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Why The Negatives Stick & How to Overcome it

Jun 20, 2021 | Counseling, Mental Health

Our brains are hardwired for negativity bias. That’s the brain’s tendency to focus on the negatives and dwell on them longer. Psychologist and happiness researcher Timothy J. Bono, Ph.D. says, “We inherited the genes that predispose us to give special attention to those negative aspects of our environments that could be harmful to us,” and we can thank our ancestors for that. I’ll explain in the next paragraph. Our brain is really good at quickly encoding negative events into long-term memory than positive events. This “stickiness” is known as the negativity bias.

There’s a couple of good reasons our brains focus more on the negatives than the positives. First, this is the brain’s way of keeping us safe from threats and second, this is a survival mechanism passed on to us from our early ancestors. For them, paying attention to negative threats in the environment increased their chances of survival because they were frequently exposed to threats and situations that were literally a matter of life or death, like being attacked by dangerous animals in the wild or being rejected from their small tribes, which would’ve been a sure death sentence back in the day with little resources and help available.

In modern times today, our “stone age” brain’s tendency to focus on the negatives doesn’t really serve us. What negativity bias looks like for example, let’s say you receive overall positive feedback on your job review but your boss tells you one not-so-positive feedback and that’s all you can think about for hours. Negativity bias creates tunnel vision to focus only on the negatives and ignoring the positives, even when there are more positives. What’s interesting is that the brain can’t tell the difference between a perceived or real threat. It responds the same way by activating the flight or fight response system and releasing chemicals in our body that provide the energy needed to run or fight off the threat. But the flight and fight response system starts to become a wear a tear on our body being chronically activated with stress the worries negativity bias causes. So it’s really important to change negativity bias not just to improve mental health but improve or prevent health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and the ability to fight off infections because stress lowers the immune system.But there’s great news! We CAN do something about negativity bias. First, it’s helpful to know that you can rewire the tendency to focus negatives through neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to develop new neural pathways to adapt and master new skills at any age. You read that right. So to start, begin with these two practices:

  1. Noticing and changing your negative self-talk and replacing them with positive talk. So for example, when you make a mistake or do something you’re not happy about, instead of saying, “I’m stupid, why did I do that?!,” reframe this misleading statement to a new one that is reality-based and compassionate such as, “I don’t like what I did but that doesn’t make me a stupid person. I will remember how I would like to handle it differently next time when similar situations come up.”
  2. When something good happens to you, savor in the positive moments longer. This is can be as simple as savoring in the moment of joy and bliss longer when you’re eating a really, really good cheeseburger (I’m a huge cheeseburger lover btw – animal style all day every day!) or when you receive that promotion you’ve been wanting. The KEY here is dwelling on the positives longer, the same thing you do with the negatives but mindfully switching it up to focus more on the positives. This lies the practice to re-wire the brain to focus more on the positives.

So keep this in mind: neurons that fire together wire together – the more time we spend thinking about negatives, the easier it becomes for us to repeat that pattern in the future. And with that same principle, we can apply it to rewire the brain to stop focusing on the negatives and improving how you think and feel! 

Sending mindful awareness,

xo Elle