How to Feel Happier

How to Feel Happier

If I told you there was a substance that would make you feel happy, like you were coping really well with life, calm, brave and (as an added bonus) was a fantastic pain reliever, would you be interested?

And if you found out that it was completely free and had no negative side effects? Even better, right?

And how about if it were something you could make yourself… no equipment needed? Perfect!

Well, it’s true. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, that we all produce, that does exactly that.

Everything that we think, feel, or understand about the world comes from a chain of neurons firing across our brain. In the synapses, the gaps between the neurones, we produce chemical messengers… neurotransmitters, and serotonin is one of these. There are other ones, like dopamine for example. Dopamine is more reward driven, it is the big excited high of a great first date or winning a race. It drives us to look for that experience again and is the reason heartbreak feels so rough, and musicians have a notoriously hard time with their mental health. When we experience that ‘drop-off’ of dopamine our brains kind of go “hang on a second, where’s all that good stuff gone… find that again”

Serotonin is different. Serotonin is that lovely “I can deal with anything” optimistic, positive, calm feeling, and if there was ever a time when that might come in useful, I would say it’s about now!

If you have ever taken anti-depressants you have probably heard of serotonin before. Most modern anti-depressants are SSRI’s; Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (catchy!) They work by stopping the serotonin that we produce last a bit longer.

The reason we know that serotonin has been produced, and the reason we recognise that ‘feel good’ sensation, is because in the synapses (the gaps between the neurons) we have receptors for different messengers (neurotransmitters).

We also have neuroplasticity; the ability of our brains to ‘clean up’ bits that we are not using and use the energy somewhere else. So, if we go for a significant amount of time without producing much serotonin, our brains think that the serotonin receptors are just sitting around not doing much and will get rid of them. The bit of serotonin we do produce gets re-absorbed without having much effect.

SSRI’s slow down this re-absorption and our brain thinks there’s a bit more serotonin floating around and will start to put receptors back in. That’s the reason anti-depressants take some time to work. You don’t just take a tablet and wake up happier the morning after… It takes some time for the receptors to be back in action.

So generally, the more serotonin the better, but how to we get it in the first place. Well in three reliable and predictable ways.

Humans are essentially rewarded for behaviours that benefit us in some way, and we can class these into three groups:

1) Positive action. Humans are designed to hunt and gather, to feed themselves and their families. Now clearly, we don’t need to do too much hunting and gathering, because… well, supermarkets, but we do need positive action. We are rewarded for activity. My positive action won’t be the same as yours. Some people like crocheting, some skydiving and everything in between, but when we take part in meaningful activity, we produce serotonin. In its simplest example, going out for a walk around the block nearly always feels better than sitting on the sofa ruminating about a problem. When we fight with our families, someone taking a bit of ‘time out’ and doing something else often calms them down. It’s the serotonin.

2) Positive interaction. Humans are safer together than separately. We’re social, collaborative creatures because it’s nearly always in our best survival interests. When we spend time with people that we like, love, trust or respect in some way, then we produce lots of lovely serotonin. Tough at the moment I know, when we are all separated, but a text, a chat on the phone or a video call still produces that collaborative, safety response. And remember I said it was a great pain reliever? Well, it’s the reason that grandparents with arthritic joint pain can be engrossed in playing with their grandchildren with little, or no pain at all, for a period of time. It’s the serotonin.

3) Positive thinking. And I don’t say this lightly. Clearly there’s more to feeling happier (or getting over depression) than “Oh great, I’ll just think positively… everything will be marvellous then!” but it can be a really useful tool. I wrote a blog a few months ago about what happens when we think the worst or catastrophise https://greentreetherapy.co.uk/blog-1/62-pressing-the-emergency-button We have these incredible brains that can produce physical feelings of fear or sadness when nothing difficult or threatening is happening. It’s a useful tool if you don’t want to forget where the snakes hang out in the jungle, not so useful at 3am when you’re awake and sweating with anxiety over a work deadline. Well luckily the reverse is also true. If I were to ask you to tell me in detail about some of the happiest moments of your life, something funny that happened at work, or a time that you felt really proud of yourself, you would feel good, smile and relax during your description. The same is true, even if you were to tell me about moments when things have felt a little better and you have felt a little happier. It’s the serotonin.

An exercise that a lot of people find really helpful is just keeping an eye on when these three P’s (Positive action, Positive interaction and Positive thought) show up. It can be challenging the other way around, like when you make New Year’s resolutions, if you start trying to shoe horn these behaviours into your life. Just keeping an eye open for them however, can have surprisingly effective results. Give it a try and let me know how you get on.

Arachnophobia

Arachnophobia

“Sex-crazed spiders the size of your hand, invading British homes” 1

REALLY?!?!

It’s autumn and, as every year, headlines strike fear into the hearts of UK arachnophobes. With around 45% of UK adults reporting some degree of fear of spiders, there is certainly an audience. But why are we so scared of spiders?

I actually quite like spiders. I feel guilty, when I hoover up a spider’s web, about all the work they must have put in. I put it down to many childhood readings of Charlotte’s Web, but a big spider, running unexpectedly across my bedroom floor, still makes me jump and my heart beat a little faster. Why?

 

“We used to blame our parents, now we can blame it on our genes”2 

The commonly held theory that phobias stem from a traumatic childhood experience still holds up in many cases. Fear of buttons (koumpounophobia) is more common than you might imagine. Steve Jobs’ was reported to be a sufferer, resulting in his well-known penchant for a polar neck. Perhaps an influential adult’s well meaning, but over fearful warnings about the potential choking hazards of buttons was the cause? I’ve seen several clients with emetophobia (fear of vomiting) that they can directly attribute to either a parent being sick, or a parent’s reaction when they were sick.

But spiders seem to be different. Neuro-scientist Robert Sapolsky does an excellent TED talk3 about how humans make decisions. He traces decisions we make in a split second, in the present, back to whether our ancestors were warring tribesmen or peaceful goat herders through a process of genetic memory… epigenetics. Basically, our genes can be altered by environmental factors, which then gives us an inheritable trait.

So, if humans have lived alongside potentially dangerous spiders for millions of years, it makes sense that we pass on a fear, that we are ‘programmed’ to be alarmed by them.

 

You probably won’t want a pet one! 

People with arachnophobia very rarely turn into budding arachnologists (although never say never) but this is not to say that you can’t get rid of a debilitating spider phobia.

People with a flying phobia (aerophobia… not as good a name as the button one!) will probably never want to take up professional stunt flying as a hobby. They can, however, be perfectly capable of comfortably managing a flight to Spain for a holiday.

It’s the same with spiders. When a big, fast moving spider makes me jump I’m easily able to access the intellectual, rational parts of my brain that fully understand that there are no dangerous spiders in the UK, that this spider is scared of me, that it is an important part of the local ecosystem, and just wants to go about its spider-business without bothering me. This is what we’re aiming for with hypnotherapy. It is entirely possible for you to be able to get rid of the panic (flight/fight) reaction and to feel calm, reasonable, and rational about siders, and it’s all to do with neuroscience.

 

Neurons that fire together, wire together. 

Everything that we understand and perceive about the world is down to chains of neurons firing, and making connections, in our brains. Neurons that fire together, wire together. The more often we repeat a pattern of connections (a behaviour or thought) the stronger, faster and more efficient they get. So, you have a toddler with a genetic pre-disposition to be wary of spiders, add to that a protective parent, with the same genetic trait, who whisks them off the floor every time a spider appears. Pretty soon you have a child who cries every time they see a spider, then a teenager who stands on a chair and screams when they see a spider, then an adult who stays upstairs all afternoon until help arrives because they saw a spider on the stairs. And the neurons firing in the limbic system, the primitive, emotional part of the brain, think “Ah ha… this is a pretty good strategy, infact so far this has been 100% effective in keeping us safe from spiders” and it’ll strengthen that wiring, encourage you to do the same thing again tomorrow, and do it faster!

 

It’s not what you think, it’s how you feel.

These avoidance strategies can be so effective that they even stop people from seeking help to get over a phobia. Commonly prescribed therapies such a CBT involve a “challenge your thoughts” type approach and often some forms of exposure therapy. This can be difficult. Arachnophobes in the UK already know that their thinking around spiders isn’t helpful, and exposure can sometimes even strengthen the fear. These challenging approaches with their emphasis on faulty thinking do very little to change how clients feel.

Hypnotherapy is different. It is well evidenced to be an effective treatment for all types of phobia, and it’s easy! Honestly… really, really easy! For the client, all it takes is the ability to relax and daydream.

To finish this article, I thought it might be useful to give the last word to Hannah. Hannah is a clever, capable woman, who had a terrible fear of spiders. Here is her experience of getting rid of her lifelong arachnophobia though hypnotherapy: (full disclosure here, I work with Hannah in the NHS, and persuaded her to try Hypnotherapy with me when I was training. She liked it so much she went on to train as a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist and now works with me at Green Tree Therapy too.)

 

Hannah’s Story.

“They’re more scared of you than you are of them!”, how many times have people with arachnophobia been blessed with these words of wisdom! Intellectually I understood that the spiders in my house would cause me no harm at all. However, this didn’t stop my brain from implementing its spider survival patter. A pattern which for 28 years had, kept me safe and had a 100% success rate. Each time I saw a spider, my heart would race, I would instantly feel sick and run to a safe space or shout (very loudly) to my partner for help! Delightful… thanks brain!

Alex explained that unlike other methods I had naively researched on trusty google, Solution Focused Hypnotherapy does not entail some form of ‘I’m a celebrity’ style bush tucker trial scenario to remove a phobia! (Thank goodness!!)

On the first session there was an explanation of how phobias are formed, how hypnotherapy helps to get rid of them and what ‘trance‘is.

I really enjoyed the trance aspect. Trance is a relaxed daydreaming like state which, in the first second session, Alex used to help relieve stress and boost confidence. The third session was all about using trance to ‘mess up’ the pattern of anxiety I had created around spiders and the final, fourth session was what’s called a reframe session, where I was able to imagine an easier alternative, a day where I could get on with my life without trying to avoid spiders.

It was so easy and simple, I didn’t feel worried, panicked or anxious at any time. In fact, quite the opposite, I felt in control in every session aware that I was smiling in trance and I really enjoyed the process. I remember saying to Alex after my first session I felt like my brain had, had a massage.

I left my final session wanting to see a spider and ready to put this to the test! (having previously done almost anything to avoid spiders I should have noticed this was already a big change for me!).

These days I most definitely wouldn’t be in a rush to buy a pet tarantula! But now, when I see a spider, those horrible physical feelings of anxiety are gone. I used to dread autumn, knowing the spider invasion would soon begin. I wish I had tried hypnotherapy long before and could have enjoyed the winter months without living in fear of an encounter with an 8-legged friend…. I imagine the spiders are pretty relieved too!

Here I am, on day trip with my family, just hanging out with a tarantula:)

IMG 27622914

Ref:

1) The Daily Mirror, 25/08/20

2) Louden Wainwright III, 1994 from ‘Grown Man’

3) Robert Sapolsky, The Biology of Our Best and Worst Selves. TED talk

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