It’s nothing earth shattering to point out that negative thoughts can have a negative impact on your life, but did you know that our brains are actually wired to focus on negative thoughts? What is even more surprising is that negative thought patterns actually do physical damage to our brains. This damage only makes breaking the cycle of negative thinking harder to break, but don’t fret – it’s not impossible.
WIRED FOR DESTRUCTION
In an evolutionary sense, our brains are actually wired to focus on negative stimuli instead of positive rewards. Think about it, at one point in our evolutionary journey we were basically wild animals. We had to be wary of all of the environmental dangers around us, and therefore, our brains were developed to focus on threats. A stick snapping in the woods was a sign of a predator, not the potential for a new friend. By being wary and focusing on the worst case scenario, our ancient ancestors survived. Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and best-selling author, writes on his website, “Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly. For example, people in studies can identify angry faces faster than happy ones; even if they are shown these images so quickly (just a tenth of a second or so) that they cannot have any conscious recognition of them, the ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain will still get activated by the angry faces.”
Just like memories are groups of neurons firing together, negative thoughts are groups of neurons that link together in a pattern. As neurons fire in a sequence, they link together and bad memories form faster than good ones. According to Hanson, “The alarm bell of your brain — the amygdala (you’ve got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) — uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory — in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.”
THE PHYSICAL EFFECTS OF NEGATIVE THOUGHTS ON YOUR BRAIN
What’s more interesting than our brains being predisposed to thinking negatively, is the fact that negative thoughts actually physically change our brains. For instance, cortisol – the stress hormone, destroys neurons in the hippocampus, which is responsible for storing memories. Also, once the brain had developed a certain way of thinking it will naturally revert to those patterns when storing new memories. There is a theory that our brains are physically shaped based on what we think and experience. “Experience-dependant Neuroplasty” basically means that the neurons that fire the most become the most sensitive in the brain. Hanson’s theory is that “the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon.”
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Despite our brain’s attempts to hold on to the negative thought patterns that we sometimes get into, there is a way to change the way we think. The simplest way to overcome negative thought patterns is to engage in an activity the occupies your entire brain. Something like a puzzle, crossword, or other cognitive activity can allow your brain to break out of those destructive patterns. Meditation is another great way to break up your thought patterns. truly clearing your brain and relaxing is one of the best things you can do for your overall mental health. Finally, and most importantly, it is important to be mindful of your situation. Mindfulness is a non-judgemental view of everything that is going on around you that can help you really figure out what you need to worry about and what you have no control over. Mindfulness is an active practice, and won’t just happen overnight. Stress management is a skill that can help break your thought patterns out of a negative loop.