Including the ‘Happy Place’ tool and the ‘Two wolves – a Cherokee legend’ as a strategy within the Multilevel Emotion Regulation Theory – MERT

Why we focus on the negative

If we were to see someone falling ill after eating from a specific tree we would ingrain that information deeply in our brain talking about it, revisiting what happened or reminiscing about it in our mind. Our brains do this so that we can easily retrieve the information in order to prevent us or anyone else getting ill. 

This is why we are all evolutionarily defined to focus on the negative, because it has survival value. 

But this means that in the course of the everyday, we are also inclined to pay more attention to the negative; we remember the bad stuff that happened to us much better than the good stuff. It explains why it is so tempting to engage in gossipping, or not helpful/negative thoughts about ourselves or others, and are prone to building bleak scenarios and catastrophising.

Why is it so strong in us? 

If we have imaginational overexcitability (OE) and emotional OE , whenever we imagine something we will feel like it’s real right there and then. This means that when we imagine a bleak scenario it feels very real. This is quite likely to trigger our  stress response, which is the habitual pattern of unhelpful behaviour we can fall into when we are stressed. For some people this may come on top of already being caught up in a Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload

How we are feeling is triggered by a thought, nothing more… and is purely our own reality.

What we lose

We might even feel drawn to those negative scenarios and thoughts if we don’t feel safe, as it soothes our evolutionary need for survival when overwhelmed. When we feel overwhelmed and are in the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload replaying catastrophes and rehearsing bleak scenarios and creating new thoughts, extending our bleak scenarios, at least we feel we are able to control our thought processes and through that we achieve the false sense of safety in the Cycle that we can at least be in control of something. Sadly we also can’t relax or learn if we are on constant alert and it strengthens the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload.

We might pump a lot of energy into these negative thoughts or scenarios. Unfortunately, they never give us a good feeling nor help us improve a situation. And re-running negative thoughts  repetitively ingrains unhelpful neurological pathways deeply. This makes it more challenging to change, as when we try to do it differently it feels even more ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘not safe’.

Many of us are used to using our imaginative strength to create bleak scenarios and we tend to spend a lot of time and energy in this self-created world. It is often the overarching structure that brings together all our negative train of thoughts. Despite the discomfort of catastrophising, it seems to offer a false sense of safety, which can be seductive when we are in the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload and feels very safe through its familiarity. But ‘feeding’ these thoughts is not helpful in the long term, as the following ancient legend illustrates.

Two wolves – a Cherokee legend

You can see a similar version to this story that is more focused on anger by visiting here and scrolling down to ‘Grandfather tells’.

Who is the boss – you, or your imagination?

Although it often looks as if our imagination is the boss of us, fortunately we are the boss of it! It is our choice when we stand before the doors towards our imaginary world whether we step into a bleak scenario about the future of our children, or a detailed critique of how bad a mother we are, or engage in anxiety about what other people will think of us, etc etc. The other choice we have is to enter a positive scenario, one that helps us stay on track, that is compassionate to ourselves and others – our ‘Happy Place’ that is energetically nourishing to visit.

To counteract this evolutionarily and deeply ingrained neurological pathway we have to consciously choose to develop a ‘Happy Place’. However, we can only change this pathway when we have a little excess of energy and our Baseline – our energy and resilience level – allows us to make a tiny change. 

So, we can decide every time we stand at the door door to our imagination which one to enter; the bleak grey door or the colourful happy door.

We can help ourselves break our tendency to focus on the negative by consciously using our imaginational energy to create our Happy Place. This is where we can bring our energy using it to grow a positive space, making it more intense, more colourful, and with more good feelings. A place where we can feel happy and safe and where we will be reminded of all the good moments in your life.

Happy Place (tool)

A Happy Place is an imaginary place where we can withdraw when overwhelmed, a place where we can soothe ourselves when stressed and where we are safe. It is somewhere we experience joy, where we feel light and warm and are immersed in everything that triggers good and safe feelings.

How to develop your Happy Place

Take one, two or more environments, e.g in one you could be looking out on the sea in Spain, and on the other you might be in the Swedish mountains.

Be as detailed as you can: ask yourself “what do I hear”, “what do I feel”, “what do I see”, “what do I smell”. Using all your senses will help your Happy Place ingrain quicker and deeper, and make it more extensive.

Add the people you currently feel safe and appreciated by (you can always chuck them out if they don’t feel good anymore!). Add the people and animals you have loved in the past, as long as they don’t trigger grief.

Place your dream house, tree hut, sleeping mat, or whatever feels right for you in the middle. Every evening, go to this place and add something that gives you pleasure, energy or a good feeling. That might be your pet, something (or someone) you like to cuddle, good friends, a  favourite sweater from when you were a child or teenager. 

You can also collect and add your good feelings, you can put them in a pot and imagine a cupboard for it, bury them underneath a beautiful plant that expresses those feelings, paint a picture to hang on the wall or a photograph that reminds you of that feeling. Ask yourself:  how does it make me feel to be here, and keep adding those sensory embellishments, they will help you make your imaginary Happy Place as strong, extensive, precise and full of positive intensity for you as it can be, offering  you a uniquely personalised, accessible and safe hideaway for the rest of your life.

Our Happy Place will become more real the more we visit and embellish it. It is therefore a good practice to go there every day to spend time and energy and experience joy, and it can be a good place to spend time before we go to sleep.

When we are not used to care for ourselves

If creating our Happy Place triggers a negative train of thoughts, and we are aware of them (well done us), we can apply the Awareness Mantra (or our own personalised version). This is where we say to ourselves: “I’m proud and grateful to be aware that creating this Happy Place for myself triggers a not helpful train of thought,” after which you can do the 4-7-8 breathing technique.

When getting out is triggering

Sometimes it can be a challenge to get back into the real world after having been in our Happy Place. We can soften the transition by doing 4-7-8 breathing technique after we step out and before doing anything else.

How it may help

Teenagers and individuals I have worked with have used the Happy Place to become calm and prevent themselves from entering the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload. Doing this enables them to stay focused on what they want to achieve in a situation e.g. before and during exams, when feeling bullied or challenged at school or work, facing health scares or challenging life circumstances etc.

Enjoy your own personal Happy Place!

© 2020 Simone de Hoogh

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