Are We “Hard-Wired” to Think and Feel Negatively — And What Should We Do About It?
Many people report that they frequently immediately think or feel negatively or the worst scenario when they encounter adversity, or even neutral events. Is this a result of genetic influence or learned behavior? Is it an automatic response? This article explores that question.
11 Common Myths about Emotions
1. There is an appropriate feeling for every situation. Our emotions ebb and flow depending not only on external events but our internal state.
2. Painful emotions should be blocked or repressed. If we avoid or repress painful emotions, we don’t learn how to manage them, which can subsequently cause us other mental health problems.
3. Expressing our emotions is a weakness. Truth: if we first acknowledge our emotions when we are feeling them, an appropriate emotional expression is less problematic.
4. Negative emotions are bad. Negative emotions are useful. They are trying to tell us something about ourselves. The important thing is how we react to them.
5. Emotions are facts. Emotions are nothing more than temporary bio-chemical and mental occurrences. If they persist it’s because we want to hold on to them
6. Experiencing strong emotions equals loss of control. Each situation is different. For example, expressing sadness or grief when you lose someone is a healthy. In comparison experiencing road rage and cutting somone off in traffic is an unhealthy expression
7. Emotions last forever. Emotions are temporary unless we want to suffer, or be “stuck” in a “mood,” or if we suppress or block emotions.
8. You can’t help how you feel. Our emotions originate from our thoughts about some situation. It’s our interpretation of what happened in the situation not the situation itself that triggers our emotions. We can learn how to interpret things and control or regulate our emotional response.
All Emotions Serve a Purpose
All emotions serve a purpose. In fact, in the book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, authors Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., and Robert Biswas-Diener argue we have to welcome every emotion (positive or negative) in order to attain happiness. It is not the emotion that is problematic but rather the way we deal with them that can be, they argue.
For example, anger and sadness are an important part of life, not something to avoid. Attempting to suppress thoughts or feelings can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment, says psychologist Jonathan M. Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,”
Negative emotions also helps us survive. They can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention, Adler points out.
In a 2009 study psychologist David J. Kavanagh of Queensland University of Technology in Australia and his colleagues published a study which found people who repressed or avoided intrusive alcohol-related thoughts experienced more of them. Similar findings from a 2010 study of eating disorders suggested that blocking negative emotions resulted in more emotional overeating than simply recognizing that you were agitated or blue about eating habits.
Your Brain and Negative Emotions
Negative emotions can be described as any feeling which causes you to be miserable and sad. These emotions make you dislike yourself and others, and take away your confidence. Emotions that can become negative are hate, anger, jealousy and sadness. Anxiety, fear, and guilt can become negative if they are severe.
According to Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist,and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, and New York Times best-selling author, humans are evolutionarily wired with a negativity bias. Hanson says we instinctively focus on the bad and discard the good because it was more important for our ancestors to avoid threats than to collect rewards.
Hanson describes the brain as like “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” In other words, he says it’s generally true that in order for positive experiences to “stick” in our brains like the negative ones do, we need to consciously hold on to the positive experiences and thoughts longer in our minds.
“The alarm bell of your brain — the amygdala (you’ve got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) — uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative,” writes Hanson. “Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory — in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.”
How negative thinking changes the brain
The more frequently we have negative thoughts and we ruminate over them, the easier it becomes to return automatically to these thought patterns.
According to Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman writing in Psychology Today, ruminating can damage our brain’s neural structures that regulate emotions, memory, and feelings. This applies not just to actual events but being stressed and anxious about imagined or hypothetical events.
Cortisol, which is a stress hormone is the part of the brain that helps form new memories. The more cortisol that’s released in response to negative thoughts and experiences, the more difficult it can be to form new positive memories.
Other research insights about negative emotions
- 95% of our thoughts are replaying movies, movies and recollecting past events.
- There are far more words in our everyday language to express negative feelings. One study showed that 50% of our words are negative, 20% neutral and 30% positive.
- When we have negative emotions to tell us something is wrong, we are more likely to spend more attention on them.
- People who avoid all the negative and only live in the positive and vice versa do not deal with the full experience of living.
- Too often our minds convince us that we must stay in negative emotion states to justify the feelings we have at present.
Studies by John Cacioppo and his colleagues reported we showed that we are more heavily influenced by bad news than good news.
A study by Jason Moser and his colleagues at Michigan State University, and published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology found brain markers that distinguish negative thinkers from positive thinkers, suggesting that there are positive and negative people in the world. They found people who tend to worry “suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively.”
Christopher Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University and co-author of The Man Who Lied To His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships, argues in his book that we see people who say negative things as being smarter than those who have a positive orientation. As a result, they argue, we are more likely to give greater credence to criticism than praise.
Pause for positivity three times a day
Even though our brains naturally tend toward the negative, that doesn’t mean that we have to wallow in a live in a pessimistic, powerless place. We can choose an approach that empowers and energizes us. In the book The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry, Loretta Graziano Breuning, suggests this helpful practice “spend one minute each time scanning for the positive aspects of situations that are currently on your mind,” and “define ‘good’ however you want.”
Breuning suggests looking for good things that define our present reality. As she also notes, “For best results, do not focus on puppies, rainbows and butterflies…. Focus on the thoughts that empower and inspire you. Focus on the thoughts that help you build meaning, thoughts that build a fulfilling life.”
Research shows that positive thoughts and emotions can benefit our mental health. However taken to an extreme, however, this “looking through a rose colored glass” is not realistic. Life is messy. Also, a constant positive outlook can lead to complacency and ignore life’s dangers, says Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz in their article “Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?” in Scientific American Mind.
Negative thoughts are described as intrusive and disturbing, and occur anytime. These may be in the form of involuntary negative thoughts, images or ideas that can cause the person to be stressed or anxious and fearful. In certain instances, negative thoughts may be difficult to be removed from the mind and can be challenging to change.
Negative thinking is anticipating the worst possible outcomes of events or situations. In this process, whenever a challenge arises, a person with negative thinking pre-empts a negative outcome before it has even occurred or being acted upon. Pessimistic thinking is synonymous to negative thinking which is also a state of mind that lets the individual view life in a negative manner.
Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it. In a 2011 study psychologist Richard A. Bryant and his colleagues at the University of New South Wales in Sydney told some participants, but not others, in their study to suppress an unwanted thought prior to sleep. The results: those who tried to muffle the negative thought reported dreaming about it more.
How Does Negative Thinking Become a Habit?
Negativity is learned and repeated through experience. In order to be a negative person, or to consistently think negatively, you have to be doing something very specific. You have to be able to consistently hold a negative view regardless of all efforts to be positive.
How to Deal With Negative Thoughts
Most importantly, it’s critical to embrace the idea and attitude that thoughts are neither bad or good unless they result in you or others becoming unhealthy or harmed in some way. Second, understand that negative thoughts and are not facts or who you are as a person but rather a combination of temporary physical processes in your brain and/or choices you make regarding their permanence (do you want to continue to suffer?)
Here are some strategies you can use to deal with negative thoughts
1. Stop trying to change negative thoughts. Don’t do anything about them but observe them and understand they will pass.
2. Stop fighting what is happening right now. Whatever is, just is. Your next step is to decide what you want to do next.
3. Instead of focusing on changing your thoughts, practice turning your attention away from the contents of the thoughts and placing it on who or what is actually having the thoughts. Ask yourself, who are these thoughts talking to?
4. Take the time to savor positive thoughts. Remember that they are not as strong as negative, so we must take the time to think about what is positive about every situation, event and feeling, and savor it.
5. When you have a negative thought become curious. Be an observer and ask questions to yourself about it.
6. There is a difference between thinking mind and observing mind. We cannot control thinking mind. It is always chattering away at all times. It can then start obsessing. Most of our psychological and emotional stress happens because our thinking mind and observing mind are fused and we don’t recognize the difference. The trick is to not fuse with those emotions when they arise. Instead of saying “I am angry,” say “I feel anger.”
7. Get into the practice of scanning for the positive aspects of any situation or thoughts you are having every time they happen. Your brain will not do this automatically.
8. Use your breath more effectively. There is clear connection between breathing and emotion. Different emotions elicit different breathing patterns. Meditative breathing will bring your emotions under more control and calmness.
Here is a step-by-step process to deal with negative thoguhts or emotions:
1. Ask yourself, what just happened? What is the exact event or situation or relationship interchange that just happened.
2. Ask yourself: What was my first thought?
3. Ask yourself: How do I FEEL right now (not think). Check your body for signals
4. Ask yourself: Is this reality? Is what you are thinking or feeling really true? Ask yourself this several times.
5. Label the emotion your are feeling right now. Describe it as “_____is what I am feeling right now,” not “I am ______.”
6. Accept the negative emotion you are having. It just is. Don’t try to block it or push it away, which would make it stronger.
7. De-identify from the thought or emotion. It’s not you, it’s just something happening in your brain that will pass if you let it, but what is it trying to tell you.
8. Let the negative thought or feeling go. Acknowledge it’s there, but don’t engage with it, and see it float away.
9. Ask yourself this question “Who would I be if I didn’t have this thought or feeling?”
10. Be conscious of your breathing. Are you breathing deep with your diaphragm or shallow breathing?
11. Now take your original thought and turn it around and ask “is the opposite of may original thought true?”
12. Ask yourself: what can I do about that right now? And if there is something take action, no matter how small.
13. Practice self compassion. If the negative thought produces self-judgment or self-criticism, take the time to be compassionate with yourself and forgive. You are not perfect.
14. Ask yourself, what am I grateful for right now?
15. Now make a conscious, calm choice as what you want to do now, moving forward.
Everyone has negative thoughts or emotions at one time or another, and they are reactive and automatic. Thinking that we can rid ourselves of them is unrealistic, and even undesirable. They serve a purpose to teach us something. Learning how to regulate (not control) those negative emotions, not be reactive to triggers, and choosing how we can use the negative emotion wisely will contribute a great deal to our mental and emotional well being.
Be sure to read my book on leader self-awareness which examines the issue of overconfidence: I Know Myself and Neither Do You: Why Charisma, Confidence and Pedigree Won’t Take You Where You Want to Go, available on Amazon in paperback and ebook formats.