Written by: Alton Eckel, LMHC Family Counseling Associates of Andover
Have you ever wondered why when something goes wrong you play it over and over again in your head while an accomplishment is forgotten in one night? Or why a great date can be overshadowed by one slightly embarrassing moment? It turns out that humans are neurologically wired to focus on negative thoughts. When we stimulate the amygdala, the part of the brain that plays a key role in our emotions, it becomes aroused and creates an imprinted memory of a situation, which can cause us to associate being nervous about a meeting at work to be associated with being fired from a previous job.
The reason for this negative bias is a form of self-protection; we need to remember the lion that might try to eat us more than we need to remember the time we gathered delicious berries in order to survive. The kicker is that we are no longer running from lions, but we still have a primal response to hold on to the negative.
Negative thoughts and experiences have a stronger impact than positive ones. It’s much more natural and easier to remember bad things, they lead to demotivation, lower productivity, being less creative, and decrease our ability to make decisions. The lasting effect of negative thoughts and experiences is three times as powerful as positive thoughts and experiences. We actually end up creating a negative feedback loop that continues to cycle through our brain and strengthen that negativity. Our brain learns which areas are used more often and these areas become more automatic.
So, are we doomed to be negative creatures? The answer is NO! Basic neurology describes that every time you reactivate a circuit synaptic efficiency increase and connections become more durable and easier to reactivate. Dr Walter Chen, the CEO of iDoneThis and corporate advocate for positivity in the workplace, states, “We can harness the brain’s plasticity by training our brain to make positive patterns more automatic”. Think of having mindful positive thoughts as mental push ups; the first time you do a few push ups they’re incredibly difficult, but within a few weeks you can do them without breaking a sweat or thinking about your form. Below are proven techniques to increase your ability to retrain your brain to focus on the positive:
- State 3 positive things that occurred during your day before falling to sleep each night for at least one month. Research has found that it takes a month to solidify a habit and effectively train your mind.
- Give a daily compliment to someone else. Research has found that being positive toward others has the same effect as receiving something positive from someone else. One suggestion is sending a kind email daily.
- Increase your mindfulness and self awareness; research has found that simply being more aware of negative thoughts can help us to challenge them. By increasing our awareness of feedback loops we create in our brain we can begin to change the recordings.
- Acknowledge the positive aspect of negative thoughts: they generate anxiety which can be motivating and provide us with nervous energy. Take that worry and anger and channel it unto achieving something you want!
Two books I recommend are “The Power of Positive Thinking “ by Norman Vincent Peale and “The Organized Mind” by Daniel J Levitin.
I wish you all luck and excitement for more positive thoughts, experiences, and awareness! Family Counseling Associates can also support you in developing and implementing more strategies for positive thinking to increase individual management of stress, anxiety and depression.