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Beyond Gratitude: Using Feeling Good to Feel Better

By Dr. Catherine Hurley / October 28, 2015

 

Among the questions most frequently posed to me as a psychologist is “What can I do to improve…”followed by “…my experience in my relationship,” “…my confidence,” “…my sense of security,” or whatever the desired area of internal enhancement is. It’s important to discover what’s been getting in the way of progress in any of these areas, but even without this knowledge an awareness of neuroplasticity can gradually help us experience more of what we want in the future (in effect, using feeling good to feel better). In his book entitled “Hardwiring Happiness,” Dr. Rick Hanson describes the science behind our brain’s evolutionary holdover of a “negativity bias” and explains how we can actually work with our brain to become more inclined towards a more balanced default state.  

What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the concept that the human brain actually changes in response to experience. While it was once thought that the brain was a static, fixed structure that determines our exact level of intelligence, happiness and capacity, we now know that it is actually an ever-changing constellation of neural circuitry that we constantly and directly impact, both in functioning and ultimately form. An expression frequently used in neuroscience is that “neurons that fire together wire together.” What this means is that whenever we engage our attention in an event of any sort, the occurrence is mapped by a corresponding pattern of neurochemical activity from one neuron to the next, creating what is referred to as a neural pathway. Each time that a particular neural pathway is traced, it becomes further grooved into being and easily accessible for future ignition.

How does neuroplasticity work?

Remember back to how pleasurable it felt to notice a sense of belonging with a group of friends, or a moment when you felt particularly connected to and engaged with a loved one. Either instance constitutes a firing pattern in time, but with repeated neural sequencing that pattern can become a more durable quality or characteristic of a person’s disposition and/or capability, enabling them to feel better. This directly reflects another phrase often referenced in neuroscience: “state becomes trait.” This means that when repeated, what at one point was a momentary state of mind reflected in the brain can become an actual trait or characteristic of the brain. This concept provides the basis for Dr. Gabor Maté’s argument that attention deficit disorder can be viewed as potentially having its origins in childhood trauma. The child repeatedly dissociates or psychologically checks out to get through difficult experiences. Each time the child does this in reaction to uncomfortable stimuli, it activates a mental state of being. After this is repeated over a duration of time it eventually becomes a trait or quality of the brain, leading to the diagnostic criteria for attention deficit disorder being met later in life.

Why is noticing and staying with what feels good so important?

This means that our mental muscle of attention is incredibly important. It’s not enough to simply have pleasant occurrences. In fact, without noticing and really marking the pleasurable experiences with corresponding neural activity, they make little difference to our overall neural makeup. As far as our brains are concerned, if we are not mentally engaged with the experience it is as though it hasn’t even occurred. Contrastingly, when we are consciously interacting with what is happening for us and the various aspects of the experience, in essence we are equipping ourselves to create more of it for future access. Dr. Hanson describes this practice as “taking in the good.” He points to common, ordinary occurrences as enabling this quality of the brain to work in our favor. He has developed a process for harnessing more of what we would like to have access to.

Let me give you an example: As I sit here writing, my small, fluffy dog lies in my lap. If I take a moment to notice and really feel the sensation of his body curled in the crook of my leg, and the grounding and soothing quality of it, I am offered the opportunity to light up the neural pathways associated with connection and calming. Should I seek greater access to an internal state of safety and security, or to feel more connected to my lived experience, this simple moment offers me elements of both. Another opportunity to activate similar neural pathways of comfort and calm can come when taking a shower at the end of the day and noticing (pausing for 20 seconds or more and really absorbing) the soothing warmth of the water and the soft sound of it passing by my ears. The more times I do this the more frequently the corresponding neural firing is occurring and the more deeply grooved and easily triggered it becomes.

When core beliefs get in the way

Understanding neuroplasticity and the brain’s capacity to build more of what we want helps to explain what is happening when gratitude practices extend our positive mood states. However, for some, core beliefs about the self can keep us from finding utility in noticing the things in our life that we appreciate. For example, if I have a core belief that I am not good enough or not fundamentally capable, an attempt to notice what I’m thankful for could actually backfire and lead me to feel guilty. This could stem from my misperception that I should be grateful for everything in my life and that I haven’t been reinforcing my idea that I’m not good enough. For someone in this kind of internal predicament an understanding of neuroplasticity offers a way to connect to even the smallest bits of goodness in their experience. Instead of thinking “I should appreciate this,” the person would be best served by focusing attention on what actually lights them up internally (e.g. the sense of relief at getting on the bus in time; the feeling of accomplishment from handing in an assignment at work, or from completing each necessary step leading up to handing in that piece of work).

A core belief would also get in the way of someone who fears that connecting with what they are grateful for would call to the fates of the universe to take those things away, leading to a fear of loss. To the contrary, for someone in this situation, paying attention to enjoyment and goodness in their experience would actually enable them to access it more easily, as new neural networks would be created to map their felt sense of the experience.

Even if we don’t like everything that we are experiencing, in almost every circumstance there’s an opportunity to notice something really simple and basic that we do….the support of the chair beneath us, the crispness of sounds around us. Allow your attention to gravitate to the simplest areas of satisfaction and know that in doing so you are allowing them to become more prominent in your experience and in your brain.

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What’s the Point of Feeling, and How Do I Do It?

By Dr. Catherine Hurley/ September 9, 2015

 

What’s the point of feeling? I mean, of course we all know and love the emotions associated with joy and excitement, engagement and pleasure, but what about the darker and more difficult ones?

The why of it…

Let me start with “why” to begin working with one’s emotions. By “working with,” I mean actually attempting to feel the bodily sensations associated with them. Of course this feels better when the emotions being taken in or attended to are brighter-toned emotions, such as those associated with joy and pleasure. But what about the feelings of sadness or anger, jealousy or fear that are often more complicated and more uncomfortable? Wouldn’t it be better to just avoid them, internally shutting them down as quickly as possible, depriving them of air time or space? This is what many people learn to do early in their development. The implicit message that a primary caregiver might convey is “Don’t feel that,” “You’re not okay,” “You might overwhelm me and I won’t be able to handle you,” or “I can’t be available to you like that.” When the caregiver communicates their ambivalence, unawareness or disdain for his or her emotional experience, the child learns the following messages: a) “I can’t trust others to be emotionally supportive and present when I’m suffering, so it’s better to handle things on my own rather than ask for help”; and b) “My emotions can’t be trusted, so I need to suppress, swallow or disregard them in order to survive.” After coming to these conclusions, the child may begin to not even notice his or her emotions anymore. The signal will all but stop firing. This is a message that may lead to survival, but unfortunately not much more.

On a very basic level, we can’t block ourselves from the feelings that we don’t like without also cutting ties with those we do. Many try to shield themselves through intellectualization, substance use or eating, or by distracting their own attention through work or other means. Over a long period of time, these attempts leave us vulnerable to a loss of vitality and life energy, periods of depression and stuckness, and a pervasive sense of disconnection from others. When a therapist prioritizes emotional experience, the patient is primed to enjoy an exciting shift in self-understanding and in how they experience themselves and others. The implicit messages conveyed from therapist to patient become “You and your emotions matter,” and “Although feeling them can be both scary and uncomfortable, there is utility and power in doing so.” The patient can begin to feel more at ease in his or her internal world and empowered to connect more fully with the entirety of his or her human experience. This leads to a greater sense of self as whole and intact. Once the patient has become more curious and allowing of the processing and the moving-through of difficult emotions, he or she will inevitably find comfort in doing so, and will experience a surprising and corresponding increase in positive, life-affirming emotions. This allows depression to lift, as a more fractured more tentative sense of self is replaced by a sturdier grasp of a core sense of being. The energy that was once taken up by over-coping and disconnecting can now be devoted to engagement with life interests and significant others. [Now that you are convinced it’s a good idea to begin leaning into the emotions that arise in you, let’s discuss how to do something that many have been trained to avoid for a lifetime, whether or not they are aware of it.]

On a very basic level, we can’t block ourselves from the feelings that we don’t like without also cutting ties with those we do. Many try to shield themselves through intellectualization, substance use or eating, or by distracting their own attention through work or other means. Over a long period of time, these attempts leave us vulnerable to a loss of vitality and life energy, periods of depression and stuckness, and a pervasive sense of disconnection from others. When a therapist prioritizes emotional experience, the patient is primed to enjoy an exciting shift in self-understanding and in how they experience themselves and others. The implicit messages conveyed from therapist to patient become “You and your emotions matter,” and “Although feeling them can be both scary and uncomfortable, there is utility and power in doing so.” The patient can begin to feel more at ease in his or her internal world and empowered to connect more fully with the entirety of his or her human experience. This leads to a greater sense of self as whole and intact. Once the patient has become more curious and allowing of the processing and the moving-through of difficult emotions, he or she will inevitably find comfort in doing so, and will experience a surprising and corresponding increase in positive, life-affirming emotions. This allows depression to lift, as a more fractured more tentative sense of self is replaced by a sturdier grasp of a core sense of being. The energy that was once taken up by over-coping and disconnecting can now be devoted to engagement with life interests and significant others. [Now that you are convinced it’s a good idea to begin leaning into the emotions that arise in you, let’s discuss how to do something that many have been trained to avoid for a lifetime, whether or not they are aware of it.]

The how of it…

When difficult emotions arise, what many do (myself included at times) is to ask themselves, “Why am I feeling this?” This often happens even when there is a conscious intention to allow oneself to truly feel and process the feeling. While there is a valid time and place for questioning and analyzing one’s emotional experience, this can also be seen as a very subtle way for the psyche to attempt to not feel. It is as though this “why” question directs the body’s energy to the intellect, leaving the individual in a problem-solving state, wondering “How do I make it stop.” This is the exact opposite of dropping down into the body where emotional experience exists. This type of judgment can actually prolong and exacerbate the distress and discomfort that “feeling into” and tracking the emotion with attention would likely alleviate more quickly. In order to feel, we must first take a break from asking “why” questions, and instead begin asking “what” and “how” questions. For example, if I become aware of a difficult emotion such as sadness, a helpful “what” question to ask myself is “What in my body is telling me that this is sadness?” This perhaps leads me to notice a heaviness in my chest. I then begin to notice and explore the contours of my sadness in this moment, including how much space it takes up. Does it feel like it is right at the surface of my skin, or does it feel deeply imbedded, reaching down into my rib cage? What kind of movement is there in my sadness? Is there any temperature to it? Does it start to move towards my throat where I might then notice a constriction and an upward sensation that moves me into tears and allows me to express it in sounds or words? After a few moments I might return my attention to where my sadness initially arose, and notice that the sensations associated with the heaviness have dissipated and dissolved. I might notice that my tears led to the expression of my pain, which needed a loving pathway to exit my body, to clear out my psyche and be replaced by a greater sense of lightness. It is at this point that I’m served well to remember a quote written by Diana Fosha, Ph.D., the founder of Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy. She writes, “Nothing that feels bad is ever the last step.” To stay with one’s sensation of emotion and track it in this mindful and attentive manner is the exact opposite of self-abandonment. In fact, it is the pathway and the action of self-love. The implicit message to the self then becomes, “I and my feelings both matter and have value.” This process becomes a foundation upon which true confidence is built and genuinely felt over time.

Some words of caution regarding self-judgment…

Pema Chondrin offers a Buddhist teaching that is rooted in tonglen, a self-compassion practice. It describes the importance of suspending the judgment of emotions as one feels them. This means taking a break from giving full attention to the mind’s habitual production of thoughts such as “This is a bad thing to feel and it means something negative about me that I am doing so,” or “If I let myself really feel this it means I’m wallowing in it and I will always be this way – a wallower.” The teaching (as I remember it) continues in the following way: Emotions themselves are like little clusters of energy pushed into existence by neurons firing from one to the other, causing tiny fires of sensation that on their own rise and fall in brief periods of time, often within a few minutes or less. Judgments of these emotions are more like containers full of kerosene. When poured on the little fires, the judgments cause them to ignite and to continue burning with elevated intensity, long past the point at which there is a need. In everyday terms, this means that it’s a good idea to give oneself permission to “feel” in the safety of a supportive other, rather than making the emotion about good or bad or focusing on the story from which it came. Just give the sensations of the emotion some time and space, notice how they move and shapeshift in the body, and try not to get seduced by the harsh words of the mind. Our minds mean well, but they function by way of conditioned patterns of thought, which can make our experience so much more painful than is necessary.