Mental Health

CBT Combined With Remembering A Happy Time May Help Build Inner Strength

happy times
Recalling a happy moment with a friend, participants' feelings of warmth, relaxation, and safety increased. Sean Gallup, Getty Images

The self-help powerhouse of 2006, The Secret, taught us that the universe is governed by a singular law of attraction. We gravitate toward experiences, people, and events that match the frequency of the thoughts and feelings we have in our own lives, said its author, Rhonda Byrne. By thinking positively and feeling upbeat, we will naturally create the world we want: one filled with money, fame, health, and happiness.

Sure. Okay.

University of Liverpool psychologists similarly suggest we would all do well by dwelling on our positive memories, though their claims for successful outcomes are a bit less grand than those Byrne proposes. More simply, the Liverpudlians say hope, happiness, and other positive feelings expand the range of our thoughts and actions, and in doing so, support our resilience to psychological disorders. In fact, this broaden-and-build theory of emotion is the basis for the Broad-Minded Affective Coping (BMAC) procedure, a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy, and the focus of this new study.

How To Locate Your Inner Strength

Life moves quickly. That’s a wonderful thing if you are trudging through a hard time, but it’s a problem for those who are too busy to savor their wins. It turns out, though, that we feel better about ourselves when we dwell, even for a moment, on positive experiences from the past — fun times we dream for our future also apply. This is the very essence of the BMAC technique, where guided imagery helps people savor the rich sensation of their favorite moments in order to generate upbeat emotions and counteract negative beliefs.

Though skeptics may laugh, past studies suggest evoking positive emotion increases wellbeing, physical health, and even improved job performance. If recent scientific research is to be believed, happy feelings also increase access to our own inner resources while reducing our perceptions of threat.

To learn whether the BMAC technique delivers, Dr. Peter Taylor and his colleagues recruited 123 volunteers, including 77 women, to participate in a computer-based study. They began by completing assessments to measure self-attacking, self-diminishing, or self-shaming thoughts along with feelings of warmth, connectedness, and pleasure. After recalling a positive experience with someone else, they followed instructions in a relaxation exercise that focused their attention on the present moment.

Here, the BMAC intervention began with the program guiding participants through their special memories. With a special request to try and recall each of their sensations, participants savored their feelings and tried to understand the meaning of their memory. They also considered the feelings of the other person featured in their memory.

Examining assessments completed both before and after this intervention, Taylor and his colleagues discovered this simple exercise produced results. Participants’ feelings of warmth, relaxation, and safety increased as their negative emotions decreased. Though these changes were not sustained during the two-week follow-up period, the researchers believe their results provide evidence of the effectiveness of BMAC.

Going forward, Taylor and his colleagues hope to test this technique with patients diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and other disorders where self-criticism is a prominent symptom. Self-help, apparently, begins with memory and compassion.

Source: Holden N, Kelly J, Welford M, Taylor PJ. Emotional response to a therapeutic technique: The social Broad Minded Affective Coping. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. 2016.

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