Your mental health: exposing yourself to happiness
Through Linda Hamilton, Cognitive-behavioral therapist
WHAT if you’re worried about relaxing and being too happy?
A quick recap. In a recent column, I discussed research showing that relaxation makes some people nervous and anxious. If you are very worried, you fear letting your guard down and dislike sudden emotional changes – for example, going from a feeling of relaxation to a feeling of stress or fear. You think it’s important to be prepared, in case something bad happens.
So “happy” situations can make you nervous. Rather than saying “yay,” you stay on your toes and continue to worry, so you’re ready in case something bad happens. And if nothing bad happens, you experience a positive emotional contrast: “Thank goodness XYZ didn’t happen”.
People prone to bad moods and depression often adopt a similar strategy, that of defensive pessimism. If you are used to things going wrong, then hope can be overwhelming – a state of mind summed up in the phrase “Hope kills you”.
These are human responses, understandable attempts to avoid emotional pain. But the strategy is reckless that steals the joy from your life.
One way to change that mindset is to design what I call emotional exhibits. In my last column, I talked about Exposure Prevention and Response (ERP). An exposure is when you voluntarily expose yourself to a feared situation (for example, taking an airplane if you are afraid of flying); ritual response or prevention (PR) means that you do not resort to rituals or safety behaviors during exposure (for example, drinking alcohol or taking pills to calm your nerves on the plane , be hyper vigilant in the face of turbulence, pray excessively or recite mantras, etc.).
Instead, you sit down with anxiety, teaching the brain an important lesson in this way: I can handle this.
What kind of emotional exposures can worried people have? I previously gave the example of a parent who worries when her children travel overseas, forcing them to text her when the flight safely arrives so that she can breathe a sigh of relief.
The exhibit here is simple: no text messages, no “safe flight” messages, no reinsurance requests.
The prevention response: no worries. Not texting children is fine, but you will void the show if you choose to spend the time worrying. Instead, maybe pull out the popcorn and watch a comedy on TV.
Some people here might say that I can’t help but worry. Two points about this. First, worried people tend to think worrying is out of hand, but it really isn’t. Yes, it can be difficult to bring it under control, but the worry can (and should) be controlled.
Second, let’s be honest here: you don’t really think the plane is going to crash or that serious damage is going to happen! You just feel uncomfortable not worrying in such cases. Worry shows I’m worried, worry helps me prepare, it’s irresponsible not to worry – those positive beliefs about worry keep you stuck.
So, you should practice emotional displays that target these beliefs and that increase your tolerance for discomfort, such as doing “happy” things when you would normally be worried.
Other people may not have chronic worries, but they can still become uncomfortable or guilty when relaxing or doing “happy” things. A lot of people think that they “should” do something else, something productive or something sacrificial. Emotional exhibits here can mean taking time out for me – for example, telling your kids (or parents) that you can’t do XYZ because you’re meeting a friend for coffee, or fully engaging with your friends on a night out. ‘a night out and not texting or calling home to make sure everything is okay.
If you’re worried about letting your guard down and being “too happy,” try designing your own emotional exposure exercises. Actively expect things (parties, vacations, etc.), instead of minimizing them. Don’t try to figure it all out; instead, expose yourself to uncertainty and assume the best, rather than planning and preparing for the worst. Give yourself permission to hope and be happy.
Seemingly simple exposures can seem overwhelming, but they’re incredibly powerful.
Allow yourself to experience these emotional changes. Teach your brain this important message: I can handle this.
Linda Hamilton is a Cognitive based on Kinsale behavioral therapist.
If you want to get in touch with her, call 086-3300807
For more information, visit www.kinsalecbt.com