This recent series of posts has used the example of Stephen Colbert’s satirical “March to Keep Fear Alive” as a timely illustration of a larger point: humans evolved to be fearful — a major feature of the brain’s negativity bias that helped our ancestors pass on their genes. Consequently, as much research has shown, we’re usually much more affected by negative — by which I mean painful — experiences than by positive ones.
Besides the personal impacts of this bias in the brain, it also makes people, and nations, vulnerable to being manipulated by threats, both real ones and “paper tigers.” Colbert is mocking those who play on fear, since we surely don’t need more efforts to keep fear alive.
Your Brain on Negative
Painful experiences range from subtle discomfort to extreme anguish — and there is a place for them. Sorrow can open the heart, anger can highlight injustices, fear can alert you to real threats, and remorse can help you take the high road next time.
But is there really any shortage of suffering in this world? Look at the faces of others, or your own, in the mirror, and see the marks of weariness, irritation, stress, disappointment, longing and worry. There’s plenty of challenge in life already — including unavoidable illness, loss of loved ones, old age and death — without needing a bias in your brain to give you an extra dose of pain each day.
Yet as my last post explored, your brain evolved exactly such a “negativity bias” in order to help your ancestors pass on their genes — a bias that produces lots of collateral damage today.
The Price of Pain
Painful experiences are more than passing discomforts. They produce lasting harms to your physical and mental health. When you’re feeling frazzled, pressured, down, hard on yourself or simply frustrated, that:
- Weakens your immune system
- Impairs nutrient absorption in your gastrointestinal system
- Increases vulnerabilities in your cardiovascular system
- Decreases your reproductive hormones; exacerbates PMS
- Disturbs your nervous system
Consider the famous saying: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that repeated painful experiences — even mild ones — tend to:
- Increase pessimism, anxiety and irritability
- Lower your mood
- Reduce ambition and positive risk-taking
In a couple, upsetting experiences foster mistrust, heightened sensitivity to relatively small issues, distance and vicious cycles. At much larger scales — between groups or nations — they do much the same.
So don’t take painful experiences lightly, neither the ones you get nor, honestly, the ones you give. Prevent them when you can, and help them pass through when you can’t.
Reducing negative experiences entails taking action in three domains: in the world (including your relationships), in your body and in your mind. All are important. In this brief post, I’m focusing on some things you can do in your mind — and those things are just a small fraction of all the resources available in the self help section of any bookstore.
For starters, take a stand for yourself, for feeling as good as you reasonably can. A stand for bearing painful experiences when they walk through the door — and a stand for encouraging them to keep on walking, all the way out of your mind.
This is not being at war with discomfort or distress, which would just add negativity, like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Instead, it is being kind to yourself, wise and realistic about the toxic effects of painful experiences.
In effect, you’re simply saying to yourself something you’d say to a dear friend in pain: I want you to feel better, and I’m going to help you. Try saying that to yourself in your mind right now. How does it feel?
When emotional pain does come, even softly, try to hold it in a large space of awareness. In a traditional metaphor, imagine stirring a big spoon of salt into a cup of water and then drinking it: yuck. But then imagine stirring that spoonful into a clean bucket of water and then drinking a cup: it’s the same amount of salt — the same amount of worry or frustration, feeling inadequate or blue — but held in a larger context. Notice that awareness is without any edges, boundless like the sky, with thoughts and feelings passing through.
In your mind, watch out for how negative information, events or experiences can seem to overpower positive ones. For example, researchers have found that people typically will work harder or put up with more crud to avoid losing something than to gain the same thing. And they feel more contaminated by one fault than they feel cleansed or elevated by several virtues. Try to switch this around; for instance, pick some of your good qualities and keep seeing how they show up in your life this week.
Be careful whenever you feel stymied, frustrated or disappointed. As Martin Seligman and others have shown, humans (and other mammals) are very vulnerable to what’s called “learned helplessness” — developing a sense of futility, immobilization and passivity. Focus on where you can make a difference, where you do have power; it may only be inside your own mind, but that’s better than nothing at all.
In your relationships, be mindful of reacting more strongly to one negative event than to a bunch of positive ones. For example, studies have shown that it typically takes several positive interactions to make up for a single negative encounter. Pick an important relationship, and then really pay attention to what’s working in it; let yourself feel good about these things. Deal with the problems in this relationship, sure, but keep them in perspective.
Overall, whenever you remember, deliberately tilt toward the positive in your mind. That’s not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Given the negativity bias in the brain, you’re only leveling the playing field.
My next post will tackle a key consequence of the negativity bias: threat reactivity, which has many bad effects, including “paper tiger paranoia.” Following posts will explore more ways to address the negativity bias, from activating the soothing and recharging parasympathetic nervous system to mobilizing more of your inner resources to address the real challenges our planet faces.
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Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and Huffington Post, and he is the author of the best-selling Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. He writes a weekly newsletter – Just One Thing – that suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.