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In my previous newsletter/article, I wrote about the biological reason we are programmed to look for negatives and discount positives. You’ll be able to read it here.
Humans have survived so long because we are very adept at spotting potential threats. That’s the primary function of our amygdala – the primitive part of the brain that we share with all other mammals. Think of it as an inbuilt alarm system.
Many people don’t realise that the amygdala is responsible for our intuition (gut feeling) and, as a result, often override warning signals when something doesn’t feel right about a person or situation. That’s usually when our anxiety increases as adrenaline and cortisol flood our system as part of the fight, flight freeze response.
Humans are hard-wired to seek out potential threats (we call this ‘negativity bias’); it’s what’s kept us alive as species for so long. However, positive ‘things’ do not threaten our survival; they are almost immaterial once the dopamine reward gained from attaining them has worn off. So, in a nutshell, this is the reason why we tend to focus on negatives and discount positives.
Before we launch into the tips, I want to point out that I am not being as glib as to say, ‘just think positive!’. I know from bitter experience that it’s simply not that easy. However, there are researched-backed tools that are clinically proven to help manage feelings of negativity, stress and overwhelm – it’s those that I will be sharing in this article.
Tips for Overcoming Negative Thinking
For many people, me included, negative thinking can be problematic, especially if, like me, you were modelled worry, anxiety and overwhelm by your closest adults as a child.
However, you can use some basic but very effective tools to help manage your nervous system and combat excessive negative thinking.
- Awareness is everything. We can’t change what we aren’t aware of. Recognising and acknowledging negativity bias is an excellent start in rewiring your brain for positivity.
- Show your subconscious what you want, NOT what you don’t want. Your brain is like a heat-seeking missile. It uses your Reticular Activating System (discussed in the previous article) to filter out anything it believes to be unimportant. However, it can be a brilliant tool if you use it correctly, i.e. tell/show it what you want, not what you don’t!
- Use the 80/20 rule. Allow yourself 20% of your time to think about the problem, then use the remaining 80% to focus on solutions – most of us tend to do it the other way around.
- Avoid watching the news – When we continually monitor what’s happening in the news, it keeps us on artificial high alert, triggering our stress response and heightening our negativity bias. By all means, be aware of what’s going on in the world, but avoid phone alerts and having the news on for more than 10 minutes in the morning (I strongly recommend just listening/watching bulletins), and I definitely do not recommend the many 24-hour news channels – they are incredibly damaging to our mental health.
- Be mindful of what information you consume – What you watch, the podcasts you listen to, the books you read, the social media accounts you follow, etc., all impact your mental health and feed into negativity bias. If you must watch serial killer documentaries on Netflix, I suggest counteracting the negativity by intermingling the odd comedy.
- Be aware of whom you’re spending your time with. We become the five people that we spend the most time around. Notice any mood hoovers who constantly complain but are unwilling to do anything about their situation. That will undoubtedly directly impact how you see the world and your nervous system. If removing such people isn’t an option, setting clear boundaries is critical. For more information on how to do that, read my article, ‘How to Set Boundaries‘.
If You’re Feeling Anxious Right Now
If you recognise that you’re already in fight/flight/freeze mode (e.g., feeling anxious, heart racing, having difficulty sleeping/eating, stomach upset, etc.), it will be challenging to attempt to do the things I’ve listed above.
This is because you can’t think of solutions when, metaphorically speaking, your nervous system thinks a sabre-toothed tiger is chasing you.
Top-down regulation (i.e., trying to control your body with your mind) won’t work when your stress response is activated. Instead, your priority should be bringing your nervous system back to homeostasis (baseline) and blunting your arousal state (fight, flight, freeze).
The best and quickest way to do this is through breathwork. There are so many different recommendations for this; however, the most effective breathing combination that I’ve found is the 16-second method:
- Breathe in for four seconds
- Hold for two
- Breathe out for eight seconds (as if you’re blowing through a straw)
- Hold for two
- Repeat this breathing pattern for two-five minutes (or longer if necessary)
Once your nervous system is regulated, and you feel calmer and more in control, you can implement steps 1-6 above.
In my next post, I’ll talk more about my most effective tools for managing a triggered nervous system. In the meantime, click here to sign up to receive my weekly newsletter straight to your inbox to be the first to read my latest posts and learn about free webinars and other special offers.