“I’ve been able to show that fear closes down our minds and our hearts, whereas positive emotions literally open our minds and hearts… they really change our mindsets and our biochemistry” –Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology, University of North Carolina
In my counseling practice, I encourage clients to bring awareness to positive states of mind in equal proportion to their difficulties and distress. It is important to draw on all available resources in difficult times, and being able to tap in to “inner resources” (meaning positive feelings, experiences and memories) is a valuable coping skill. This article focuses on a specific, practical skill for increasing awareness of positive states such as happiness, safety, calmness, compassion and connectedness.
In the book “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom”, Dr. Rick Hanson states, “When you change your mind, your brain changes, too.” Brain research shows that “mental activity actually creates neural structures” and those can be formed around positive or negative ideas. Furthermore, we can be involved in that outcome.
One way to feel more optimistic, especially during difficult times, is to Imagine Past Positive States. This means that when we focus on good memories, positive feelings arise and can be enhanced to help us feel better in the present moment. Even if the positive experience was brief, the positive emotional content exists in the memory.
We often think our memory exists in our “minds” but a faster way to access memories and associated positive emotional states is through body memory. Somatic therapies that focus on integrating mind/body awareness, such as EMDR therapy, can be effective in building inner strengths and resources. In fact, an introductory period of exploring the strengths gained from positive life experiences is an important step in helping people address the more difficult emotional content related to trauma.
In the midst of difficult periods in our lives, we can forget that we all have many positive past experiences that have imprinted an emotional memory or “resource” in us. These might include times in nature when we felt beauty and a connection to something larger than ourselves, remembering the love of a specific caring person who was there for us during a hard time or times or past situations in which we felt confident or strong.
Practice: Imagine Past Positive States & Enhance Them
Remember a time when you felt connected, loved or confident. Thinking of a specific place might help conjure these feelings or remembering a past event. With your eyes closed, give your mind time to bring up an appropriate image. Don’t worry about getting it “right” or that it may not “make sense”. Using visual imagery skills, start to observe the scene in more detail, noting colors, sounds, whether you are alone or if there is a positive person or presence there with you. As the scene becomes more vivid, start to find a few positive words that describe the place such as “safe, calm, relaxing”.
Using somatic awareness skills, start to notice sensations in the body such as tingling, heaviness, warmth, coldness, openness, tightness or tension. Sometimes it’s hard to describe body sensation, so using adjectives often helps. Notice how body sensations change as you focus on the positive memory. You might notice your tension lessening and a sense of relaxation and calm arising.
Once you feel the positive state in your body, enhance it with the EMDR technique developed by Lauren Parnell of “resource tapping”. To do it, tap your fingertips to your knees, alternating from one knee to the other, to create bilateral stimulus. This alerts both hemispheres of the brain to take note of the positive feelings, thoughts and body sensations and is “a clinically recognized system for tapping both sides of the body to release emotional and physical distress, build resilience, aid in healing, and calm the body on a deep physiological level.”