It happens to the best of us. There you are, happily going along your ordinary day-to-day when suddenly, a thought pops into your head from out of nowhere: “What if I’m making a big mistake?” And then comes the ripple effect: “I have no idea what I’m doing. Why did I say that? Why did I agree to do that? I can’t do that.”  And it goes on, sometimes replaying conversations to analyze how stupid you must have sounded or what another person really meant.

What ensues is a crippling chain reaction that, along with each ensuing negative thought, sets your mind on a deeper downward spiral towards virtual combustion, leaving you paralyzed in its wake. It’s like you’ve single-handedly managed to blow up your entire world in an instant—and all in the confines of your own mind.

The Brain’s Natural Negative Bias

Chalk up those thought patterns to survival instincts and a biological sense that we aren’t going to live very long (depressing, we know). Our brain has evolved to survive, and has a bias toward threat detection, says psychiatrist Grant H. Brenner M.D., FAPA, co-founder of Neighborhood Psychiatry, in Manhattan.

Along with this constant scanning for threats, we are designed to use negative information far more than positive information to inform our world. When you think about this in the context of evolution it makes sense. Survival depends more on spotting danger than enjoying the warmth of a nice cave fire.

And it’s not just that we gravitate towards using that negative information; it even carries more weight. Negative thoughts are more powerful in our brain processing than positive ones. In fact, researchers say that we require more positive messages (at least five) for every negative one to keep things on an uplifting trajectory.

The Glitch In Our Operating System

It’s become a more maladaptive function as we’ve gotten more technologically developed and advanced. We can’t deal with things getting better, so our fight-flight systems can make us respond to one another badly,” he says. It’s like a communal glitch in our collective existence. “We lack compassion and see strangers as enemies rather than family. We think the planet is vaster and more omnipotent than it is—an illusion which will shatter badly if we aren’t thoughtful and wise,” Dr. Brenner says.

It’s a vicious cycle too. Basically, the brain becomes trained to look for and recognize threat early—both internally and externally, which leads to greater attention to negative thoughts, re-enforcing them, and making them more frequent. “Like a car engine running in neutral, the default mode network of the brain runs an operating system that loops in more negative thoughts and memories, which go around and round diminishing the functions of the brain which could interrupt that looping,” Dr. Brenner says.

The Impact of Negative Thoughts

The ramifications of this negative thought cloud can be detrimental. “Obsessing over a negative thought can become such a focus it can be difficult to engage with what’s happening in life,” says clinical psychologist Kristin Naragon-Gainey, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in The University of Buffalo’s Department of Psychology. “This can lead people to withdraw from who they’re with and what they’re doing.” And not to mention, push other people away. “It can be harder to enjoy things because you’re more tuned in to what could go wrong; it can create friction with other people and fuel even more stress.” Dr. Naragon-Gainey says.

Why Are Some People More Prone to Negative Thoughts?

“Having negative experiences in childhood, as well as adulthood, may strengthen, confirm, and/or create sticky expectations that the world is a negative place,” Dr. Brenner. “Such expectations can come up as negative thoughts, which are defenses against disappointment and other reactions, as well as simply accommodating to the way the world really seems to be,” Dr. Brenner says.

So, for example, someone with a negative thinking parent may internalize those ways of seeing the world and oneself. However, another person in that same situation might respond adaptively by adopting a more positive way of appraising things. From a biological standpoint, less resilient people are more likely to worry and get stuck in negative thinking, Dr. Brenner says.

How To Stop Negative Thoughts

But, the good news is, you don’t have to be stuck in a negative spiral (read that statement again so it sinks in). You can consciously work to turn that Debbie Downer mentality around. And it starts by recognizing your negative ways of thinking.

  • Imagine a stop sign literally. This can help put the brakes on the negative thought as it strikes. “This kind of visualization—of a literal diversion—can help move your attention away from negative thoughts,” Dr. Brenner says. You can also try distracting yourself—listen to music, go for a walk, imagine a positive memory, call a friend. “Switching to another task where you can get absorbed in something more efficacious helps build self-esteem and give you a realistic positive reappraisal.” he says.
  • Be curious, not self-critical. This is a way of being kind to yourself when uncomfortable thoughts come up. “Giving yourself a compassionate pause can serve as a distraction, an interruption, and a way to change the activity of brain networks,” Dr. Brenner says. Studies show, over time, compassion-based practices, such as giving yourself a positive affirmation like, “I’m doing the best I can,” or “I’m being really hard on myself,” can help a great deal to change the way the brain responds to negativity by reducing self-critical thinking and anxiety.
  • Pay attention to the thought itself. Did you ever realize, the more you try not to think about something, the more you, in fact, think about it? “When people try to push negative emotions away, they unintentionally grow stronger,” Dr. Naragon-Gainey says. Studies show being mindful by honoring and accepting the thought and trying to work through it in a constructive way can help resolve the underlying issues. “Practice noticing the thought without jumping to judgement,” she says. Try to understand why thinking this way is problematic. Say things like, “Is this thought accurate? Is this thought helpful?” Taking a cognitive perspective can help you cultivate more accurate and helpful ways of thinking and feeling.


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Last Updated: Jan 7, 2020