I've spent some time recently listening to interviews with Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuro-psychiatrist. Based on his and others research, he teaches very specific strategies that have been shown to affect the human brain in positive ways.

Like many species, we are more biased toward paying attention to the negative rather than the positive. As Dr. Hanson puts it, our thoughts about negative experiences are like Velcro, our thoughts about positive experiences are like Teflon.

I was thinking about this in the context of people who come to TCI for a medically assisted alcohol detox or opioid detox. Even though our patients come to us freely and have made the decision to embrace recovery, I often hear them caught up in the web of negative thinking:

  • I’ll never succeed
  • I’ve failed my family
  • I’ve screwed up my life
  • I’ll never have a good job again, etc.

Dr. Hanson synthesizes some of the research from the continuously growing data on the brain’s neuro-plasticity into a formula, if you will. Anyone can apply these simple techniques, creating more positive ‘wiring’ in our own brains. What will this positive wiring achieve?

Oh, nothing much…just peace, love, gratitude, wisdom, and contentment.

He uses the acronym HEAL:

H-Have a good experience.

E-Enrich the experience

  • Bask in it for 12-20 seconds
  • Allow the experience to be as intense as you can
  • Try to make it be ‘multi-modal’—feeling it in your body, your emotions, your thoughts
  • Let it be novel, try to have this experience as if you were a child
  • Notice it’s salience, or relevance to your life

A-Absorb it

  • Imagine you are a sponge and the experience is like water; you are soaking it up

L-Link the positive to the negative by contrasting the current situation to a previous negative parallel situation

I practiced this with my patient, let’s call him Joe, who has now got several months off heroin. We applied the technique to recalling his first Christmas being clean in several years.

H-Have a good experience

Joe had the good experience of being home on Christmas morning and not needing to “get well”.

E-Enrich It

He looked around the room at his 2 young children, wide eyed and tearing into presents, looking at him with astonishment that Santa had brought the very gifts they’d hoped for! He noticed how much he loved the feel of their comfortable old couch, the smell of the coffee. He recalls that he actually had the presence of mind to fix a coffee for his wife…He felt these sensations in his belly and got teary-eyed. He allowed himself to dwell in remembering this whole experience for 20 seconds.

A-Absorb It

He closed his eyes and let the images virtually move through him and in him.

L-Link It

Joe recalled the previous Christmas--as much as could remember--making excuses to do a ‘quick chore,’ leaving his wife to do Christmas for his kids.

Dr. Hanson’s research shows that by doing this kind of exercise several times a day, day after day, will physically change the brain. It will not get rid of our deeply wired negative (and often appropriate) responses to fear and anxiety, but it will help us be less reactive when a situation doesn’t need a full-on stress response.

For our Coleman Institute patients who are bravely choosing to live a life without drugs, practicing these techniques in ordinary every day situations can be powerful. Life is made up of thousands of daily opportunities: not waking up sick with withdrawal symptoms, showing up to work on time, feeling the pride of being responsible as you pick your child up on time, depositing a paycheck, calling your Mom….

The drugs need to go first, though, so the brain can truly start to heal. Please give us a call if we can help.

Joan R. Shepherd, FNP