A rough area which I think plagues many people, particularly in an information age rife with negative and frightening news, is the aspect of thinking and conversely, the focus on thinking negatively.
It’s very easy for us to focus on things that are negative or a threat to our very survival. There is an argument in psychology that makes the claim that the brain has a negativity bias – something I can agree with only to the extent that free will is also understood and recognized, as without free will we cannot actually change our thinking methods, and suddenly the negativity bias becomes a permanent crutch of doom and gloom.
When the negativity bias is spoken about, it’s not so much because we are naturally inclined to be negative about our lives, but rather we focus on events that are detrimental because it directly impacts our lives, and thereby our survival as human beings.
Take for example an injury or traumatic event. Why is it so hard to break away from those kinds of events? It’s because we’re wired to learn to avoid those kinds of events again because it threatens our lives in some way. We’re learning to survive in relation to things that can quickly take our lives away. You can recognize this kind of reaction through people who suffer from PTSD and other mental disorders – it’s not that they are inherently negative people (and something we have to be very careful to distinguish), but the memories and sensory data they have taken in from that event were of such high significance that it taught them not just an extremely harsh and serious lesson, but is also easily triggered because of its significance. The brain is an associative machine – it connects and integrates concepts together and rapidly. Those concepts are in the form of neurons in the brain, and the more they fire off together, the more they wire up together. I’ve written about this before in some other posts, but essentially the brain can create extraordinarily complex neural networks where one thing is associated to thousands of other things. Just think of a sensation such as the smell of coffee, and how, maybe at a certain time of day it’ll remind you of a specific memory or feeling from several years ago. It’s absolutely fascinating how amazing the brain is. Conversely, that associative structure the brain has can actually lead to very unusual triggers for things such as PTSD – that breeze in the wind might be the same kind of sensation felt during a traumatic event and boom, there’s a trigger right there.
But again, the “negativity bias” isn’t a permanent thing and it’s important to recognize we as human beings are not naturally “negative” – it’s a survival mechanic that we overuse because we don’t choose to focus on other things. You can change how to look at the world and how to treat yourself via shifting to a responsive, positive state. The best way to describe this is by thinking of weeds and flowers. If you focus only on the weeds in a garden, you often forget to look for the beautiful flowers that are growing and blossoming in the sun. But free will allows you to focus your awareness on other things – and once you begin to focus on those flowers, the weeds look a whole lot smaller, and sometimes you even begin pulling them out, replacing them with new, fresh seeds.
That’s part of how you solve the problem of negative thinking – it’s a matter of understanding that you can focus your awareness on different things. It’s a cognitive reframing of how you’re looking at life. When waking up in the morning, choose to notice the things you like around you, and that could be literally anything. Something I noticed this morning is how blue the morning sky is. After that, I paid attention to the beautiful purple shade that one of my shirts has.
These things are just aspects of the world around me, but they please me – they make me look at the world from an angle of appreciation and curiosity, rather than from disdain. I have somewhat of a neck problem which I’m working to resolve – every morning it’s a bit sore. I notice it and acknowledge it’s a thing, but it’s not the focus of my day. I choose to focus on getting to drink my coffee, doing my morning yoga routine and listening to my music, instead.
That sets me up for a day that I look forward to getting through. Just keep in mind that positive thinking isn’t about ignoring the weeds. This is why thinking “calm” thoughts during an anxiety hit doesn’t work – you’re ignoring the fact of your feelings while working to think “calm” thoughts. But then you remind yourself why you think of calm thoughts and..oh right, you’re anxious! The brain is associative, so it’s not possible for you to simply delete particular concepts you don’t quite like. The point is to focus on the concepts that are good. You can hold anxiety and the beautiful girl at the cafe both in awareness, and make that pretty lady and her smile much more important. Make the sweet things big and the sour things small.
Life is a storm of both great times and hard times – but the point is to focus your awareness on the more important part of life, which is the good. You may not have control over some events that happen, but you most certainly have control on how you respond to them. Over time this becomes a more natural thing for you to do, because remember: neurons that fire together, wire together! When you’re ruminating or looking at something from a negative perspective, try to focus in and stop yourself, recognizing the positive aspects around you. The darker side of life is already pretty well understood – so put your sights on what really matters to you, which is what makes life good.
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