Turn Passing Experiences into Inner Strength

How the HEAL Process Works

Rick Hanson

hanson_opener-smWith 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.

Tags: brain science | HEAL | neuropsychology | neuroscience | positive psychology | Rick Hanson

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014 3:16:39 PM | posted by Peggy Reubens
I wonder how this is different from EMDR protocol which also adds in bilateral brain stimulation to create new neural networks

Wednesday, May 28, 2014 9:01:21 AM | posted by Psychotherapy Networker » How to Install New Mental States
[...] How do we help our clients change the structure of their brain? According to Rick, “It takes learning—the alteration of neural structure and function—which proceeds in two stages. First, there must be an activated mental state: a thought, perception, emotion, desire, sense of action, or a combination of these. But that’s not enough. A second stage is critical—the installation of this passing mental state into a durable trait, a lasting neural structure.” For installation to take place, we need to pay attention to how we enrich experience, which Rick explains in his Networker article The Next Big Step. [...]

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 9:01:32 AM | posted by Psychotherapy Networker » Creating Antidote Experiences in Therapy
[...] his recent article in the Networker magazine, Rick warns, “Too often, therapists tend to spend a lot of time [...]

Thursday, May 1, 2014 5:54:29 PM | posted by carin-leem
Thank you for sharing this important information. I have been practicing this kind of HEAL approach with therapy clients but not exactly in that order. I intend to practice this myself and see how it feels for me as well as with my clients. thank you again Rick Hanson