Why is the brain so negative?

What’s your brain’s main job? 

Seems a pretty straightforward question. What do you think it is?

I think your amazing brain’s main job is to keep you safe – not to keep you happy or chilled out note – but to keep you safe. And secure. 

And as you are still here it’s done a pretty good job so far. Sure, life is probably not perfect but at least you’re still breathing. 

Here’s the thing – if you start changing your life and or how you approach your life then your brain will do what it needs to do  – it will resist this and resist it strongly. Think about when you wanted to try to stick at anything new such as a new diet or a new exercise or even a new stress reduction regime but found it too hard so gave up. 

When you put your brain in this position it’ll come up with lots of really good reasons why you should stop trying to change. For example – “This is stupid”, “This just isn’t working”, “There’s no scientific evidence to explain this so it can’t work”, “I just haven’t got time” (this is a BIG one in my experience). And so on. It’ll create and exaggerate the obstacles you have to overcome to stick at the change you want to make. You know this.

Of course, the brain is not your enemy here – it’s just doing its job. To change you must reassure your brain that any changes you wish to bring in to your life are not harmful to you – notice I said ‘not harmful’ rather than ‘good for you eventually’ as the brain wants to keep you safe.

How does your brain work?

Your brain is like you and me of course  – it wants to avoid things that hurts it (and us) and pursue those things that it likes. It chases the carrots and tries to avoid the sticks. How very sensible!!

What are these carrots? Basically any chemical that it is pleasurable – such as dopamine and the opiods with perhaps the best known being endorphins and oxytocin. We like the feelings we get from these so behave in a way to get these released from ourselves – this is why it’s so hard to change some habits (such as giving up chocolate or alcohol) as we have to let go of these pleasurable responses.

And what about the sticks? Well, we want to avoid these if we can and the best strategy the brain has devised is it’s strong bias towards negativity. Yes, your brain, like mine and everyone else’s, is geared towards giving much more weight to negative thoughts, negative comments, negative actions rather than positive ones. You know this – you probably experience this every day. 

It’s been shown that to balance yourself you need between 5 and 7 positive thoughts, comments or actions to counter just one negative one. 

Try doing this: when you think a thought about yourself that you label as negative immediately think of 5 positive thoughts about yourself for a couple of days. This is exhausting as we have so many negative thoughts each day but also very interesting and very rewarding. 

Another thing about the brain is how it stores things away. I’m old enough to remember keeping paper files in cabinets and always hated getting down to the back of the bottom drawer to retrieve a file…..and this is what you brain does with positive experiences. It stores these positive memories in far less accessible places in your memory than for your negative experiences. And it also ensures that those memories you most easily forget are the more positive ones. Does this ring a bell with you at all?

Why does your brain store things in this way – because, remember, its job is to protect you. The best way it can think of of doing this is to ensure you remember the negative memories easily so that you can hopefully avoid repeating the same mistake that hurt you.

Finally, your brain, like all our brains is far, far better at picking up on negative information from people and its surroundings. It’s extra vigilant as it scans what people say or do for signs of danger, and for potential problems. If you’re not sure about this try this little experiment: when you next talk to someone insert a compliment into the conversation and later ask them when the last time someone complemented them. 

So….now you know why people say the brain behaves like Velcro for negative thoughts, words and deeds and Teflon for positive ones! That’s a great image to remember but also please, please, please know and remember that you can change this. You can re-train your brain to be less resistant to change, less negative in its focus and this community aims to do this. You can and will become more positive in your thoughts, words and actions if you bring into your life some or even a lot of the techniques we’ll present in this community. And this change only takes a few weeks although you will need to practice! A lot.

Helping yourself be less negative –  a few thoughts

1. We have about 60 000 thoughts every day – amazing figure isn’t it? And even more amazing is the fact that over 90% of them are the same thoughts as yesterday!! And also amazing is that about 80% of our thoughts are what we would consider to be negative ones. 80%!! I call them NATs – negative automatic thoughts or ANTS automatic negative thoughts – either way when I think a negative thought I see a small gnat or ant  – and I’m not that keen on either insect!

2. Negative thoughts can be about ourselves, other people, the past, the future, whats going on in our life and in the world – basically they can be about anything. And the more stressed, anxious, and possessed of low self esteem we are, the more negative thinking we indulge in.

3. Remember that our thoughts influence our feelings and they influence our behaviours (and the behaviour of others). For example, if you think “I’m useless” you will probably feel low and probably withdraw from other people. You will probably feel isolated, down and lonely which will increase your negative thinking. It’s called a vicious circle.

4. Why are there so many negative thoughts? It’s simple – we need negativity – that’s right. Humans have existed for about 100 000 generations and for 95 000 generations we were hunters and gathers – and during this time being suspicious, worried about what we encountered kept us alive and it was these people that passed on their genes successfully. The optimists who were very trusting and tried anything would be the ones who probably died young so their genes were passed down less successfully. So, there is an in-built tendency in humans to scan for danger, and then to preferentially store negative experiences in our memories. 

5. So, we have a natural, genetic bias to hold onto negative experiences and negative feelings far more easily than positive ones – its been likened to Teflon for positive and Velcro for negative. It’s natural but the good news is that we can do lots and lots about it because there are far fewer things to be truly worried about in the modern world. Of course, the mind is a clever old thing and even though there are fewer wild animals chasing us today we still scan for dangers and guess what – we find them in bucketloads – nasty people, threats to the environment, to our income, to our physical sense and so on. And their presence is highlighted by the media of course. And our mind is so clever that even if there are no threats we will conjure some up in our mind. So we have just traded in the old worries for newer ones and even learnt to imagine them over the course of the last 5 000 generations.

6. But we can change our reactions to these threats.  If we wish to. And if we are committed to – it takes like so many things hard work. And is tiring. But it’s so worth it – after all, you wouldn’t want to watch the same dreadful film time and again – so let’s stop playing and replaying our negative memories, mistakes, experiences, comments etc. Let’s take charge of our thoughts! Let’s drastically reduce our negativity!

 7. Now,  when our emotional palette is composed of mostly just one colour – let’s say a dark colour – then it can rapidly become pretty self-fulfilling. Because we notice those things, recollect those memories, have those fears, and interpret what we see, hear and feel in a way that matches our mood and then we hold onto those. The brain has to work like this because it gets about 2 million bits of info every second and can only process less than 15  so it selects those bits of reality that matches its view of the world. If you have a negative view of the world, you will find lots of evidence to support this viewpoint. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious circle. If we feel down then all our experiences are interpreted in the light of this mood and are thereby reinforced  – if we feel down we fear the worst,  and expect the worst and this inevitably leads to us  blaming ourselves even more. A truly vicious circle. But it’s served us OK until now, we’re still here after all so why change it?

8. Because we know that our outlook on life influences our health – for example optimists live longer than pessimists by several years on average  – pessimists tend to lack a good dose of self-esteem, are more prone to immune-related diseases and take longer to heal.  You know that your emotional state plays a big role in your physical and emotional life which is probably why you want to have a go at this 21 day challenge. This is a good start!

9. You also know that this mind-body link is extremely powerful – how you think, act and feel really does impact on your body. And it’s a two-way relationship so if you feel in a low mood your body will suffer which makes you feel lower, if your body is in pain then your mood will lower – a vicious circle.     

10. However, the good news is that there are lots and lots of techniques that can help you to reduce and eventually cut out your negative thinking. Yep, cut it out pretty much entirely. And then you will be happier, have more confidence in yourself, be healthier, and develop better relationships with people.. 

11. Before we look at the daily techniques and the visualisations of the 21 day challenge just think about how you can identify thoughts as negative thoughts. This might seem odd as you know you have a lot of them but bear with me as this is an important point to grasp at this time. 

Bring to mind one of your more common negative areas of thought and see whether it matches one or more of the following ideas:

  • extreme thinking – this is when there is no middle ground – when you use words like never, always, nobody, all the time and phrases like ‘a complete disaster’, ‘totally useless’. This type of thinking doesn’t allow you to think you and what you do or have done are OK, or fine, or satisfactory – this thinking interpret these states as you being dreadful, terrible, pathetic, and so on. Extreme language because you can not reach the highlands of ‘perfection’ – who can?
  • labelling yourself using generalisations – this is when something happens once or a few times and you believe therefore it will always happen – e.g. you’ve failed your driving test a couple of times and you think you’ll never pass and therefore you’ll never get a decent job, or partner. Then you may even go on to label yourself as ‘totally useless’ and stop even trying because ‘what’s the point?
  • focusing on only those bits of reality that fit your negative viewpoint – and ignoring all the other good, supportive stuff. In fact you may notice the good stuff but you do not value it – for example when someone smiles at you you may not notice it or think it’s not meant for you or they are being sarcastic
  • predicting the future – for example not going to talk to someone you like because you know it won’t work out because it never does – if you really can tell the future why not try a Lottery?
  • knowing what the other person or people are thinking and that this is that you are stupid, slow, odd and so on 
  • seeing your negativity as the truth – for example ‘I feel lonely because I am not worthy’ ‘I feel bad so I must be a bad person’
  • taking the responsibility for things that are not your responsibility for example “I must have deserved to be treated to so badly in some way’

It is by spotting your negative thoughts, identifying them, that you are able to put some perspective so you can start to challenge them. You start to realise that you can observe your thoughts without being involved in them, without being overwhelmed by them. BUT remember, and this is a vital, vital point to remember,  spot the negative thoughts without judging yourself as weak, a failure, etc because everyone has lots of lots of negative thoughts every day and they are entirely natural.

12. Now you have looked at how your negative thinking an be spotted by looking at the causes behind your reaction to comments, situations and so on ..now you begin to challenge – to challenge your negative thinking – and this is a skill that can be learnt. And once you’ve practiced it for a while then it will become second nature to you and eventually the negative thoughts just stop appearing. Honest.

How do you do this? Simply by interrogating how true or rational the thought is. For example ask yourself some questions: “Do I have all the information I need to reach any conclusion on this matter?”…..”Is the evidence O have the truth?”….”Does the evidence I have support my conclusion?”…”Have I really looked at the evidence against this conclusion properly?”….”Am I underestimating my ability to cope?”….”Am I over-exaggerating the chance of something bad happening?”…”What would someone I admire think in this situation?”  …..

13. OK now you’ve got the idea  let’s get into this 21 day challenge  – it has been designed to give you practical and easy techniques which will be effective – they really do work  but, and this is a big but perhaps, they need practicing and you mustn’t expect them to work overnight. Over the 21 days of this challenge you will begin to alter your natural tendency towards negativity, you will begin to train your brain the way you wish it to be, you will make a great start at breaking the vicious circle you have been in for some time now. You will become less self-critical, less fearful and less pessimistic. You will become more positive, more self-supporting, have higher self-esteem and your overall mood will rise. You will feel better…….

But please, please, please don’t expect it to be either easy or a steady upward curve of improvement. Stick at it. And try to stick at it without judging yourself, without being hard on yourself because you haven’t ‘cracked it’ yet. But you will, because you can!