Skip links

Why is it Sometimes Hard to Embrace Happiness?

Imagine your ideal happy day. Perhaps you’re on vacation, spending time with loved ones, enjoying your favorite activity, celebrating a milestone or you’re on a high after achieving a goal or successfully completing an important task. As you’re soaking it all in, have you ever felt like it was all too good to be true? Or that maybe something less than happy was on the horizon? We’re here to remind you that it’s ok to be happy sis! We understand that sometimes this is easier said than done so the purpose of this post is to explore the common duality of being cautiously or suspiciously happy and to offer suggestions for dealing with it. 

RELATED: Session 196: Understanding Complex PTSD

Why is it Sometimes Hard to Embrace Happiness? 

The Flight of Fight Response 
Also known as the acute stress or trauma response system, the fight or flight response works to keep us safe. Fight or flight refers to the two options that we have when faced with a threatening or stressful situation – we can either stay and fight or flee (flight) to safety. For example, if you encounter a dangerous animal like a bear, it may be best to “flight” or flee to safety. If a spider is in your home, it may be best to stay and “fight” in your home by safely removing the spider. 

It is important to note that not all threats are bears or spiders. Perceived and actual threats threats can also include psychological threats or traumas such as a loss of a loved one, emotional abuse, difficult emotions like shame or embarrassment and stressful life events like a divorce or loss of a home. 

The fight or flight response activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system through the release of hormones like adrenaline. This helps prepare our bodies to effectively take action against a threat. 

Physical signs of an activated flight or fight response include rapid heartbeat and breathing, trembling, tensed muscles and pale or flushed skin. Psychological signs of an activated flight or fight response include feeling nervous or on edge, persistent worry or anxiety and feeling disconnected from yourself or the present moment. 

An overactive fight or flight response may attempt to spoil your happy moment by responding to a non-threatening situation or a perceived threat that is not an actual threat. For example, imagine that you are laying on the beach after saving your money and vacation time to make this happen. Then suddenly, you worry that you will be engulfed by a wave and feel that you need to leave the beach immediately. You notice that your heart is racing and your body feels tense. You are worried about this even though you are not in the ocean and the beach conditions have been determined safe. This is an example of an overactive fight or flight response. 

An overactive fight or flight response may be a result of a history of trauma such as abuse, the recent experience of stressful events or may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. If you feel that your flight or fight response is overactive, you may consider talking to a therapist or trying out some of the coping strategies presented in the sections to follow. 

Dysregulation as a Result of the last 18+ Months 
For the last 18 months or so, we have lived through an ongoing pandemic and racial trauma. The collective events of the last 18 months to include illness, suffering, loss, injustice, and hate are more than enough to make it feel like bad things are always happening. As a result of these repeated and collective traumas, your trauma response system may be overactive or dysregulated. As previously mentioned, an overactive trauma response system can sour happy moments by making you feel like something bad is going to happen despite whatever good thing is happening at the moment. It is important to understand that the last 18+ months have impacted us psychologically and physically. Acknowledging this and practicing self-care can help us regulate our trauma response system. We will discuss this in more detail in sections to follow. 

RELATED: Session 197: ADHD Diagnosis Later In Life

Learning History 
The ability to learn is one of the brain’s greatest capacities. Learning helps us survive, protect ourselves, better ourselves, and to be prepared for the future. While learning is often a good thing, sometimes our learning history tries to protect us by priming us to expect the worst. As previously stated, the last 18 months have conditioned us to expect the worst. In addition to the pandemic and racism-related traumas, you may have also experienced other distressing, disappointing, or traumatic experiences in your lifetime. These experiences contribute to our learning history and inform how we respond to events in the present. We can overcome this by accepting that we are not able to change our past experiences and memories, but we can change how we relate to them and allow them to influence the present moment. In doing so, we teach our brains new ways of responding to the present and create a more diverse learning history. We offer tips for doing this below. 

What can I do to savor the happy moments? 

Embrace Psychological Flexibility 
Psychological Flexibility can be understood as shades of grey thinking. Instead of seeing things as black and white, psychological flexibility challenges us to embrace shades of grey. In the case of happiness, it is possible to enjoy a happy moment and manage a less than happy thought or emotion (shades of grey). It does not have to be happiness or the unhappy thought or emotion (black and white). Psychological flexibility also encourages us to adapt to the diverse and complex situations life presents. 

RELATED: Don’t Wait on “Healing” Before You Start “Living”

Psychological flexibility helps us savor happy moments even when we are having a thought or emotional experience that is not happy. If this is happening, don’t suppress the less than happy thought or emotion. Studies show that suppressing negative emotions causes a rebound effect, meaning that the thought or feeling may come back during your happy moment. 

Instead, acknowledge the feeling. Ask yourself, What’s coming up for you? Are you feeling triggered, unsafe, vulnerable, fearful? Once you understand what you are feeling, cognitive defusion may be helpful. 

Consistent with psychological flexibility, cognitive defusion does not ask us to suppress our emotions and feelings. Instead we defuse from them. Doing so allows you to experience the thought and adapt to it in a way that allows you to still enjoy your happy moment. Here are some techniques to try: 

Externalize it 
Instead of thinking, “this girls trip was a bad idea, we are going to get hurt” tell yourself: “I am having the thought that this girls trip was a bad idea that may result in injury.” This externalization reminds us that this is a thought, not a reality.

Leaf in the Stream Visualization Exercise 
Imagine that your distressing thought or emotion is a leaf in a stream. Imagine it floating away from you down the stream as you continue to enjoy your happy moment. 

Regulate with Mindfulness 
Mindfulness is a simple way to help you savor happiness. Start by asking yourself, are you living in the present moment? Is the distressing emotion you’re experiencing tied to a past memory or a prediction about the future? If so, try a mindfulness exercise to anchor you in the present moment: 

Diaphragmatic or Belly Breathing 
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take a deep breath from your belly. The hand on your chest should be still while the hand on your belly moves up and down as you fill and empty air from your diaphragm. 

Gratitude Meditation 
You can do this while belly breathing or focusing on your breath. Name 3 things that you are grateful for in this moment. You can also write these things down in a journal or save them in your phone. 

Mindfulness is also an effective tool to help you regulate your flight or fight trauma response system. Mindfulness activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system promotes the rest and digest response in our bodies by releasing hormones like acetylcholine that promote relaxation by slowing the heart rate. Regularly practicing mindfulness can help regulate an overactive trauma response system. 

Examine the Evidence 
Ask yourself, what is distracting you from the moment? Is this a real or perceived threat? If the threat is real or imminent, identify ways to keep yourself safe or to prevent the threat from happening. If it is a perceived or hypothetical threat, try the tips above to help you defuse from the hypothetical or perceived threat. 

Talk to a Licensed Therapist or Health Care Professional 
If you feel like you are unable to experience joy or happiness, clinically known as anhedonia, or if you feel no motivation or pleasure when doing things you usually enjoy, consider talking to a therapist or other licensed health care provider about your symptoms. Even if you are not experiencing these symptoms, talking to a therapist or other health care professional is always a great way to optimize your happiness! Our therapist directory is a great place to start your search.