Ask Dr. Rick About:


Can we use the HEAL method during movement practices? And will this have greater and more lasting benefit?

The HEAL process and the practices within it can be applied to any experience – including somatic and emotional experiences during movement, yoga, dance, Chi Gung, etc. – to increase its registration in the nervous system and thus the lasting gain from it. People may understandably value certain states such as those had while moving compared to other states, such as those had while sitting, and thus look for ways to have them. But once that more beneficial state is occurring, the question remains as to how much durable value it will leave behind in the body in the acquisition of beneficial traits. Just because a state of being is more somatically or emotionally rich – such as during yoga or somatically oriented psychotherapies – does not necessarily mean that it will lead to more lasting beneficial changes in the body. We need to add the installation phase of learning, which produces lasting change for the better. The installation phase of learning is like the forgotten step-child in psychology, coaching, and human potential trainings – which is why it’s been a primary focus on mine: getter better at installation is where the greatest opportunity lies for steepening the growth curves of most people.

What is one practice we can adopt in our everyday lives to overcome our negativity bias?

Several times a day, take in the good by really savoring a positive experience for 10-20 seconds or more. (The second chapter of Just One Thing is about this.)

Over time, much as repeated negative experiences make the brain more sensitive to them, I believe that repeatedly savoring positive experiences can train your brain to internalize them increasingly rapidly – in effect, making your brain like Velcro for the positive and Teflon for the negative.

Does brainwave optimization work or is it a scam?

Regarding brainwave optimization, brainwaves just track what is happening, they are not causally beneficial themselves. This said, personal practices (e.g., taking in the good, meditation, relaxing while walking the dog) can optimize brainwaves. I think you are referring more specifically on neurofeedback and things like Holosync that are essentially biofeedback devices/programs aimed at the brain. Generally, I think they are great IF they work for a person. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.

From a pragmatic standpoint, bottom-line, does something help or hurt, including compared to alternatives. And of course, once a practice of any kind, including with brainwave devices, has induced a beneficial state (thought, feeling, etc.), be sure to internalize it so it has lasting value, woven into your nervous system.

Is there a recording available of a guided meditation for your HEAL framework?

In the Foundations of Well-Being the Learning Pillar has several practices that cover the steps of HEAL. Here are the links of the audio for those:

Also, I have extended guided practices in the audio version of my book, Hardwiring Happiness, that you might like (chapter 10 is pretty much three chapters worth of guided practices).

If someone let's go of the negative thoughts in their brain and actively takes in the good, it seems that could be the same as running away from negative feelings in the mind/body, which is counter to mindfulness.

My take, with a bucket of salt:

  • Mindfulness is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
  • Mindfulness itself is sustained attention to something, typically with some meta-cognitive awareness of the quality of one’s attention. Mindfulness itself is morally neutral. A burglar could be very mindful. If people want, they can add other qualities to the mindfulness, such as an attitude of acceptance and friendliness toward the objects of attention, such as toward whatever may pass through the mind.
  • Mindfulness itself does not try to change the objects of attention. But mindfulness is not necessarily the only thing happening in the mind! If one likes, one could add some effort, hopefully wise, to change the objects of attention. A person could be mindful of her stress and negative thoughts for a while; then she could both be mindful and make an effort to shift what is in her mind; finally, she could be mindful of the results of her efforts.
  • As you can see, a certain set of presumptions have grown up around mindfulness in the past few decades that actually are additions to the original idea, notably the original idea promoted by the Buddha 2500 years ago. In particular, people talk as if an explicit stance against working with the contents of awareness is innate feature of mindfulness, and it is not. I recommend ready my paper, the Noble Eightfold Path for more on this.
  • Mindfulness itself is always helpful. And sometimes it is useful for a person to drop any effort to shift contents of awareness in any direction whatsoever; sometimes this kind of “choiceless awareness” alone helps negative thoughts release.
  • But often mindfulness alone is not enough. A lot of crud fills the mind, and it persists because the brain is a physical object that does not tend to change unless something changes it (in effect, Newton’s First Law). When you appreciate how embodied we are, and how much the brain is a learning organ that builds structure that it maintains unless it is actually changed, you get very interested in effective and efficient effort. Since neurons that fire together, wire together, keeping negative material in awareness can actually deepen its hold upon you.
  • In essence, there are two great elements in psychological healing, everyday well being and effectiveness, personal growth, and spiritual practice: being with and working with (in Buddhism: Right Mindfulness and Right Effort). These are the two great wings that help us fly. Each wing has strengths. And the wings work together: mindfulness improves our efforts, and it takes skillful effort to be stably mindful.
  • Then you can make a free and wise choice, moment by moment, as to what will do the most good for oneself, or one’s client: lean toward pure mindfulness, or lean toward mindful efforts. Both are beautiful, and help us fly.

Your idea about achieving happiness is to fill your implicit memory with good experiences rather than negative ones. Have I got that right?

Filling implicit memory with good experiences is one way to achieve greater happiness – and to help heal old pain and increase resources for coping. Other ways to accomplish these ends include increasing mindfulness, releasing negative beliefs and feelings, learning to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and taking constructive action. That said, taking in the good is really important, both on general grounds and to compensate for the brain’s innate negativity bias.

Where does the reference for the 5, 10, or 20 seconds it takes to commit positive experiences to long-term memory vs. a lesser period of time for negative ones comes from?

There is no specific number (5 or 10 or 20) – those are just shorthand references I use that seem to work for people. The key is a matter of degree: the longer, the more intense, and the more felt in the body an experience is the more it will be encoded in neural structure. This is a fundamental and widely known fact in the neuropsychology of learning (including emotional learning). It’s also known that negative experiences have an advantage: they get encoded more readily. So we are trying to do two things: steepen the learning curve from useful, beneficial experiences, and compensate for the negativity bias of the brain.

As soon as I notice a good thing, I automatically have anxiety about not being able to hold onto it long enough. Help!

Try this: when engaging a basic sensual pleasure like eating a strawberry or enjoying a warm shower or bath, give yourself over to savoring the pleasure without anxiety. It’s natural for your mind to wander slightly; you needn’t be anxious about this; you’re still encoding the experience in implicit memory.

Also try focusing on breathing and giving yourself over to it.

And then use the learning from these experiences to apply to receiving other positive experiences.

What would you suggest to help someone persist in practicing HEAL?

Three nice things about HEAL:

  1. It’s usually quick and in the flow of everyday life, a dozen seconds here and half a minute there, a few times a day, helping good learning land and stick to your ribs.
  2. It’s usually enjoyable, since – remarkably – most psychologically beneficial experiences are enjoyable. We have evolved rewarding associations to them because they actually help us survive to pass on our genes, in addition to all the benefits in terms of quality of life. These experiences feel good because they are good for us and others.
  3. HEAL makes real changes in your brain, which is motivating to know.


So I find that using HEAL becomes pretty natural for people, like any good habit. If you’re a mental health professional you can do things with clients to encourage them to focus on key resource experiences between sessions, or simply put little reminders around them like doing HEAL at specific times such as at meals or just before bed or just after exercising or meditating.

As to regular mindfulness practice, you can use HEAL to internalize the experience of mindfulness so it comes more easily and you get better at it – just like internalizing the experience of any other inner strength, to grow it inside yourself. Similarly, you can use HEAL to internalize the benefits of mindfulness – or related practices such as meditation – so you get more motivated to practice as you experience its rewards.

Also, try making a commitment to meditate – which could include for a person the theistic version of contemplative practice, which is prayer – at least one minute a day.

Can you use the HEAL process to heal attachment issues?

You can use the HEAL process to internalize any beneficial experience, growing more of the good inside. So for attachment issues, you could use it with experiences that originate in actual here-and-now interactions or relationships with others. And you could also use it with experiences that you create by recalling past interactions and relationships, as well as with experiences of your own caring, kindness, respect, support, friendship, and love flowing out from you, since love is love whether it is flowing in or flowing out. Personally, I like the many options that this approach gives one, especially if the actual relationships in one’s life today are not that conducive to having key experiences targeted at old wounds.

What do you think of using negative reinforcement to lose weight and end food cravings?

This technique is classic counter-conditioning, where one tries to replace a reward associated with a stimulus (e.g., cookies, chips) with a punishment. The bottom-line would be whether it works for you.

The little I know about fitness, weight loss, etc. is that leaning toward the good (e.g., feeling healthy, living longer) tends for most people to be a more sustainable motivator than leaning away from the bad (e.g., pictures of unappealing obese people on the refrigerator), in part because negative motivators are a fast-track to self-criticism, etc.

Does having an implicit memory full of positive experiences make you less dependent on day-to-day or moment-to-moment events for your happiness?

Exactly right!

People who have not internalized positive experiences and other resources are dependent upon the outside world for the provision of them – or they get stoic or defended and deny their need for such experiences. This is a mistake since they are a universal, human need, as well as the basis for coping and for the strength of mind and heart it takes to stick up for those we love and make this world a better place.

But if you do take in positive experiences – particularly the ones that are key resources for a history of lacks or wounds (e.g., current experiences of feeling cared about are critically important for healing old experiences of abandonment, rejection, dismissal, loneliness) – then you fill up your own cup and become less dependent on external conditions; in effect, your happiness becomes increasingly unconditional.

If you focus on the positive for long enough, does it actually make your brain more receptive to doing that?

Research shows that repeated practice of any positive behavior (e.g., gratitude) will increasingly incline the mind in that direction. Presumably, since all mental activity and changes entail neural activity and changes in brain structure, this changing inclination of mind must involve enduring changes in neural networks and activations.

More specifically, there is much research showing that negative experiences gradually sensitize neural networks, including for memory, in a negative direction. I don’t know of any specific studies describing an opposite effect, though there are studies showing that positive experiences and thoughts can gradually desensitize negative sensitization. This said, it’s plausible to me that a person could gradually sensitize the brain to “the good” since sensitization is such a general dynamic/mechanism in the brain – thus making the brain like Velcro for the positive. This has certainly been my own experience; I feel like I am much faster than I used to be at registering a positive experience so it “sticks to my ribs.”

If someone was to adopt just one of daily practice to foster a buddha brain, which would you recommend?

Taking in the good. I’ve been doing practices for 35 years (I’ve had a lot to practice with!), and this is my all-time favorite practice. I use it every day.

Can you tell me more about the physical health benefits of taking in the good?

Taking in the good has two kinds of benefits: explicitly, it internalizes key positive resources in emotional memory, and implicitly, it involves being active on your own behalf. (Similar sorts of benefits are found with other practices in my book.) Studies have shown that key inner resources such as “an attitude of gratitude,” positive emotions, and skills with your thoughts and feelings all have significant mental and physical health benefits. For example, these resources calm down the stress response, which strengthens your immune system. They also lift well-being and protect against depression.

Further, when you are active on your own behalf, this reduces what’s called “learned helplessness.” You are being a hammer instead of a nail inside your own mind.

Do you have any suggestions for my fear that the closer I get to happiness the more I feel deeply afraid that something bad will happen?

You raise a real and common concern that if we feel good (putting it simply), then bad things will happen. Perhaps we will lower our guard, or others will punish us, or we’ll be disloyal to others who suffer.

I’ve thought a lot about this issue, with these reflections:

  • We can still be aware of threats even while feeling good.
  • In fact, taking in good feelings makes us better at dealing with threats.
  • Most people really want us to feel good and support us in feeling good, and usually we can gradually disengage from those who do not.
  • You can become increasingly aware of the underlying psychological patterns that associate fear with feeling good. Maybe those patterns made sense when you were young. But not today. With practice, you can be mindful of this reactivated psychological material and use the methods that I’ve covered extensively both on this site and in the Foundations of Well-being program (based on Hardwiring Happiness), including the HEAL process, to soothe, ease, contextualize, and eventually replace those feelings.
  • Spending time with people who celebrate your aliveness, passion, and joy without shaming it is very good to do.

Your immersion in a beneficial experience is heightening – in the language of the Buddha – part of the “chain of dependent origination.” The “pleasant” feeling tone you’re experiencing (also called the hedonic tone in psychology) is causing “craving” for the experience to continue (so that the recognition of its impermanence is distressing), and you’re then “clinging” to it as an essentialized, stabilized thing. As the Buddha teaches, this leads to suffering.

For this, a dharma-centric approach would be to cultivate more equanimity, so that the heightened pleasantness of the experience encounters a heightened “shock absorber” of equanimity, and you are able to enjoy the pleasantness without craving or clinging to it. Also, as the pleasantness is repeatedly internalized, it should shift your overall state into greater well-being and less basis for craving and clinging altogether.

It seems like your brain is associating one thing with another, such as love for your child —> fear for their well-being. For that, I’d suggest developing mindfulness of the fear, then opening to the felt knowing that she is OK, then returning to love for her. Intuitively, my hunch is that you have a huge heart. The Link step in the HEAL process, repeatedly taking in antidote experiences for the unresolved pain or traumatic residues, could really be helpful here.

Research suggests that people who use positive affirmations feel the gap between where they are and where they want to be, making them feel worse. Do you have an explanation for the seeming discrepancy this and your work?

I know about this research, and it’s interesting. I think it reveals a fairly narrow and specific phenomenon in which people who are relatively unhappy think about something positive and then feel worse because the gap between their current state and where they want to be is highlighted. For this to occur, the “happiness intervention” must be ineffective, otherwise their mood would be lifted and the gap would close between their current state and where they want to be. So what this research actually means is that affirmations are not very effective, at least the way they were done in the study and others like it, and that we need to make effective efforts in the mind to increase happiness (broadly defined).

The sort of skepticism about making deliberate efforts to nudge the mind in a happier direction that is implicit in this study and in related critiques of trying to be happy must also be considered in light of the thousands of studies (plus personal experiences) showing the general effectiveness of interventions to increase positive states and decrease negative ones. It’s interesting that dozens of these intervention studies are published every month – reducing anxiety, increasing self-compassion, regulating anger, increasing gratitude, etc. etc. – and we never hear about them. But let one study appear from a – ah – grumpier perspective, and it’s in the news. This is what’s particularly curious to me, the investment in skepticism about and frank dismissal of deliberate efforts to increase mental health and happiness.

Is it important for taking in the good to recall actual experiences or can they be imaginary?

Once you have a beneficial experience occurring in your mind, it does not matter what its source was, in terms of installing its essence into your brain.

Often the source of a beneficial (usually enjoyable) experience is simply the flow of daily life, and we just notice what is happening already. Other times we deliberately create an experience, and two ways to do that are to recall past actual experiences or to imagine possible ones, such as imagining how one wants to act in the future (often with a sense of what could feel good about doing that). Both of these two ways are effective methods to self-generating beneficial experiences.

Do we have to savor an experience for 10-20-30 seconds to allow it to install in the brain’s circuitry as a resource?

Extending the duration of a beneficial experience will indeed tend to increase its consolidation/installation in memory – especially implicit memory for sensations, emotions, attitudes, intentions, etc.

This would apply to all experiences in general that we hope will lead to lasting changes in neural structure or function – learning, in the broadest sense – including those experiences that we wouldn’t tend to think of “savoring,” such as an insight into oneself or others, healthy remorse, the sense of how to be more skillful in a relationship, or clarity of resolution about how to act differently in the future.

There is a little bit of research on how the duration of an experience affects its lasting impact on a person (i.e., learning), but on the whole it is remarkable how little research there is on what a person can do inside her own mind – such as extending their duration – to increase the durable gain from the experiences she is having. I’ve had to pull together research from many corners, including on non-human animals, to identify “learning factors” that could plausibly be used by individuals to steepen their growth curves, healing curves, from the experiences they are having.

So I try to be modest about what I suggest, and emphasize how it is plausible, it can’t hurt, and we need more research. Bottom-line, I suspect that there is a minimum duration of at least a few seconds for the emotional/somatic/social/etc. residues of a “typical” beneficial experience to have a chance to begin their slow process of consolidation as lasting physical changes in the brain. (“Million-dollar moments” might take a little less time to start being consolidated.) Once that threshold is met, then I think it is plausible and certainly not contradicted by research that there is a kind of “dosing effect” in which extending the duration of the experience by 5-10-20 seconds or longer tends to increase its consolidation.

In working with Taking in the Good, is the explicit number of seconds a variable, and therefore not necessary to be so specific?

I would say this in a fuzzier but more accurate way:

  • In general, the brain registers negative information and experiences more rapidly than positive information and experiences.
  • In effect, while positive experiences may be more frequent than negative ones, negative experiences generally have more impact.

So, key practical implications include:

  • Hold negative experiences in spacious mindful awareness, which will tend to reduce the reinforcement of them;
  • Dwell on positive experiences for a breath or two or longer – and use other HEAL techniques as you like – to heighten their impact on your brain.

I object to some of the languaging used in your HEAL method, e.g. 'positive and negative material,' and 'pulling weeds,' as this seems incompatible to a mindful attitude toward these feelings.

This is a relatively common response. It is resolved through the framework I teach of the three major ways to engage the mind: let be, let go, let in . . . with mindfulness present in all three ways.

I find that many people who work within the MBSR framework are confused about what mindfulness actually is, and think it is only equivalent to choiceless witnessing of the stream of consciousness. That is a wonderful stance to take sometimes with the mind, especially in meditation – the epitome of letting be – but it is not the ONLY way to practice! And it is not the only way to be mindful.

In terms of practice, as the Buddha and others have taught, we also need to make wise efforts with the mind, essentially consisting of letting go and letting in. For example, pretty much all of the elements in the Noble Eightfold Path – from a major fan of mindfulness, the Buddha himself – involve either letting go or letting in. In terms of mindfulness, we should be mindful while being standing up to injustice, releasing and uprooting unwholesome tendencies in ourselves, and cultivating inner strengths like compassion, happiness, resilience, and mindfulness itself.

To practice and to live, we need to make distinctions and have values. There is no way around this. To avoid making distinctions requires making a distinction, and to avoid values is itself a value. So we use language to label these distinctions and values. I have no problem with saying that feeding children is “positive” and “better” compared to leaving them hungry which is “negative” and “worse.” Nor a problem with aiming to release craving and clinging and ill will and addiction and trauma . . . and describing these kinds of letting go with the metaphor of “pulling weeds.”

We can have a wide open mindful awareness of both the inner and outer world . . . while accepting things as they are . . . while recognizing the limitations of language and other labels . . . and while also recognizing what would be more skillful and helpful and making efforts to manifest that.

Stepping back, what is particularly curious is the righteous dogmatism one sometimes encounters from MBSR or non-dual people – about the horrors of words like “positive” and “negative”, and the terrible pitfalls in actually making deliberate intentional efforts inside one’s own mind. It’s frankly weird, and a problem that mindfulness has become mistakenly reduced to only a passive and inert relationship with the world and the mind, so that anything other than this passivity is claimed to be “not mindful.” For perspective, this is definitely not what the Buddha taught.

What can I do to help feelings of anxiety upon waking?

You are pointing to a pretty widespread experience that I suspect is due to a combination of low physiological state (prompting anxiety) and dysregulated rhythms of cortisol (rising sooner than it should in the morning). I’ve certainly experienced versions of this myself, typically after an anxiety saturated dream.

As a practice, my suggestion would be to start with awareness of the anxiety as soon as it can be established, and then increasingly bring attention to the embodied sense of the facts of alrightness: breathing ongoing, heart beating, body basically alright, no immediate threat in the bedroom, others nearby (if true), walls still standing, home basically alright, mind proceeding, consciousness happening alright, breathing ongoing, recognizing that the anxious thoughts have little basis in reality, and so forth.

Really open to this benign experience and help it sink in, perhaps doing the “Linking” step in the HEAL process of pairing this reassuring sense of alrightness with the anxious feelings and thoughts so that the reassurance gradually soothes, eases, and replaces the anxiety.

You’ve said that love and compassion can combat anxiety. How do they do that?

“Off-line,” when you do not feel threatened, deepen the sense of feeling connected by routinely taking in experiences of feeling cared about. Then, at times you do feel threatened or anxious, call up the body sense of feeling cared about. Stay strong with this, being a good friend to yourself, helping your mind stay focused on the sense of having allies, being part of a group, feeling included, liked, and loved.

How can I most effectively use your HEAL technique to deal with this anxiety around air travel?

Fears of air travel are really common as you probably know. Very normal. Besides concerns about crashing, there is the loss of control or the feeling of being trapped when the door closes. It’s helpful to be mindful of the specific triggers of the anxiety.

In terms of what you could do, you could use HEAL to:

  • Internalize general resources for anxiety, such as relaxation, feeling loved, and sense of perspective (e.g., the odds of a bad event on your flight are vanishingly tiny);
  • Internalize specific resources for air travel, such as compassion for the other travelers and, ultimately, acceptance of whatever happens;
  • Do the Link step in which you focus on experiences of the resources above while also experiencing, off to the side of awareness, thoughts and feelings related to air travel.

Additionally, you could do a few sessions with a therapist, perhaps hypnotist, to do experiential practices, including the sort listed above, related to travel. I also know people who speak to a physician and take a little medicine before a flight, such as a “beta-blocker.”

Personally, I have a little ritual in which I bless the plane, imagine it surrounded by light, focus on compassion for the other passengers (I want them to be fine, too), and then accept and be at peace with whatever may happen. Works for me!

I recently lost my partner, and every time I come across a reference to loving relationships in your book a deep sense of loss stops me in my tracks. How can I move forward, and keep getting value from your work?

  • Keep doing your already fruitful practices of taking in the good in general.
  • Knowing that you have had a challenge (putting it mildly) to your needs for “connection” (as given in my model in Hardwiring Happiness), look in general for opportunities to internalize experiences of feeling included, seen, appreciated, liked, and loved, without specific reference to your partner.
  • Skip over passages in books, or sections of the Foundations of Well-Being program (or similar things) that just retrigger your sense of loss and add little or no value to you. Take it easy on yourself for months and even years to come in this regard.
  • Then when the wound of the loss is not so raw and tender, and it is alright for you, you could take in the good of experiences of feeling loved that are more like those you experienced with the person you lost (obviously not replacing them in any way; experiences such as the felt memory of their caring for you, or a loving non-romantic closeness with a partner, or even perhaps when the time comes the feeling that a person you respect is attracted to you). You could also use the Link step of HEAL to hold in awareness at the same time both feelings of being loved today and your sense of grief.

Do people with a history of recurrent depression have as much capacity for positive change as those who haven’t?

Episodes of depression do tend to sensitize people and make them more prone to depression. To deal with this, MBCT can help prevent relapse; try not to get depressed about feeling depressive. I also think exercise, complexity, stimulation, and visual-spatial tasks are plausible ways to help rehabilitate a hippocampus that’s been through depression, trauma, or both.

Really taking in the good, especially pleasurable social experiences would also be plausible for reducing likelihood of relapse, in part through sensitizing and perhaps increasing oxytocin and opioid receptors in the amygdala and other key regions. Along these lines, focusing on concentration practices that involve the cultivation of bliss/rapture and joy (including happiness, contentment, and tranquility) could help as well.

Alongside all this, even if you are still vulnerable to depression, other inner strengths could still be developed, such as concentration and lovingkindness.

Have hope! I can tell that you are a strong practitioner. And if anti-depressants or related “nutraceuticals” like tryptophan or 5-HTP are helpful for your biochemistry, whatever, it’s skillful means for you and nothing to feel bad about.

Would the Taking in the Good process be applicable with people who have attempted suicide or would you recommend that the client have a certain degree of stability before being able to move into that process?

First, a couple cautions:

  • If someone is severely depressed, by definition they are fairly incapable of activating or sustaining an enjoyable experience. As I write in Hardwiring Happiness, with this population I think taking in the good is contraindicated. The one possible exception to this view I offer diffidently: basic experiences of sensual pleasure (e.g., drinking water when thirsty, putting on a sweater when cold, eating a sweet) might be an opportunity to draw attention to a positive experience and – building one second at a time – help the person stay with this experience. This can possibly be a path toward slowly increasing the capacity for enjoyable experiences.
  • The “be with it” phase of practice is really important to honor before shifting into the second (reducing, releasing the negative) and third (growing positive qualities – inner strengths – like self-compassion, gratitude, feeling cared about, emotional regulation) phases of practice. Anything I say here about taking in the good with depressed, suicidal, traumatized, grief-stricken, etc. people is in this context.

With this in mind:

  • Taking in the good – my shorthand term for activating and installing positive experiences – is implicitly used in many treatments for depression and suicidality, so yes, I do think that doing this more explicitly is appropriate for your population . . . with of course good clinical judgment, and an alert eye to the blocks that routinely arise.
  • See if my model of the Avoiding Harms, Approaching Rewards, and Attaching to Others systems is helpful as a way of identifying the key inner strengths that would be good to activate and install in different clients. For example, much suicidality indicates poor inner resources that are loving and encouraging (Attaching system), so developing self-compassion and really looking for opportunities to feel cared about (often in mild yet still real ways) would be relevant “key resource experiences.” Also look for chances to really marinate in reward experiences such as eating a cookie or petting a dog or showering when it’s humid (Approaching system) to build up the sense of life containing enjoyable experiences and reasons to keep on living.

How would you recommend dealing with repercussions of trauma?

I recognize the issue you raise and usually speak about it in workshops with therapists. Some people need to resource themselves initially (e.g., greater mindfulness, self-soothing, distress tolerance) before deliberately activating and installing enjoyable experiences. Of course, people can use the methods of positive neuroplasticity in Hardwiring Happiness to accelerate the internalization of these foundational resources.

I suggest moving away from the word “good,” which I’m doing more and more myself in my languaging of this material. I use “beneficial” or “useful” or “experiences of an inner strength.”

If a childhood trauma was the root cause of a current source of behavioral anxiety, then how do I deal with unlocking it?

Let’s start by presuming your insight about the root experience/trauma is accurate. There could also be other factors, such as a general inclination toward anxiety, or not much internal sense of protectors or other resources to deal with threats that might “get you.”

In addition to obvious other resources (e.g., psychotherapy), in terms of what I might suggest, you should try the first three steps of HEAL (see my free online resources and/or Hardwiring Happiness) for this, including “key resources” such as feeling protected, sense of grit, seeing threats accurately, and so on.

Building on cultivating inner resources for this issue with just the HEA (Have, Enrich, Absorb) steps, you could try the Link step, in which you hold in awareness at the same time both a relevant “positive” resource (e.g., feeling protected, sense of grit) along with some of the “negative” material (e.g., fear of being injured). Remember to keep the positive bigger in your mind and drop the negative if you get sucked into it. This Link step could be especially useful.

Could focusing on the resiliency of a person be similar to bringing up a positive experience and pairing it?

The key is to bring up a rich experience – in this case of a nurturing being – whether it is someone today or someone from the past when the trauma occurred. Just remembering that someone was helpful in the past (you didn’t say this, I am just mentioning this here for clarity) would not have the same impact in implicit memory as bringing up the experience of that soothing in the past, or an experience of soothing here and now.

So I don’t think there is an inherent distinction in the power of experiences of past or present soothing/resilience: past or present could be more or less powerful depending on other details. For example, when I bring up the felt sense of people in my childhood who were really for me, even though that emotional memory is less intense than that of my wife’s support for me these days, in some ways it (the childhood memory) goes deeper since it happened when I was a kid.

My own process is to feel the pain for sure, held in a big open space of awareness when I can, but also really focus on internalizing positive resources (mainly from positive experiences); check out the material on my website on taking in the good. In other words, be with the weeds in spacious mindful awareness while also diligently planting flowers in the garden of your mind/brain. Over time, the flowers will gradually crowd out the weeds.

When going through the “Link” stage of your HEAL process, should my positive thought be one of love from others, even those I feel betrayed by?

It is natural to continue to be bothered by negative thoughts and feelings long after a loss and psychological injury that’s as large as the one you experienced. In my model of the three ways to engage the mind – let be, let go, let in – sometimes it take many months, or even several years, to get through the first two of these. Try not be overwhelmed by the pain.

Then, on the basis of truly letting be and letting go, you can now let in most effectively, such as internalizing positive experiences of feeling cared about by others (e.g., friends, children), and feeling worthy and good in your own being. Then the linking step of holding both positive and negative in your mind will be most effective.

More generally, it helps me get free of my own suffering in relationships when I can see the suffering in others and have compassion for them. This does not mean I approve or let them off the moral hook, just that I also recognize their own pain and difficulties. Besides being benevolent, this seeing of the suffering of others paradoxically helps me feel less upset.

Can “Taking In The Good” help in relationships?

Yes, studies show that for most people most of the time – each day, week, month, year, and lifetime – they are having many more positive experiences than negative ones. Of course, there are important and sometimes tragic exceptions that need to be acknowledged, too, such as people at home and abroad living in terrible poverty, or with chronic pain or depression. The problem is that the brain has a feature that worked great for survival in the wild, but today functions as a kind of design flaw in terms of quality of life and long-term health: the brain generally lets positive experiences flow through while capturing all the negative ones. This is why “taking in the good” is so important: by staying with positive experiences for a dozen or more seconds in a row, we can capture them and weave them into the fabric of the brain and the self.

The noteworthy researcher on marriage, John Gottman, found that happy, lasting couples had at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions (and often an even higher ratio), and found that falling below this 5:1 ratio was a major risk factor for eventual divorce. Without getting into numbers, which could be misleading, the key takeaway point is that much research shows that negative experiences are generally more memorable, more reactive to the body, and more consequential in how we feel and see the world. This is true in all time frames, whether a day or a lifetime.

Therefore, the practical steps are: (A) bear negative experiences when they happen without getting all negative about them (which just adds negative to negative), (B) help yourself get through a negative experience as gracefully and as a soon as you can, and (C) really cultivate positive experiences, and when you are having them, really focus on them to take them in.

Why is it so easy to forget about the true meaning of Thanksgiving – gratitude?

In addition to being so busy these days, we’ve got a brain with what scientists call a built-in “negativity bias”  that looks for bad news, overreacts to it, and immediately stores it in emotional memory systems.

This worked great for keeping our ancestors alive in the wild, but it’s lousy today for happiness, long-term health – and a grateful Thanksgiving.

You specifically suggest “taking in the good” and that sounds like something all of us should be capable of doing on Thanksgiving… why does it seem so hard? Why do we prefer to nitpick a son’s haircut or a sister’s attitude toward helping clean-up after the meal?

We’ve got a brain with what scientists call a built-in “negativity bias” that looks for bad news, overreacts to it, and immediately stores it in emotional memory systems. This worked great for keeping our ancestors alive in the wild, but it’s lousy today for happiness, long-term health – and a relaxed and happy Thanksgiving.

We’ve got to take charge of this caveman brain or it will continue to take charge of us.

Would you please suggest 2-3 simple practices to 'absorb the positive,' which would be helpful to me at this early stage in my healing from stroke?

In terms of soothing and calming the alarms, there are happily many good things that can really help. They are all practical and simple, and you’ll see the results quickly:

  • Do whatever you can to keep your physical body well-fed and well-slept. Try to avoid things that are inflammatory (a kind of alarm process in the immune system that is connected to the nervous system). Consider supplementing nutraceuticals such as GABA, tryptophan, and/or 5-hydroxytryptophan (talk with an experienced healthcare professional about this).
  • Do some biofeedback with Heartmath’s Inner Balance device, to shift your resting state toward greater calm, and to recover faster from getting alarmed.
  • A couple times a day or more, notice that you are basically alright right now. Really register this feeling, let it sink in. Whatever happened in the past and whatever the future holds, in the present you are basically OK.
  • As you do your various practices, deliberately let go of any anxiety, any uneasiness, any defending against the next moment. Keep reminding yourself that you are strong and basically OK in the present. You can cope with challenges without getting worried or alarmed about it.
  • Accept that sometimes you will feel alarmed. Don’t get alarmed…about getting alarmed. Try to regard the alert/alarm response as a kind of impersonal wave of experiences passing through awareness. Try not to identify with it; it’s there, yes, but kind of at arm’s length in your mind. You don’t have to move through your day afraid of getting triggered; if it happens, it will pass and you will remain.
  • A few times a day, take one or two breaths to marinate in the sense of you caring about others, and others caring about you. This will be calming and supportive.
  • Also a few times a day, look around and notice some of the many things that are working fine. Try to see the big picture, from a bird’s-eye view.

What is the best and most effective way to be happy in life?

There are numerous ways to be happy in life, and the best and most effective ones will depend on the particular person and their situation. This is an important point, about individual differences.

It’s also important to improve the world around us. For example, about a billion people worldwide go to be bed hungry each night. Poverty and injustice make many people, including children, feel bad.

All this said, the key point for me has been the realization that I could also heal and grow and learn a little every day. No matter how bad that past has been or how bad the present moment is, we can always develop ourselves from there each day. This is tremendously hopeful. Learning is the superpower of superpowers, the one we use to develop the rest of them.

Keep on learning every day!

Does it take 5 or 10 positive inputs to offset every negative one?

I think the 5:1 (or 3:1) ratio idea comes from the work of the Gottmans, in which they found that couples with less than a 5:1 ratio of good to bad interactions were at heightened risk for divorce. A related idea comes from Barbara Fredrickson, that people really start to thrive when they have more than a 3:1 ratio of good to bad experiences over time.

There’s been some pushback against these exact numbers, but the basic idea is solid: during evolution (and still today), negative experiences tend to have more urgency and impact than positive ones. In the wild, if you don’t get a “carrot” today, you’ll have a chance to get one tomorrow…but if you don’t avoid that “stick” today, ulp, no more carrots forever. So we are naturally more affected by negative experiences in the moment, plus naturally designed to internalize them. Positive experiences have a quantity effect in the lives of most people, but negative experiences have a quality effect: they are generally more powerful.

So for me the bottom line is:

  • Deal with the bad – Recognize injustice, turn off the stove, assert yourself, etc.
  • Turn to the good – See what is working amidst what is not; see the good in yourself and others.
  • Take in the good – Don’t waste it on your brain. Slow down to stay with the experience for a breath or longer, feel it in your body, and focus on what feels good about it.

Meanwhile, recognize your impact on others. Try to make sure that their good moments with you outnumber the bad ones by at least 3…or 5…or 10! (a good way to stay married…)

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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