Neuroscience has revealed something all too familiar to those who have experienced loss of a loved one:
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 loss, 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.
I was quite aware of these facts about recovery from grief after more than a decade of research and clinical observations. But my intellectual understanding held no emotional significance beyond empathy for others. Until my mother died.
The sudden and completely unexpected death of my mother turned my world upside down. In the weeks and months after her death it hurt so much to think of her that I avoided all conscious reminders of her – photos were packed away, her favorite things were stored, her music was silenced.
I should have known that such a strategy was doomed to failure. Consciousness can be stubborn, but it is subject to exhaustion, while the unconscious, where hidden memories dominate, persists even in sleep and dreams. A few months after her death, I woke up in the middle of the night and groped for a piece of paper and pen to write down something that seemed terribly important in that half-dream state.
Although my pen had perforated the paper by pressing it against the soft bed, I could make out what I’d scribbled by the light of morning: “The most important thing in my life is the death of my mother.”
Despite my considerable clinical experience at the time, I had not noticed how depressed I’d become during those months. But my dark mood began to lift that morning, when I realized that the sentence I had written on that small, perforated piece of paper the night before was completely false. The most important thing in my life was not the death of my mother. Far more important was her life.
When we lose loved ones, we lose nothing we ever experienced with them. All that I lost of my mother was the future with her, which I never actually had. I began to focus on memories of the many positive experiences I had with her, which I would never lose.
At last my professional training in behavioral conditioning (forging mental, emotional, and behavior associations through repetition) became useful. I recalled many images of my mother that embodied love, wisdom, support, and enjoyment. I associated those with each painful memory that came to me. I repeated the association of hurtful images with restorative ones over and over, conditioning the painful memories to stimulate the occurrence of restorative images automatically.
After a few weeks it became pleasurable and rewarding to think about my mother. Now, when my mood is down for any reason, I try to think of her, and, invariably, find my way out of the doldrums.
I’m quite sure that I did not create a healing process to overcome the grief caused by my mother’s death. All I did was inadvertently hasten the brain’s natural process of healing.
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 — 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:
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.
Practice, Practice, Practice
To get the most out of the exercise that follows, make a list of your more prominent painful memories. Practice associating at least one of your restorative images with each item, every day, until the new associations become automatic. Habit-formation should occur within six weeks of practice. Then each time a painful image occurs in implicit or unconscious memory, its restorative counterpart will occur almost simultaneously. Painful memories will indirectly stimulate the restorative images and motivate behavior that promotes healing and growth.