What is Negativity and How to Overcome It
Happiness is short, negative thoughts are forever. However much we yearn for happiness, i.e. positive emotions, we view the world through primarily negative lenses. We are more skilled in scanning for and finding threats than we are in catching joy.
And yet negative thoughts have the power to spiral your brain out of control and cause lasting harm in the form of Depression and Anxiety Disorders. Why then are our brains wired to pick out the negatives so efficiently? How do we overcome that?
We are evolved to be negative
Human beings are physically a lot weaker than most other species on earth. So our brain evolved to ensure survival, and the biggest aid to human survival is threat perception. Our brain constantly searches for threat and saves the happiness-inducing chemicals (Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin) for when those survival needs are met. They are used up quickly so that we crave the positive feeling and continue to perform the actions that got us that high. On the other hand, the stress-inducing chemical Cortisol surges whenever we experience difficulty. All in all, negativity is pretty much the normal human condition.
What happens when we get needlessly negative?
We have come a long way from our hunter-gatherer days where opportunity was a good catch of fish and threat was a lion chasing behind. These are complicated times. Today, our threat response is conditioned by several factors which we are not even aware all the time.
There are several things that can trigger a cortisol surge in our brain – past memory of pain, degree of social isolation or support, childhood experience etc. These things shape the neural pathways in our brain, and cortisol is triggered when we perceive similar threats in our present. We are designed to do everything to make that stop, and we are rewarded by happy hormone surges when we are successful at doing so. This means, paradoxically, our quest to experience more happy chemicals can actually lead to an overworking of stress chemicals.
How to overcome negativity
Build a positivity circuit: Do this simple exercise: spend one minute three times a day looking for positive things every day for 45 days straight. It does not have to be something big or noble, just simple things around you that give you a positive feeling; a child’s smile, a flowering tree, a random act of kindness by a stranger.
This little exercise will train your mind to look for positives the same way evolutionary biology has taught it to seek out the negatives. By the end of those 45 days, you’ll start finding positive things with a lot less effort than before.
Stay realistic: It is easy to feel negative when things don’t go your way; disappointment causes cortisol to surge and it can make us feel like the end of the road. But in almost all the cases that is not true at all. Now that you have built your positivity circuit, use it to ground your expectations in reality. Remembering and invoking positive things in your current situation will help you find the ways in which you can salvage the situation or start over.
Break down your goals: The easiest way to drown yourself in negative thoughts is to focus solely on the bigger picture or the end goal. The enormity of the goal ahead can seem like a threat-situation to your brain and the uncertainty of success can make abandoning the project seem like a viable way to end the cortisol surge.
Remember that while you can’t control the end result, you can always control the next step of your goal. The freedom to proceed in a path of your own choosing is a powerful positive feeling. When going into a big project, break down your goal into smaller, actionable tasks or steps. Then focus solely on each step as you go along. This will help keep the threat-response in your brain in check, and also give you the necessary surge that comes from accomplishment each time you complete a step.
Negativity is hard-wired into our brain functions, so this is not something we can escape. In fact, avoiding negativity completely would be foolish, since it is a necessary function of our survival. However, we can certainly reduce its bad effects on our life by training our brain to control it. The tips given above will help you do just that!