Think about this for a second – you can frighten yourself… but you can’t tickle yourself. Odd, isn’t it? Why would our bodies prevent us from feeling the positive effects of being tickled, but make it so easy for us to scare ourselves silly? It’s the same with laughing. Have you ever sat all day giggling to yourself? No. And you’d be seen as strange if you did. But we bet that you’ve spent all day worrying about something before… so much so that you ended up frightened.
Why does this happen? It’s evolution. In caveman times, being hypervigilant and alert was the way to survive against physical threats such as predators, and the brain was hardwired to provoke urgent responses and keep us safe. It’s what we term fight or flight. Nowadays, the same level of physical threat doesn’t exist – so we find ourselves responding to the negatives, but not needing the physical response, so it manifests in over-worrying and negative thought patterns.
Psychologists called it ‘negative bias’ and it means that our minds and brains register the effects of negative stimuli much more strongly than positive. Our bodies do too – we cry, we shout, we feel physical pain. Although we have phrases like ‘jump for joy’, we could probably count the number of times we’ve done it in our lives. And that’s not because we’re sad or pessimistic – it’s just that our bodies are scientifically programmed to respond more strongly to bad news than good news.
This is why the media is largely full of negative stories – because they get more attention than positive ones. In daily life, one bad point in an overall good day can take over and be the thing that we remember most and dwell on.
So how do we handle it?
Ways to beat the brain
While this is how we are wired as humans, there are ways that we can beat the brain leading us towards a downward spiral:
◾ Recognise it’s normal: We often beat ourselves up for having a negative outlook on life. But, actually, that’s what we’re supposed to do – or WERE supposed to do to stay alive. Recognising that it’s normal is the first step in giving yourself a break.
◾ Focus on the positives: Nobody wants to simply be told to ‘look on the bright side’ – it’s truly annoying when you’re finding things tough. And mental health issues like depression certainly can’t be solved by simply cheering up. But where and when possible, trying to recognise the positives of a situation can really help change your state of mind.
◾ Distract yourself: When you find yourself ruminating on negative thoughts, actively do something to distract yourself. Choose something you like doing like reading, listening to upbeat music or going for a walk. Mindfulness activities are also becoming an ever more popular way of coping with the strains of modern life.
◾ Replay the positives: Think about the last time something bad happened that you replayed in your head time and time again. A comment from a colleague at work, cross words you had with a friend. Why not do it with the positives too? Next time you get a compliment, replay it over and over again and concentrate on the feeling it provokes in you.
This can be tough. There’s no denying it. It takes significantly more effort to look and recognise the positives than to dwell on the negatives. But being proactive can have huge benefits for your health – both mental and physical.
We’d love to hear about times when you’ve turned your thinking around to focus on the positives. Share in the comments below.