Many people who struggle with traumatic memories work with a psychotherapist to relieve their distress. Alongside that therapy, says psychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, author of Hardwiring Happiness and Resilient, it’s also important to grow psychological resources, such as mindfulness, self-compassion, resilience, and general well-being.
To help you grow more of this goodness in yourself, Hanson has developed a simple four-step process — grounded in what’s called “positive neuroplasticity” — with the acronym HEAL:
Have a beneficial experience
Either notice or create experiences of whatever you’d like to grow inside yourself — such as a sense of gratitude, calm, worth, accomplishment, closeness with others, or happiness itself. This does not mean denying or minimizing what is painful or hard. It simply means being mindful of those genuine opportunities in everyday life to recognize and feel what is reassuring, working, encouraging, helpful, or beautiful, instead of ignoring or rushing past them as we often do. In particular, it can be useful to look for those experiences that are like medicine for old wounds, such as feeling protected or supported today when in the past you weren’t.
“Once you are having this experience, stay with it for a breath, or longer,” he says. “Get a sense of it in your body, so it’s more than just an idea. Help it be big and lasting in your awareness, and recognize why it’s valuable or meaningful for you. There’s a famous saying: ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’ The longer you keep them firing, the more they will tend to wire this good experience into your nervous system. Then, over time, you will have this inner strength with you wherever you go.”
“Take it in. Intend and sense that this experience is becoming a part of you. Let yourself receive it. You could imagine the experience sinking into you like water into a sponge, or like a balm soothing places that hurt inside. Focus on what feels good about it.” The purpose of the enriching and absorbing stages, Hanson explains, is to transcend mere “positive thinking.” The point is to get lasting value from our positive experiences rather than having them wash through the brain like water through a sieve. Meanwhile our stressful, hurtful, painful experiences are caught due to the brain’s “negativity bias.” By slowing down and deliberately taking in experiences of whatever we want to grow inside, we gradually weave it into the nervous system.
Link positive and negative material
“So far, though, we haven’t touched the traumatic material yet,” he notes. “That’s where the optional fourth stage, linking positive and negative material, comes in. It’s a way to be aware of two things at the same time, or to shift your awareness quickly between them.” In the linking, you are mainly aware of something positive that is good “medicine” for some aspect of the traumatic or simply stressful, uncomfortable material. And off to the side of awareness is the negative material. For example, you could be aware of feeling comforted by a friend while in the background are memories of being criticized or attacked in your childhood. With repetition, the positive will tend to soothe and even eventually replace the negative. Be careful not to be hijacked by the negative; if it’s too powerful, really drop it and focus on only the positive. In one form or another, linking is a part of most therapies for trauma, and it is often best used while working with a therapist.