Why Do Our Brains like Negative Thinking and How Can You Reverse the Pattern?
As strange as it sounds, the human brain tends to have a peculiar inclination towards negative thinking. Ever notice how a single critique can completely overshadow a sea of compliments? When you look in the mirror, do you zoom in on a few select flaws instead of appreciating the beautiful whole? Maybe you toss and turn at night considering all the things that could go wrong instead of all the things that could go right? Psychologists refer to this common phenomenon as the “Negativity Bias;” the natural tendency of the brain to focus and ruminate on negative stimuli over positive
Negative thinking dominates a shockingly high amount of our head space. Of the thousands of thoughts we have each day, research suggests that around 80% are negative. Moreover, 95% of these daily thoughts are believed to be repeats from the day before. So, what’s with all the negativity?
Negative thinking may be more attractive to our knowledge-hungry brains because these thoughts are more stimulating. According to a study within the Psychological Bulletin, “negative stimuli are hypothesized to carry greater informational value than positive stimuli, and thus require greater attention and cognitive processing.” Since the adult brain tends to focus on cognitively complex information, it gives priority to negative thoughts over positive. For this reason, decision-making, judgment formation, first impressions, and even our own inner-critic are more heavily influenced by negative information than positive.
On a neural level, the Negativity Bias can be partially explained by how the brain perceives emotional intensity. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that parts of the frontal cortex had a greater response to negative stimuli than positive. From an evolutionary perspective, negative thinking may have ensured that humans learned from their mistakes, acted with caution and criticality, stayed on task, and avoided threatening situations.
While negative thinking is common and occasionally helpful, it can trap us in unnecessary, habituated patterns of suffering. Psychologist, writer, and meditation practitioner Tara Brach says it well in her book “Trusting the Gold”: “If you practice obsessive worry or blame, these pathways in your body and mind become deeply grooved and familiar. They imprison you in a small tight, and endangered sense of self.” Limited, pessimistic thinking can invite in other mental health concerns as well, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, social withdrawal, depression, and addiction.
Negative thinking can also cause physical ailment. When experienced for prolonged periods, negative thinking activates our ‘fight-or-flight’ response, which can increase cortisol to unhealthy levels. Some medical researchers believe that patterned negative thinking contributes to issues with digestion, sleep, immunity, metabolism, pain, and also increases risk for developing degenerative brain diseases and cardiovascular complications.
Despite our predisposition, the Negativity Bias can be reversed. After all, the brain believes what we tell it. Occasional heartache, pessimism, grief, fear, anger, and other painful emotions are all a part of the human experience, but we can shift our perspective by giving these feelings less credibility. Through a daily mindfulness practice, we can rewire our brains to spend less time dwelling in the negative, and more time buying into thoughts of gratitude, opportunity, inspiration, love, and other positive emotions.
Grounding through gratitude is one approach that Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Cindy Pearson Garcia suggests to her clients who are struggling with negative thinking:
A good way to develop a gratitude practice is to engage those first few moments when you wake each morning. Take time to recognize your body and where you are sleeping. You might want to give thanks for your comfortable bed, warm home, or kitty curled up nearby. Gratitude can be given for breath and being alive - having an opportunity to start fresh with a new day.
You might pat your heart and feel grateful for your health and the rest you woke up from. Gratitude can extend to sunshine coming through the window or perhaps a gentle breeze blowing in. Perhaps it’s a workday and you might add thankfulness for a job and financial means. Are you grateful for someone? How are they doing? Here you might lean in to being grateful for a parent, child, partner, or friend. From there, the practice can be enhanced by sending them gratitude and good wishes.
This practice helps get the day off to a positive start. You can reflect on this throughout the day to reinforce a grateful presence of mind. When you notice negative thinking, you can redirect the mind back to gratitude.
Contact Cindy Pearson Garcia to learn more tips for overcoming the Negativity Bias and taking charge of your mind: firstname.lastname@example.org