Over the last five years, I have listened to and read a lot of personal development books. I LOVE to learn and with a Master’s in Psychology, learning about how the mind and behaviors have always intrigued me and I find people fascinating! I was reading Marisa Peer’s I Am Enough: Mark Your Mirror and Change Your Life and there are so many wonderful lessons taught in those 109 pages. It’s an easy read that I highly recommend! It is one I continue to read repeatedly because I learn something new every time. On page one she explains why it is easier to think negative thoughts.
Evolution Plays a Role
On the very first page, she talks about why it is easier to think negative thoughts. She says, “The truth is that the human mind has one simple job: to keep you alive as long as possible. To do that, our mind is an expert at helping us avoid and flee what causes us pain or danger.” When we were primitive cavemen, this was necessary! We had to flee from predators, hunt and gather food, find water, and hide from extreme weather to stay alive. Back then there were physical threats and our bodies developed “fight or flight” responses. We were in legitimate danger from large animals, angry tribesmen, and natural disasters. Those who were more attuned to danger around them were more likely to survive.
A lot has changed since then, but our brains are hard-wired to protect us from physical danger. Peer says, “Most people in the modern world don’t have a direct threat to their physical well-being. But there’s a fundamental design flaw here: our brain has changed very little to reflect our new, safer, and more tame reality. We are still primed for our fight-or-flight responses to the stress and adversity life throws our way.”
The difference now is that the stressors we have are more mental than physical. Our brains still have one job: KEEP US ALIVE. It does this by listening to the information we give about what causes us pain. It is important to specifically instruct our brains on how to respond to the world. Our mind thinks everything we tell it is TRUTH. So, if we say, “this traffic is killing me!”, then our brains think we are actually in physical danger from the thing that is “killing us”.
Our heart rate goes up, our cortisol levels rise, our body surges with hormones and you feel physical reactions to the stress. We are telling our brain that we are under a direct threat and our brain BELIEVES us. It wants to get us out of direct danger from what is causing us great pain. This only leaves us feeling stressed and miserable. Remember that our words are powerful, and our mind is always listening!
I have also studied the hormone – cortisol. Cortisol is a chemical in your brain that flows more freely and spurs negative thoughts. It is kind of like an alarm system and your brain releases the chemical cortisol to warn you about imminent physical danger. For example, if a co-worker says something that irritates you, and we say to ourselves, “that guy is stressing me out”. Then our brain’s immediate physical reaction is to protect ourselves from the intense “stress”. Our natural and innate reaction is once again to protect us, and our mind triggers the fight-or-flight response.
The problem is that we develop a pattern of weighing negative information to a greater extent than the positive, known as the negativity bias. It is primed that way. Therefore, it is easier to think negative thoughts rather than positive ones. The co-worker may have been annoying, but there was not actually any physical danger.
According to Very Well Mind, “In almost any interaction, we are more likely to notice negative things and later remember them more vividly. As humans, we remember traumatic experiences better than positive ones, recall insults better than praise, react more strongly to negative stimuli, think about negative things more frequently than positive ones and respond more strongly to negative events than equally positive ones.”
Our bias toward the negative leads us to focus more on the bad things and make them seem more important than they are, actually. There is neuroscientific evidence that shows there is greater neural processing in the brain in response to negative stimuli compared to the positive stimuli. Because negative information causes a surge of activity in the critical information processing area of the brain, our behaviors and attitudes are shaped more by bad news, experiences, and information. This causes a wide variety of effects on how people think, respond, and feel.
We Can Overcome the Bias
The good news is that we can overcome this negativity bias! As humans, we can make choices about how we respond to stimuli. First, we need to pay attention to the thoughts that go through our minds. It is best to stop those thoughts when they begin. Instead of beating yourself up for past mistakes that you can’t change, CHOOSE to be kind to yourself (like you would a friend. No beating yourself up allowed). Be grateful for the chance to learn through error and make better choices next time.
What we have to learn to do is flip the negatives into positives with a lot of practice and repetition. We have to CHOOSE wisely what we tell ourselves in our 50,000 thoughts a day. Positive thoughts are not a natural response. It takes some work to develop new patterns and be aware of when we are making a choice to focus on the negative.
We have to reframe the situation and take a long look at how we talk to ourselves. When you interpret a situation as something negative, then learn to automatically shift your view of it into a more positive one. This doesn’t mean to ignore the danger, but refocusing your thoughts to give equal weight to include the good and not just the bad.
If you ruminate on the bad things, look for a way to shift your focus and pull yourself out of this negative mindset. For example, if you are reviewing an unpleasant event or outcome long after the situation has passed, consciously try to turn your attention to activities that bring you joy. Listen to your favorite music, read a book, take a shower, or go for a walk to get your mind off of the negative thoughts.
Give Positive Experiences Extra Attention
Since it takes more to remember the positive experiences, it is important to give them extra attention. According to a Very Well Mind, “Where negative things might be quickly transferred and stored in your long-term memory, you need to make more of an effort to get the same effect from happy moments. So when something great happens, take a moment to really focus on it. Replay the moment several times in your memory and focus on the wonderful feelings the memory evokes.”
Since the negativity bias can have a powerful impact on your behavior, it is life-changing to learn to be aware of it. By being aware of why it is easier to think negative thoughts than positive ones, then you can take the necessary steps to adopt a more positive outlook on life! Taking a mindful approach requires being aware of your tens of thousands of thoughts a day and consciously push the positive ones to the forefront of your mind. Continuing to dwell on the negative can take a serious toll on your mental and physical well-being.
Choose a Joy-Filled Life
I’m reading a book called 40 Days to a Joy-Filled Life by Tommy Newberry with some friends on a zoom call at 12:30 pm daily, but not on weekends. It has been perfect timing for me! We are in our 7th week of self-quarantine and we are on Day 26 in the book. This was perfectly timed and just what I needed! I have had this blog post topic at the top of my list for a month. I sat down today and started it before I read the current day’s few pages. Then BAM! Today was right in line with the blog, so I had to include it.
Newberry says, “At any given moment, we are either on an upward or a downward emotional spiral. When we get drawn into a negative spiral, we have a key decision to make. We can overreact and kick off a self-defeating reaction cycle, or we can simply drop the negative thought.”
Wow! That is so amazing. Once again, we can CHOOSE how we respond. We are conditioned to respond negatively, so that’s the habit we have created. But we can refuse to indulge in negative thoughts! Can I get an AMEN!? This means we don’t have to let the brain’s primitive responses control our thoughts and actions anymore! We are free to choose! Newberry says, “When you neglect to drop the negative thought, you are choosing to drink the poison. Instead of enabling negative thoughts to affect you, you can starve them by letting them go.”
This is so empowering to me! I sometimes get in a rut of only focusing on lack and not the abundance all around me! You can not be negative and positive at the same time. Sadly, like myself, not everyone learned this information as children. I wasn’t taught to really take hold of each thought and look for the good in EVERY situation. I found myself becoming a worrier, having anxiety attacks, and overall just feeling icky. With lots of focus and practice, ANYONE can become more positive. I talked about choosing gratitude back in December. It is something that I’m constantly working on and I’m proud to say that I’m getting better each day I practice. You can do it too! Simply decide!