Why Do Our Brains Focus On the Negative?

(originally posted on my blog, www.katierbromley.com)

In the last 10 minutes of yoga class when the teacher asks us to lay in corpse pose and notice our breath, I freak out. I hate that time. My mind needs something to focus on and my breath isn’t cutting it. It goes one of two ways. The list of things I should be doing instead, or a speed look at random negative incidents in my life. Most likely it will be the latter, like that girl in junior high making passive aggressive comments about me. Or that time I stumbled on a presentation at work. Or when I over-analyze an off-hand comment at an event.

It turns out that this response, what the experts refer to as negativity bias, is the evolutionary result of our mind alerting us to potential danger. DANGER. It’s why we feel a negative vibe even when a situation is positive or neutral. It’s self-preservation and lately it’s been doing a real number on me and my sanity.

Negativity bias, and the reason our brains work the way they do, is the core reason that insults often hurt more than compliments help. Let that sink in.

According to Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. in an excellent article in Forbes:

“We’re living in hard times with the uncertainty of the Coronavirus. It’s hard to stay positive with such difficult challenges most of us have never faced. Our negativity bias only adds insult to injury because it overestimates threats and underestimates our ability to manage them.”

He also writes that this response is hardwired in our brains, and that for every negative emotional experience, it takes 3 positive ones to uplift our mood. I think that is why sometimes it is so hard to move past something. It’s not just an even trade of “oop, that was really negative but after this one good experience I feel fine again.” I wish it were that easy.

If we have 99 good experiences and 1 bad one, our mind will likely keep going over the 1. I hate this and I know I’m not alone, so I looked into how to try to combat it.

One of the methods I found cited most often was to first recognize what is happening and then act on it using positive self-talk — exactly what it sounds like. Realize you are over-analyzing. Realize that person’s opinion doesn’t matter. And then be your own hype person. Something negative happens and then what do you do? Make a conscious effort to recognize it and then move on. Instead, focus on the positive aspects. Did you bumble a sentence in a presentation? That’s fine. You’re human and you nailed the rest of it. Did someone give you a backhanded compliment at an event? That person isn’t your friend. You’re great. The other 20 people at the event think you are too. But after that backhanded compliment it will take at least 3 authentic compliments from those friends to bring your emotional state back to level.

The next time I’m doing yoga and my mind starts to wander I’m going to make a real effort to recognize what I’m doing and then be my own hype-woman. I’ll also be handing out the compliments because you never know who really needs one.

Writer. Likes travel, dark chocolate and good coffee. Believer of karma. www.katierbromley.com

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