s potential by creating creative or technically astute people. We need to create opportunities for minds to optimize culturally. To do that, we must learn how our minds work, how they’re embodied historically to trip us up, and how we have a lot of adrenocortical influence. We must all learn to engage our developing children and provide their brains emotionally with what they need to grow. There needs to be more cultural education on the importance and sensitivity of developing brains. Each child is unique, and we should enable conditions that encourage them to experiment and learn from their mistakes to empower their self-esteem and a love of learning.   

Nigel talks of the late Professor Pieter Rossouw, who worked to critique the fear-based education of children. We often motivate children through education to fear failure, which can amplify the amygdala and the adrenocortical systems and reduce the optimization of the brain and the mind. Some studies showed that cooperative teaching, where each child takes turns learning, sharing, and teaching fellow classmates, is superior to a teacher standing at the front and encouraging memorization. We can implement many techniques as a culture to nurture young minds and promote optimization.  

Steve’s note: When we recorded this, we hoped to do the in person training in Melbourne in 2024, but this has been postponed til 2025. I suggest subscribing to our free email list to be informed on interviews and opportunities. You will be the first to know when the training is booked.

  

  

Resources:  

Integrative Psychology  

An Integrated Approach to Trauma Treatment Part I: Foundations of Theory – Traill Dowie & Nigel Denning in Psychotherapy and Counselling Today -December 2022  

Attachment Disturbances in Adults: Treatment for Comprehensive Repair, by Daniel P. Brown and David S. Elliott  

Wisdom from the Psychedelic Underground with Rachel Harris, PhD     

Daniel P Brown’s Website  (unfortunately, Dan passed away, but his website is still up)  

The Online Attachment course will be live January 15th, 2024

  Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by Nestor James

Are You Breathing? Do You Have Email Apnea? by Linda Stone

Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies Website