Good therapy doesn’t mean we just dive headfirst into our problems. When most of us walk into a therapist’s office we fully expect to list our problems and discover what is “wrong” with us, the marriage, our relationships, our habits-you name it. We anticipate that we will dredge up all the painful events of our past and mine them for gold nuggets of truth. The problem with this approach is that it can be overwhelming and not very helpful.
In Somatic Experiencing, a powerful approach to healing trauma, we look for positive experiences that people are less likely to bring up in therapy. During therapy sessions, clients spend time paying attention to and experiencing pleasurable, satisfying moments in memory, not just the painful ones. Whether it is the recollection of our dog’s eager greeting or last night’s soft pastel sunset, there is good reason to spend time in therapy recounting some of the warm-hearted moments of our lives. No matter how small, recalling and spending time in less emotionally charged events helps balance and rest the nervous system.
Why does this matter? Herbert Benson, M.D., coined the term relaxation response to explain the physical state of deep rest that changes our physical and emotional responses to stress. Essentially, it is the opposite of the fight, flight or freeze response. Benson explains, “Repeated action of the relaxation response can reverse sustained problems in the body and mend the internal wear and tear brought on by stress”. It may seem hard to believe that we have to find ways to intentionally practice relaxation, but this conscious awareness helps to reduce impulsive, automatic reactions and bring about healing from trauma.
Of course, the relaxation response does occur naturally, as when you hike in the woods and appreciate the fluttering Aspen leaves, but the hectic pace of our world doesn’t give us much of a chance to take in enough moments of relaxation. We actually have to intentionally create relaxing experiences to steer our nervous system in the right direction.
Rick Hanson, M.D., author of Buddha’s Brain, calls this practice “Taking in the Good”. He outlines three conscious steps to keep the spotlight of attention on positive experience:
- Let a good fact become a positive experience
- Savor the positive experience by sustaining it for 10-20-30 seconds, feeling it in your body and emotions, and intensifying it
- Sense and intend that the positive experience is soaking into your brain and body-registering deeply in emotional memory
With this practice, we can deliberately use the mind to change the brain over time for the better.
Little by little we can develop resilience and build inner strength from the practice of boosting positive experience and emotions. This is not to avoid the hard things we face, but to balance the scales and overcome a bias towards negative experience rooted in our biology. There isn’t much downside to giving this practice a try!
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