Do you consider yourself a worrier? Do you always think first about what could go wrong rather than what could go right when you make a decision? There is a valid reason why this occurs and it has to do with evolution. Our brains are hard-wired to overemphasize threats and exaggerate negative events. We feel these situations more intensely and see them more easily. Because we quickly see the negative side, we can’t readily see the positive side or the opportunities and resources that are also there. Negative thoughts feel real to us and we can accept them as reality. This hard wiring helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive living with predators and hunting their food. Even though we no longer need this survival mechanism as acutely, it still lies deep within our brain. The negativity bias can drain our vitality and happiness if left unchecked. Let’s take a look at a few techniques that can stop the negativity train that can takeover our brain.
Staying focused on the present moment and not stuck in the past or looking into the future can help us see situations more clearly. Take for example the time I woke up and saw I had a missed call from our adult son at 1am. I automatically imagined the worse case scenario. In the past, prior to the era of cellphones, these calls were associated with bad events such as the death of a family member or equally as important. Anyway, initially I didn’t even consider that it could have been an infamous “butt dial” phone call. It took me a few minutes to calm my panicking brain to see that possibility. I had to be present in the moment to realize if it were an emergency it would likely have not ended with one phone call.
Reframing is a technique that helps us to view an experience, emotion or situation so we can see the positive side. The first step is to recognize that you are caught up in a negative thought pattern and take steps to stop the cycle. You have to take a step back to separate yourself from your thoughts to see exactly what is going on. It’s like looking at the situation, event or emotion from a distance. This allows us a new perspective. For example, you have a 12 o’clock meeting and are out feverishly running errands. It’s been a hectic morning and you race to the meeting only to receive an email as you are pulling into the parking lot that the meeting has been cancelled. Ugh!… might be your first thought. You could be angry that they just wasted your time or you could reframe what just happened. Could it be that you really just received the gift of time back into your day? You just gained an hour to get more things accomplished at a less hectic pace or maybe time for lunch at your favorite place.
Remembering that we perceive or feel negative events, situations and emotions more intensely can make things seem worse than they actually are. Instead of wasting your energy in a negative thought cycle flip it into positive energy. We have all failed at something or other at least once or more in life. Instead of thinking “I am a failure” and making the thought a reality think about where you went wrong to improve your chances for the next time. Focusing on finding a solution is a better use of your time and energy. You could also start a project that you have been putting off or pick up a new hobby to help occupy your mind. Any activity requiring focus and is a little bit challenging will distract you and keep you from sitting in that negative mindset.
Yes, there are significant negative events, situations and emotions that are truly real but hopefully these are few and far between for the majority of us. It’s certainly comforting to know that there is a reason for all this negative chatter in our heads and why sometimes we find it difficult to let things go. It is not impossible to break the cycle but it will take effort and awareness. The next time you find your mind falling into a negative spiral, try one of the above techniques. If the one doesn’t work try another and stay more on the positive side of life!