“There is something about everything that makes it not quite satisfactory. Even things we really love in life are spoilt by not being quite enough or – the opposite – becoming too much. People entering psychotherapy want to feel better – more authoritative, less anxious or depressed, more whole – and although it can help, an enormous amount of difficult and painful emotions continue to arise.” ¹
I have seen many clients over two decades and have sometimes heard some extraordinary life narratives. For the most part though, I have met clients who are thoughtful, generous, dependable and accomplished people with meaningful careers and lives and, in spite of giving their best find some parts of their life or personality challenging. What clients are looking for in therapy is professional help from an impartial outsider, who can support them to make changes for the better.
Counselling, a talking therapy, takes place in quite a unique setting in which you are being listened to with respect, non-judgementally and the undivided attention of a therapist. Crucially, that space is just for you and about you, with no need to feel guilty or worry that you are taking up too much space.
“It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
Throughout our days, while we go about our business, working, planning, socializing or resting we have a running commentary at the back of our mind. Sometimes we are very aware of it, like when we decide whether to have toast or muesli for breakfast or concentrate as we cross a busy road. We make decisions constantly, filter external impressions, internal sensations and all those states and thoughts are passing through our mind. What we might be much less aware of is that our every moment is also coloured by a “feeling tone”, that falls into four basic categories: good, bad, neutral or heartfelt, and the thousands of shades these four basic emotional states can take. As we decide what to focus on and how we react in situations that feeling tone plays a major part, although basically for much of the time it operates outside our conscious awareness. The feeling tone guides our actions and reactions and shapes our mood in the moment, in habitual internalised, learned pathways that we are
not aware of.
For example: Imagine your neighbour usually greets you cheerily but this morning he did not. You will have an emotional reaction, maybe slight surprise, and then a neutral thought like – oh, he was probably in a hurry. And that is it. Or you might experience a slight negative reaction like confusion and a thought like – oh, I wonder why he was not greeting me, maybe he is annoyed with me? I wonder why…. and might I have offended him…. ? This negative rumination can now spiral on and can bear down on your overall mood. These two examples of two very different reactions to the same situation illustrate how thoughts can drive feelings and how a feeling tone can drive our thinking and mood.
This feedback loop operates much of the time and anyone who has been lying awake in the small hours of the morning worrying, overthinking and catastrophising can observe this feedback loop in action. It is also active in anxious or angry states, it operates when we lose confidence in a situation, when we doubt ourselves or when we are stuck in self-reproach. We feel bad, in our mind we exaggerate our imperfections and mistakes and do not realize that these negative thoughts in particular may feel very real, but are not true. We have fallen into a rumination trap that can become all-consuming. These negative states have consequences for our life, our relationships and health. By contrast, positive feeling tones and thoughts give us courage, they make us curious and open-minded, help us to pursue opportunities and basically make us feel good about ourselves and our lives.
“The education of attention would be the education par excellence.”
– William James
The neurobiology of emotions explains why fleeting states of thinking, feeling and sensations over time become traits. Our brains are constantly shaped and changed by our daily experiences and activities and upon what we focus our mind. This is referred to as neuroplasticity. The more we focus on particular thoughts, sensations and activities the more engrained they become and form habits of thinking, feeling and acting and become the background to our moods. Practice makes perfect! – which is fantastic if we want to learn a new skill. It is unfortunately also very effective if we keep telling ourselves that we are not good enough, that we have reason to be afraid, that we are helpless, that we are not lovable – again and again and again – we are forming thinking habits in our mind.
When I first read about mindfulness in therapy and about positive neuroplasticity I found the explanations very plausible. I have since trained in, and introduced, both into my way of working in therapy with all my clients. Cultivating mindful attention and focusing more realistically on the positives in ourselves and in our daily lives helps clients who are depressed, who suffer with anxiety, or anger issues, low self-esteem and lack of confidence. We first need to become more aware of present moment feeling states, thoughts and moods and challenge the underlying assumptions which are in most cases negative and internalized when we were much younger. This tendency to focus on negatives is well-known and referred to in the neurobiology of emotions as the “negativity bias” of the brain. Our brains learn faster from bad experiences than from happy ones since those were and are more important for survival and, negatives are also more persistent over time. When we can understand and process unhelpful thinking and can tolerate and accept the underlying difficult feelings like anxiety, anger, envy, guilt, shame, sense of inferiority, disappointment, to name but a few, we can change them.
It sounds simple, but it is actually not that easy and it takes some practise to focus on unpleasant feeling tones we experience in the moment rather than on the conditions. With practice we can develop mindful awareness and gain some distance from compelling thoughts and strong feeling states and ultimately achieve more clarity. Awareness helps us to choose what to make of our observations and how to respond, rather than to react with habitual patterns. Our past perspectives need no longer crowd out our manyfold, daily positive contributions to our environments.
We cannot separate ourselves from our feelings, thoughts and sensations, but we can come to understand them more deeply and use that wisdom to make better choices. Life will always present us with challenges and strong emotions inevitably will overwhelm us at times – we are human after all – but we can learn how to grow our resilience and treat ourselves with kindness and acceptance.
1 Wellings, N., Wilde Mc Cormick, E., Present with Suffering. Being with the Things that Hurt. Confer Books 2022
Books on the neurobiology of emotions and on how to be more present in our everyday lives
Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., Kabat-Zinn, J., The Mindful Way Through Depression. Guildford Press, 2007
Hanson, R., Mendius, R., Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. New Harbinger Press 2009