Image credit: S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

When somebody asks how you are feeling, do you consider all the aspects that make up your present mood? For example, do you take into account how you’re feeling both physically and psychologically? If not, why not? After all, both of these factors (and more) make up your current mood.

Consider how you feel when you’re struggling with symptoms. If you’re experiencing pain, your body is likely to be in an adrenalised state i.e. a stress response state. As a result, you’re unlikely to be feeling open and joyful. That’s natural.

Then there are the thoughts and feelings we have about our thoughts and feelings. For example, we sometimes feel sad because we are angry, or we feel anxious because we are in pain.

All of these thoughts and feelings are information. Clues to help us figure out why our mood is the way it is.

The good news is we have the ability to influence our mood by changing any of the six components that make up our current state: thoughts, emotions, voice, focus, posture and sensations.

When you want to grasp an understanding of why you’re feeling the way you do, a helpful place to start is looking at the thoughts you are doing. That’s right! The thoughts you are doing. 

While the concept of doing thoughts might seem strange, it’s not when you consider that our thoughts are not just accidental; they are something that we actually do.

And by training ourselves to think in new and different ways, we can actually alter the structure of our brain and cause it to adapt as a result of experiences – a process that’s known as ‘neuroplasticity’.

In other words, you can teach an old dog new tricks…

The 3-scoop ice cream brain

Now our ability to think is affected by a number of basic factors such as whether we’ve drunk enough water and if we’ve got enough energy from the food we’ve eaten. But our thoughts are also impacted by our current state of being. When we are in a stress response state, we have less of our brain available for thinking. When we are in a calmer, more relaxed state, we have more of our brain available to us.

A good way to explain the structure of our brain and see why our different states have the impact they do is to look at the brain as a 3-scoop ice cream.

In a nutshell:

  • 1st scoop (Reptilian brain) – The oldest part, capable of black or white thinking and focusses primarily on sex, rest and basic emotions such as fear and joy.
  • 2nd scoop (Mammalian brain) – The part of the brain we share with other mammals, responsible for more complex emotions such as guilt, love boredom and confidence.
  • 3rd scoop (Rational brain) – The part of our brain, responsible for giving us the capability to analyse situations and solve complex problems using sequences and outcomes.

When we are in a calmer, more relaxed state, we can access all three scoops. When we are in a stress response state and our body is trying to prioritise energy and prepare for a threat, we become adrenalised and lose our access to the top scoop (our rational brain). As the perceived threat intensifies, the stress hormones in our bodies increases and our ability to think straight decreases, leaving us with access to just the first scoop, the crocodile scoop.

The ABC for Feelings

Understanding how the brain works under stress or threat means that we can use techniques to deliberately increase our access to our mammalian and rational brain by changing our state to be calmer and more relaxed. 

The ABC technique is a method we use as part of the First Aid for Feelings we have developed. It’s a simple but very effective way to interrupt your state and shift it from being unhelpful to helpful, from being more stressed to being more calm. The more proficient you become in using it, the more natural and effortless it will feel.

As with everything, though, practice is key. After all, you don’t learn to swim by watching a documentary, right?

We don’t know we are heading in the wrong direction until it dawns on us. By practicing becoming aware, we can make helpful changes to prevent us from wasting time, money and effort on things that don’t work and are ultimately unhelpful to us. Awareness is key. Without being aware, we have neither choice nor control.

Here’s a quick overview of the ABC – First Aid for Feelings:

Awareness – Becoming aware of what you are thinking and feeling; Where am I at and what is going on? I’m in a stressful situation, I’m in a lot of pain, I’m really angry, I don’t know what to do here because I’m overwhelmed. 

Often, the thinking and feeling you are doing is so habitual and familiar that you don’t realise that you are doing it. Something often referred to in cultural studies as ‘a fish cannot see the water that it swims in’. Developing the awareness to listen in and ‘hear’ what you are thinking and feeling, and how you are feeling allows you to step out of the water and see what is going on.

Breathing and Body – Take a breath (not necessarily deep, especially if that causes you discomfort) and actively focus on other areas of your body. Wiggle your toes and change how you are holding your shoulders or chin, for instance, stretch, stand up or sit down. This is all about actively changing your posture and breathing. Orientate yourself in space and time. What day is it? What time is it? Breathe…

Choice – How would you like to feel and think about X? The key here is not to focus on right or wrong. Consider instead what would be more helpful in your current situation? What do you need right now? What’s the one thing you can do in the next 5 minutes that would be more helpful.

Let’s say you’re experiencing pain in your legs. It’s getting you down and the only coping mechanism you’ve found is to take some painkillers. But what if you chose a different approach? Even just as an experiment.

For example, you could try massaging your legs with some muscle relaxing cream and try to encourage the pain to go down out of your body. It’s an approach that could be enough to ease the pain and reduce the need for painkillers all together or help in addition to using painkillers. 

Other examples of how you might interrupt your current state include:

  • Walking up and down stairs
  • If you’re hungry, having something to eat
  • Playing a piece of music that reminds you of when you were feeling resourceful

The final thing is to recognise that you have actually done something helpful. Give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back. It will underline the helpful work you’ve just done. Remember two-thirds of your brain is operating at the level of a dog or cat (reptilian + mammalian brain), this means praising and rewarding helpful behaviour is key to embed it and make it a habit

And remember, every time you practice your ABC’s, you are changing the way your brain works. Gradually over time, with persistent practice, your brain will become more flexible and agile and how you deal with thoughts and feelings will become more constructive and helpful.

Does the ABC for feelings sound like a Helpful approach you’d like to try? It’s just one of many techniques we use here at The Helpful Clinic to support people’s recoveries.

Our free information pack contains more details about the work we do and the other methods we use. Please do contact us if you have any questions or want to find out more.