Saturday, 11 January 2020

Why negative thoughts exist and how to counter them

For a long time, I thought it was just me: vortices of negative thought, with negative thoughts occupying my mind. Then I realised it wasn’t just me. I found out: negative thoughts are a “by-product” of evolution!

Negative thinking is a primordial instinct that helped our ancestors survive millions of years ago
(Image source: drawing by Hannah Heisler)

Survival of the fittest

Our brains are more receptive to bad than positive news. As John Cacioppo demonstrated, our brains react more strongly to stimuli that it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity.

The negative thoughts pestering us today have derived from a primordial instinct that originally was designed to protect. So today we are still heavily influenced by the brain’s same negativity bias which millions of years ago helped our ancestors be alert to potential dangers around them and which helped them survive.

A primordial instinct: alertness to dangers

Whenever the mind perceives a threat (of whatever nature), it attends to it very quickly. This has implications: negative information is prioritised over positive information; criticism has greater influence on us than praise; worries about our jobs, health, families, the future of the country that we live in can all easily drag us down (Brexit-related thoughts are a notable example!).

So even when a string of good things happens to you, it will be enough for one (possibly trivial!) negative thing to happen, which will then become the only thing occupying your mind. Suddenly, all your attention is drawn to that one negative thing and will stick with it (while the many good things will suddenly be erased from your mind). It’s an evolutionary reaction.

Techniques for amplifying positive emotions

As I’ve already noticed in a previous blog post, negative thinking is the default mode of our brains, but the good news is once we’re aware of it, we can learn to switch to a different mode of thought. We can learn to control our thinking, even amplify positive emotions! Of the techniques I’ve adopted to keep my primordial gloomy thoughts at bay, these are my favourites:

1. Affirmations

I have a set of ‘customized’ affirmations that I tend to repeat to myself whenever I find my thoughts are drifting into negative territory. They’re statements that are both positive and powerful. I have found that diverting thoughts to affirmations is hugely effective. I often also switch to my “affirmations mode” whenever I don’t quite know what to think of in particular (e.g. during a run).

2. The morning gratefulness exercise

This is an easy and popular exercise: it involves calling up in your mind 3 things that you’re grateful for right before getting up in the morning. They can be ordinary things that we maybe take for granted: the health of our children, our own health, having a job, being able to afford so many things. Also life circumstances in general. (Tip: I’ve heard you can increase the effect if you stay with each thing in your mind for at least 20 seconds.)

3. The engagement in flow activities

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues we can learn to control our consciousness by engaging in so-called flow activities, which strengthen our sense of purpose. Flow is defined as a blissful mental state in which you are totally absorbed in an activity, unaware of how the time goes by. While we’re engaged in flow activities (I’ve described mine here), we don’t waste time on worrying.

4. Living in the moment

Life can take unexpected turns from one minute to the next. We all know that. What’s more, wandering thoughts frequently are negative thoughts. I’ve found that therefore one of the best techniques to counter negative thinking really is “living in the moment”, living in the here and now.

At first I thought it was just me, then realised it wasn’t: negative thinking grips us easily, but is really just a primordial instinct that helped our ancestors survive millions of years ago. Once we’re aware of this mechanism, we can aim to control our thoughts – even amplify positive emotions – by using specific thinking techniques.

We can learn to control our thinking, even amplify positive emotions