How the HEAL Process Works
Rick Hanson • 5/1/2014 • 4 Comments
With clients, I summarize the process of turning passing positive experiences into lasting inner strengths by using the acronym HEAL: Have a positive experience, Enrich it, Absorb it, and (optional) Link the positive experience to negative material in order to soothe and even replace it. Informally, I call this “taking in the good”—the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory.
The first step—Have—initiates the activation phase of learning by either noticing or creating a positive mental state. For example, in a session, I could help a client become more mindful of the sense (already hovering in the background of awareness) of feeling cared about by his or her friends, and between sessions, the client could try to notice this feeling more when it’s present in daily life.
The second step—Enrich—begins the installation phase by drawing on one or more of five well-known factors in the neuropsychology of learning:
- Duration – Sustain the experience for 5-10 seconds or more; protect it in the mind.
- Intensity – Let the experience be as intense as possible; even subtle experiences such as gratitude can be powerful if they fill awareness.
- Multimodality – Help the experience be as rich as possible, including emotions, body sensations, and behavioral expression (e.g., sitting up a little straighter to strengthen a sense of determination).
- Novelty – Look for what’s fresh or unexpected in an experience, such as some new subtle sensation in relaxing.
- Personal relevance – Let the experience matter; consider how it could be helpful (e.g., why it’s good to really register the benefits of an experience of staying sober)
The third step—Absorb—heightens installation by priming and sensitizing memory systems.
To use the metaphor of a fire, the first step of HEAL ignites it, the second adds fuel to it, and in the third step we feel its warmth sinking in. Then, if appropriate, we could take the optional fourth step—Link—by being aware of both the positive material in the foreground of awareness and the negative material in the background. The positive material will tend to associate with the negative material and—if what’s positive is both more intense than the negative and a natural resource for it—the positive will gradually soothe, reduce, and potentially replace the negative material.
Repeatedly taking in the good offers three kinds of benefits. First, it grows specific inner strengths, such as determination, calm, stress hardiness, compassion, happiness, and self-worth. Second, it develops qualities that are built into taking in the good, including mindfulness and kindness toward oneself. Third, much as negative experiences can increasingly sensitize the brain negatively so it reacts more intensely to negative experiences, routinely internalizing positive experiences can gradually sensitize the brain so that it converts these experiences more rapidly and efficiently into neural structure.Learn more about applying the HEAL Process in Rick's complete article, “The Next Big Step: What’s Ahead for Brain Science in Psychotherapy?,” in the January/February 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine.