Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Have you ever found yourself in a relentless negative thought spiral you can’t seem to snap out of? Do you replay negative situations and outcomes over and over again, yet rarely dwell on the happier things in your life? Well you’re not alone.
Despite being an incredibly complex organ, our brains have actually not evolved as well as they could have and are still operating in the same way they did during the caveman era.
What is this genetic predisposition still plaguing us you ask? Well, that would be a little something known as…. negativity bias.
You see our brains learnt from our ancestors' primal days, when we were busy living in caves and hunting for our own food, that focusing on and predicting possible dangers was vital for our survival.
To put it simply, our ancestors were more likely to survive if they remembered which berries were poisonous and how to avoid lions at all costs, rather than focusing on which berries taste the best and wondering if there were any friendly lions in the pride.
So because of this, predicting and replaying memories of potential threats has been hardwired into our brains' makeup since the dawn of time.
A caveman’s brain in the 21st century
But despite this being an incredibly helpful mindset for cavemen with real, life threatening situations to navigate - it’s actually not that useful for our lives in the 21st century.
For most of us in the western world, we’re not coming face to face with life threatening situations on a daily basis, yet our brains are still operating from an overly negative standpoint.
Don’t believe me? Think back to the last time you had a review at work. Despite a list of achievements or successes your employer congratulated you for, did you walk away obsessing over the one piece of negative feedback you received?
Or what about when you decide you want to do something new, go travelling for the first time or perhaps change careers. Does your mind flood with cheerleader-like support? YOU CAN DO IT! NOTHING WILL STOP YOU! LIVE YOUR DREAM! Or does it rattle off a list of 10 reasons why you couldn’t possibly do it or why you would 100% fail?
Reliving our past traumas
We don’t only think negative things more often than positive - we also remember negative events with a lot more intensity.
Try thinking back to a positive memory from your childhood - a time when you felt complete happiness or excitement. Now conjure another memory from your childhood that was negative - a time you were hurt or excluded, or intensely embarrassed. Which were you able to conjure more easily? And which feeling did you relive more intensely?
When people think about something negative from their past, it can feel as if they’re experiencing it all over again. The feelings of anxiety, sadness or pain can be summoned back as if they’re happening in the present - and it’s these feelings that often prevent us from stepping out of our comfort zones and making the changes we want to in life.
An unreliable narrator
So what does this mean? Well research shows that 80% of our thoughts are negative, which means our brains don’t remember the good and the bad equally and therefore don’t predict the good and the bad in an objective way. Making them unreliable narrators.
Yes - this means WE CANNOT TRUST OUR BRAINS. And just because you THINK it, doesn’t make it true.
Mind-blowing, I know.
So if I can’t trust my thoughts, what should I think?
Don’t panic. This doesn’t mean we’re all crazy and should give up now and sit rocking in a corner muttering to ourselves.
The brain, like our muscles, can be trained and coaxed out of these ancient habits. You can choose to ignore negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones instead. This isn’t to say we have to blindly ignore what’s true in life, but we can instead opt for more uplifting, helpful thoughts in the face of adversity.
Don’t believe me?
For the next 10 seconds, I want you to think of the lyrics to Baby One More Time by Britney Spears.
My loneliness is killing me, and I
I must confess, I still believe…
See. I bet whatever thoughts you were having in that moment suddenly left your brain and in came the sweet sound of Britney Spears.
Just like you can choose to think Britney Spears lyrics, you can choose to stop your negative thoughts mid-sentence and replace them with something that’ll actually help you.
Next time you feel yourself getting a tight feeling in your chest or a tirade of negative thoughts, first simply observe them. What is the thought you’re having? And what do you think caused or triggered it? Is this reminding you of a past event or situation that upset or hurt you? Take a moment to reflect on this, with no judgement or blame. Just curiosity.
2. Talk back
Now, tell your brain thanks for the concern but it’s negativity is no longer welcome. Then try and think of what would be a more helpful or positive thought to have in reaction to the situation.
For example, someone who’s choosing to manage their own thoughts may choose to see being fired from their job as an unfortunate setback, but also as an opportunity to grow. They may decide it’s an opportunity to find a more fulfilling job or a role that suits their skill-set better. They certainly wouldn’t waste any time beating themselves up or wallowing in self pity.
While others, thinking with their instinctive negativity filter, may choose to torture themselves with unhelpful thoughts such as; ‘You’re useless and you’ll never succeed at anything. You’re never going to get another job and if you do you’ll just get fired again. You may as well give up!’ They may get trapped in this cycle for weeks or even months, and struggle to move past the experience at all.
Now I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m not saying that I’m anywhere near perfect at managing my own thoughts. I get trapped in my own negative spirals more often than I like.
But just making small steps to be more involved in the decision about which thoughts you believe, and learning to say a big fat NO to any unhelpful ones, is a great place to start.
For me, just being made aware of my own innate negativity bias was enough to shine a light on the monsters in my mind and make them seem a whole lot less scary!