One of my favourite techniques to use with clients is psychologist Rick Hanson’s neuroscience-based approach to ‘hardwiring’ positive experiences and emotions. As he explains in his excellent book, Hardwiring Happiness: the New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, the human brain is designed with an in-built negativity bias. This means that our attention is directed towards negative thoughts, feelings and experiences such as failing at an exam, being rejected for a job or left by a partner.
Human brains were built over millions of years of evolution, which were mostly spent in environments of extreme threat – wild animals trying to eat us, other tribes wanting to bash us over the head with clubs, poisonous snakes and spiders underfoot, simple injuries and diseases meaning certain death because we lacked effective medicine… So our threat system became the dominant system in the brain – and consequently 21st-century humans pay a great deal of attention to anything that could be threatening, hurtful or upsetting.
To an extent, this is how schemas work – affecting our information-processing systems, memory, attention, and so on to make us focus excessively on negative or upsetting things. I see this all the time in my practice – and I’m sure you do too. Someone comes in talking at great length and in fine-grained detail about some incident where they felt someone rejected them; or a time when they messed up at work and felt terrible about it. As well as giving plenty of space for that (which is, after all, what therapy is mostly about!) I always get people to make the most of positive experiences too.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say James tells me about getting a Distinction for an assignment on his Master’s. He then quickly whizzes on to the next thing, an upsetting story about his brother. I get him to pause, slow down, and tell me more about getting the news about his Distinction – I often use imagery to get him to relive the experience, closing his eyes and describing where he is, what he’s thinking when he reads the email and, most importantly, how he feels.
James tells me he feels happy and proud, so I ask him where he feels that in his body. James says in his chest and throat, so I get him to focus on those bodily sensations for one minute (anything from 10 seconds up works, but longer is better). After he does this, I get him to open his eyes and explain that we just hardwired those positive feelings to the memory – so now every time he thinks about it, he will feel happy and proud again.
Repetition is key
I just love this technique – and so do my clients. It feels great and is a really simple thing to give them for homework – just repeat, as often as possible, any time they have a positive experience. The more they do it, I explain, the more they are rewiring their brain to take more notice of and enjoy good experiences; and to be less sensitive to the bad ones. Over time, this creates feelings of calm, confidence, satisfaction, pride, self-compassion, and so on.
If you would like to know more about how schema therapy helps people rewire their brains, come along to one of my Schema Therapy Skills workshops. I hope to see you there!
And if you would like to find out more about my workshops, call me on 07766 704210 or use the contact form to get in touch.