Neuroscience has revealed something all too familiar to those who have lived through intimate betrayal:
Emotional pain is just as real to the brain as physical pain. Now here’s the good news: Emotional healing is just as real to the brain as physical healing.
Physiological healing is the revitalization of diseased or injured tissue, organs, or biological systems. Simply put, the body’s cells regenerate or repair to reduce the size of the distressed or damaged area and restore the body to normal functioning.
Emotional healing is more complicated and less mechanistic, but otherwise follows similar paths to restoration. It can be accomplished with as much efficiency and effectiveness as the wondrous healing of our bodies.
Emotional healing happens when the brain replaces painful memories (images) of injury or damage with restorative images – those which motivate behavior that promotes safety, growth, and well being, thereby restoring the normal function of the mind. The process occurs naturally for most people, although it takes a long while.
Recovery from common grief over the death of a loved one is the paradigm of how the mind heals itself. In the beginning of the grief process, memories of the deceased amplify the sense of loss and inhibit premature emotional investment in others. For a while, the pain is acute. Yet over time, the mind focuses less and less on what has been lost. This mental shift of focus away from loss allows positive experiences with the deceased - restorative images, if you will - to dominate memory. It becomes pleasant to think about the lost loved one. At that point, emotional healing has occurred.
Recovery from intimate betrayal is more complicated than simple grief. Yet the same process of conditioning restorative images to heal memories of pain has worked with thousands of my clients who have suffered one or more forms of intimate betrayal.
A restorative image is any emotionally-laden bit of your imagination that eases pain by shifting mental focus from loss to growth. The most potent images are usually drawn from experience - something you’ve seen, heard, smelled, or touched, something beautiful or meaningful that is exciting and stunning or soothing and peaceful. They can also be purely made-up or dream – one of mine is moving rapidly through a expanding portion of deep space ablaze with the light of billions of stars. Restorative images remind us that our sense of who we are rises from what we have gained in life, rather than what we’ve lost or suffered and is continually strengthened by our ability to improve and grow.
The most powerful restorative images are those that reinforce our deepest values. Anthropological evidence suggests that the following categories of values have existed to some extent since in the earliest emergence of the human species and are fertile ground for restorative images. They are:
- Basic humanity (innate capacity for interest in the well being of others)
- Spiritual connection
- Appreciation of natural and creative beauty
- Community connection (identifying with - or feeling connected to - a group of people)
- Compassionate behavior (crucial to the maintenance of social bonds).
Emotional healing is largely reconditioning your brain to associate restorative images with painful memories.
Recondition Your Brain
Brain conditioning is a process of repeating tasks or mental associations until new habits in sequences of neural firing are formed. When it comes to emotions, we are almost entirely creatures of habit. By the time we’re adults, the vast majority of our emotions are conditioned by past experiences, i.e., when a certain kind of thing happens, we have a certain habituated emotional response. The brain develops so many conditioned responses because they are metabolically cheap, i.e., they consume little energy, compared to conscious intentions. (The difference in mental exertion between habituated responses and a consciously decided action is hundreds of millions of multi-firing neurons.) We’re reconditioning our brains all the time, usually in adaptation to our environments. Now is the time to take up the process consciously in the service of healing and growth.
Because habituated responses get repeated thousands of times over the years, there is only one way the brain can form new habits, and that is through repetition of new associations. Specifically, we must practice associating restorative images with memories of pain. But don’t worry; it won’t take nearly as many repetitions to undo the habit as it took for form it in the first place. Restorative images have a potent reinforcement, because they make you feel better. In general it takes less iteration for a more pleasant habit to replace a painful one.
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