Negativity is often a lot about being in a protective, defensive state of mind. Evolutionary psychologists believe negativity served an important adaptive evolutionary function: it helped keep our ancestors alive long enough to procreate succedent generations of offspring to eventually produce you and me. That’s how researchers explain the negativity bias: the fact that it takes us about 20 seconds longer to encode positive thoughts or memories than we do negative ones. It would have been advantageous for our ancestors to attend to negative, possibly threatening events in their environment, such as floods, droughts, competing tribes, or dangerous packs of animals nearby, as this would have increased their chance of survival and reproduction (i.e. the goal of our genes). This negativity bias formed the foundation of our cognition (i.e. human thinking processes and associated neural/brain architecture), thus shaping how we think in modern life, since we still share the same cortical architecture as our forbearers.
This topic is highly relevant because depression, anxiety, and associated worrisome and/or negative thinking are among the most common psychological concerns seen in the psychology field today. So here are some strategies for dealing with negativity:
- Identify the negative thought. Awareness is always the first step. Labeling it as such can help increase your awareness when it arises.
- Learn to disengage from automatically believing every thought you have. Revisit my blog post, Just Because You Think it Doesn’t Mean it’s True
- Note the underlying function the worry/thought is serving (e.g. it likely has your best interests at heart). E.g. the subtext might sound like: “Be careful not to get too excited and become disappointed”…or “If I anticipate bad things will happen, I will be less hurt if/when they do occur,”).
- Give yourself permission to adopt new perspectives. You might even thank the negative thought, for example: “thank you worrisome thought for wanting to protect me from pain. I know you’re just trying to keep me safe, but I’m going to give myself permission to try seeing this differently…”. You might remind yourself that changing a habituated pattern may feel uncomfortable at first, but that’s often a sign of breaking the rut, and remind yourself of the good reasons for doing so. Sometimes we can get used to living in a certain state (e.g. unhappiness or stress), and need to consciously practice allowing ourselves the freedom to experience levity and optimism.
- Become an observer: watch your thoughts like passing clouds in the sky; notice that they are fleeting if we do not hold onto them or endorse them with rumination, and that eventually they will be replaced by new thoughts (e.g. about what to have for lunch!).
- Adopt a regular mindfulness practice as a way to disengage from troubling thoughts. If you’re new to mindfulness, seek out guided meditations online or in the app store.
- Pick a mantra; any mantra. Kundalini yogis swear by repeatedly reciting uplifting mantras (aloud or internally), as they help reprogram our subconscious minds, rewiring us towards positivity and healing energy, or at the very least, acting as a welcome mental distraction.
- Surround yourself with positive people. They say we’re the sum of the five people we’re closest to. Who’s in your inner circle?
- Adopt a gratitude practice. Start keeping a written list of a few simple things you’re grateful for daily (there are apps for this!). It will shift your thinking to help you become better at recognizing and cultivating more pleasurable events.
- Channel your inner 4-year old. You might envision yourself experiencing situations from fresh eyes the way children do. Use your sensory information to ground you in the present moment and stimulate your imagination. Try to savour the experience you take in through your senses. Allow yourself to experiment with different sensory stimuli. Play and feel fully alive. Spend time savouring small moments. By elongating your experience of pleasurable events, you’re more likely to reap their benefits and store them in memory for later.
- Do the opposite. Mindfully choosing to do opposite action (or respond differently) can be helpful if you’re in a pattern that’s not working for you and you’re not sure how to break out of it. We usually have to change our behaviour to change the trajectory of the pattern, which reflects our ability to influence our circumstances and be empowered! This can be applied to relationships and other challenges. A good example is trying to break out of a depressed rut. Depression often causes a lack of motivation and increased isolation; but fighting against these impulses to hibernate can actually generate improved mood. Be mindful about the opposite actions you choose; ensure you’re choosing activities that are known to have a beneficial affect on you.
- Consider the evidence for and against your negative thought. Make a list for both. Often there is more evidence supporting the contrary.
- Practice reframing. Your reframes don’t necessarily have to be positive. Not everyone has a positive alternative thought handy, but just adopting an alternative perception could be enough to affect an emotional shift. Adopting other perspectives also reminds us that our original automatic interpretation is not a veridical truth, but rather, just one of many points of view, and we can switch them if we choose to.
- Work with a professional. This can be hard work to do on one’s own when you’re already entrenched in a certain way of thinking or functioning. Therapists can be helpful catalysts for fostering movement out of old patterns. A good therapist should be a neutral observer, and they should create a sense of accountability in clients, gently motivating and supporting them through challenges.
- Keep practicing. New habits take time!