Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of negative thinking. For many people in recovery and otherwise the struggle is indeed real against a constant barrage of extremely negative thoughts. It’s no wonder that we feel exhausted, sad, and defeated on our best days, and hopeless on our worst.
In many ways, our mind has become our enemy with a constant stream of maladaptive and ineffective thinking that we are not even aware of. So why is is that our minds tend towards the negative and have to work to find the positive? Well, it turns out there is a good reason and the really good news is there is something you can do about it.
From the beginning of time our brains have been hardwired to look for problems to solve. Nature wanted to make sure we survived and a part of the survival instinct is to scan the horizon for trouble and to protect ourselves from danger. Millions of years ago this instinct was adaptive and helped our species to survive. We sensed danger everywhere and in turn protected ourselves from it. Our brains are also natural problem solvers. The brain wants to figure things out, solve puzzles and riddles, insure our safety, our brains need to work. And if the brain can’t find a problem to solve it will make something up. It will usually drag up something from the past to work on or it will imagine something in the future and go to town attempting to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet and since it hasn’t happened yet there are about a million and one ways the brain can imagine it actually happening and a million and one ways it may be able to solve it. Sound exhausting? It is. The problem with both of these scenarios is that they don’t actually exist. The past and the future do not do not exist so the brain is attempting to solve a problem that isn’t real which leads us into either guilt, shame and remorse ( based in the past) or worry and anxiety ( based in the future) with no real solution to a nonexistent problem.
But, I’ve digressed a bit. Aside from the natural problem solving nature of the mind, it has been proven that negative thoughts cause more activity in the brain than positive thoughts and we are naturally wired to absorb the negative events more than the positive:
“Take, for example, the studies done by John Cacioppo, Ph.D., then at Ohio State University, now at the University of Chicago. He showed people pictures known to arouse positive feelings (say, a Ferrari, or a pizza), those certain to stir up negative feelings (a mutilated face or dead cat) and those known to produce neutral feelings (a plate, a hair dryer). Meanwhile, he recorded electrical activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex that reflects the magnitude of information processing taking place.”
“The brain, Cacioppo demonstrated, reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. Thus, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news.”
Additionally it has been proven that it takes 5-10 positive events to counterbalance one negative event. For a great article on this click here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201406/are-we-hardwired-be-positive-or-negative
So there you have it: your negative thinking is natural so it isn’t your fault AND it will indeed make your life miserable if left unchecked. So what is the solution?
Ahh solutions! I adore solutions. And the good news is that there are many. First stop blaming yourself when you think negatively and realize that your brain is not broken, it’s actually functioning exactly as it was designed to function. Next we must…and I repeat MUST begin to counter the negative thinking with positive thinking. Now I don’t mean to say “just think positively”…telling someone to “think positively” may get you punched in the snoot.
But we can begin to allow ourselves to absorb the positive experiences that are all around us and begin to make up for our naturally occurring positive thought deficit.
We can being to look at things through a different lens. Take for example the idea of support. Everyday I am supported by things seen and unseen. I am supported by the earth, literally the ground on which I am walking. I am supported by the trees, literally the oxogen they are providing me, same thing with air. I am literally supported by gravity, the sun, rain and all the natural elements. These things all allow me life. Literally. If I can’t find anything positive to absorb at the very least I have the elements on which I can ( if I so choose) to focus my attention and appreciation.
We can also look at the idea that if positive experiences have less of am impact on us than negative experiences, we may need to look at how to cultivate more positive experiences in our life. Individually we all have things we love, perhaps it’s music, or art, or animals or a group of people, cooking, reading, the list goes on. Making an effort to incorporate more of these things into your daily routine can have enormous positive benefits. Surrounding yourself with positive images and things you love can also have an impact on how you feel. My office at work has a lot of personal items that bring me peace, crystal salt lamps, items for my meditation practice, a few special statues that mean something special to me, a photo of one of my dogs. When my mind begins to tend towards the negative, I am able to gently remind myself I need a shot of positive and I am able to focus my attention and my appreciation on any of these things. Personally I have found meditation as one of the best tools I have at my disposal where I can begin to consciously direct my attention towards things at make me happy and peaceful and away from things that freak me out and make me crazy.
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy http://behavioraltech.org/resources/whatisdbt.cfm
Marsha Linehan has created a skill set called “Improving The Moment” where she gives us a long detailed list of ways we can improve any moment even if it is just a little bit. In DBT the skills are used for distress tolerance but I have also found them extremely useful for just a plain old crappy day or more often a crappy attitude about a normal day. To get an idea of these skills click here: http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/improve.html
In another section of her Skills manual she gives us a list of “pleasant events” to incorporate into our lives in order to make life more meaningful. Simple ideas really, but how often do we take time to consciously cultivate positive experiences into our hectic and stressful day? When is the last time you laid in the grass and looked at the stars? To see a list of some of activities click here:
The point I want to make here is that we do not have to be slaves or our naturally wired negative thinking. We have choices. The monkey mind is going to do it’s thing, constantly scanning the landscape for trouble, but we have the ability to train that little monkey to work for us rather than against us. And it takes effort. Let me repeat that: It takes EFFORT. Left to it’s own devices, many of us will stay stuck in patterns of unhealthy, ineffective thinking that causes suffering. Thoughts like “ Why ME?? “ This sucks”, “ I can’t”, “ it will always be like this”, I’ll never have ( fill in the blank)” will naturally continue to arise unless we make the choice to challenge that thinking and counter those experiences with positive thoughts and events. Today may we all find gratitude and unattached appreciation for the things that make our hearts sing and allow the positive thoughts to overpower the negative.
“Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.”
— Willie Nelson