We have all heard the saying that happiness is an inside job but what does that exactly mean and where do we even start?
People seek the assistance of a counsellor for many reasons. Some people want to find their way out of grief, chronic pain, or persistent anxiety. Others are working towards overcoming substance use, panic attacks, or relationship challenges. Most people wish to find greater resilience, success and well-being. The reasons are many and varied. These intended journeys of self-discovery emerge from a variety of psychoemotional origins. However, they all ultimately precipitate the same destination: people want to find their ‘happy’.
Our cultural imperatives urge us to remedy our personal afflictions with the same rational assuredness that we use to rectify a mechanical fault. We consciously reflect upon our distress, decide upon the impingement and logically work our way through a step-by-step process towards resolution. If we have physical pain we seek physical interventions.
We address our psychological pain with psychological approaches and for biological imbalances we utilise pharmacology to mitigate troublesome symptomology. If we are lucky this conscious, top-down approach works. Yet all too often people are left with the unresolved conundrum of chronic physical and emotional pain with few options for relief other than shutting it down and sucking it up.
A happiness experiment
OK let’s try an experiment. Think about being happy. How happy do you feel right now? I’m guessing perhaps mildly happy or even hopefully curious may be as close as it comes. Our chances of success in thinking our way into feeling good is limited because happiness is not a top-down process. It’s a bottom-up one.
Let’s say we imagine cuddling a puppy (or a kitten if you’re a cat person). I want you to use your senses to take in the experience; the softness of their fur, the warmth of their tiny body and the playfulness of their movement. Now I want you to become aware of your internal space. Does your heart feel expanded or lighter? Is there a small smile on your face? Perhaps your shoulders feel lighter. Whatever it is for you, notice that now. A small little morsel of happiness. When we compare our top-down experience of happiness to the bottom-up approach it’s clear to see that our sensory input has far more influence in moving us.
What if this doesn’t work?
Some people find this exercise quite easy. However, there are many people who struggle to connect with the sensations, the emotion or anything at all. Don’t be surprised if you fall into this category. Most of the population do because we have lost our vocabulary for our internal landscape. With our compulsion to exist mostly in our heads we have absent mindedly abandoned our innate ability to feel. This limits our ability to express and integrate this internal sensory data.
When we are forced to enter into our internal world by the presence of strong emotions like joy, anger, frustration, and compassion, we are flooded by a rush of accumulated sensations. Frequently we encounter the unprocessed sensory debris of the past. With enough momentum, this can hurtle us right back out of the body into the safety of our heads with little conscious awareness of what has just occurred. Instead we feel it as convenient distraction like a headache, or nausea or dizziness. This distraction often has a strong enough pull to divert our attention anywhere else but within.
Seek some assistance
This is where the insight and experience of a counsellor can be of tremendous assistance. They will provide you with the skills and support to safely access what is happening inside of you. A skilled counsellor will teach you how to get into those spaces. More importantly, they will teach you how to regulate out of there so that you don’t stay stuck in a difficult place. You really do need to feel it to heal it. However, when you have had a lot happen to you it can be challenging if not impossible to access this essential key to healing on your own when you are first starting out.
You see when we are overwhelmed, stressed or distressed our survival physiology takes over. This is not a top down conscious process. It is a bottom up, self-preservation response, activated before our conscious mind has an opportunity to speak up. All too often our intrinsic memory is activated when similar sensations are felt to a prior event. Our reptilian brain responds to the perceived threat before the thinking part of our brain can assess and appraise the degree of danger.
Everything is connected
Our physiology almost gets commandeered by our instinctive bodily resources to fight, flee or freeze. Simultaneously natural opioids to moderate and psychological and/or physiological distress are released. While we may consciously believe that all of our cognitive faculties are online in fact we are running on limited capacity. This is why it can be difficult to recall all of the details of stressful and traumatic events.
Counsellors know this as the triune brain response and that it activates whether the threat is actual or anticipated. When there has been an accumulation of stress, distress as well as traumatic events, sensory fragments of these experiences are held in the body and remain disorganized and detrimental. With the support of a good therapist the safe expression and reintegration of these events can be profoundly liberating.
The body’s response to stress
There is a growing body of research in psychiatry that recognizes the significance of the body’s response to stress, threat and trauma. Seminal works such as “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk and “Waking the Tiger” by Peter Levine have identified the visceral (bodily) impact of overwhelming experiences and have permitted therapists the means to assist people with the respectful release of their internal tension.
When we begin to befriend the internal expression of our sensory history, we make room for an expanded life capacity. The pressure starts to subside. As the necessity to shut down and push down uncomfortable remnants becomes redundant, a new way of naturally connecting to and being informed by life emerges. People rediscover greater attunement with themselves and others. Their confusion and overwhelm dissipates and with a greater ability to feel and hold emotions resilience builds and vitality returns.
Counselling is more than a helpful conversation, it is a powerful insight into what’s holding you back and supports you in defining a clear path forward. It takes way too long to figure out the complexities contributing to our stuckness on our own. By engaging with a trained, passionate and proficient therapist moving beyond what’s weighing you down is often easier than you think. We live in a time of amazing opportunity to check out what individual counsellors bring to your sessions so get online, do some research and take that leap of faith into the life you truly deserve to lead.
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