Why do we fixate on the negative?

Imagine waking up in the morning feeling refreshed, the sun is shining in through the window, and you see that today’s weather is going to be perfect. You just picked up groceries yesterday, so you make yourself your favorite meal for breakfast. Today’s plans include going on a hike with a loved one, and you’re excited to spend the day in nature.

On the trail, you feel a nice breeze, and you have the entire landscape to yourself. You and your hiking partner start to have a conversation, and something they say rubs you the wrong way. It’s not anything significant, just enough to make you feel off. It sticks with you for the rest of the day, hijacking your mind, even after the conversation ends. You ruminate on what they meant and makeup stories in your head to further the narrative.

Fast forward one month, six months, a year — what do you remember about that day? The perfect weather? The delicious breakfast? The beautiful nature? No, you most likely remember what was said that made your stomach flip. Your body remembers how you felt, fixating on what went wrong.

If you can relate to this, have you ever wondered why that is? Why do we obsess over the negative? And why is it so hard to get back to a balanced state when something happens to us, whether it’s big or small?

The answer is negativity bias, and it’s something inherent in all humans.

So, what is negativity bias?

Humans are prone to negativity bias, which means that the brain preferentially looks for negative information, or threats, over positive information. It also means we dwell on the negative.

John Gottman of the University of Washington has found that it takes at least five positive interactions within a relationship to make up for just one negative one. If a friend or loved one says five kind things to us and one thing that is frustrating, we’re much more likely to mull over the latter.

Negativity bias is an evolutionary trait from early human history. Paying attention to threats (the bad, the negative, the dangerous) over the positive was a matter of life and death. Those who paid more attention to the dangers around them were more likely to survive, passing this trait down to future generations.

This bias was useful when we were vulnerable to the threats of nature on a consistent basis, but now even as we have evolved, we retain this ancient trait in our brain, which responds involuntarily to any threats that come our way. At one time, this protected us, but now it interferes with our ability to function in the modern world, where the threats we experience are much more subtle (and less life-threatening).

The threats we process now may look like this:

  • seeing your boss calling you unexpectedly
  • being stuck in traffic on your way to an important event
  • a friend not responding to a text
  • a miscommunication with a partner
  • dropping a mug full of coffee
  • confrontation of any kind
  • etc.

Have you ever had a situation like this cause you to react much stronger than you felt appropriate? When an instance of negativity bias is particularly severe, it can lead to something called an amygdala hijack.

What happens when we experience an amygdala hijack?

The amygdala is a collection of cells located near the base of the brain, split between each hemisphere. This is where emotions are given meaning and attached to associations and responses, creating emotional memories. The amygdala is considered part of the brain’s limbic system and is crucial in processing strong emotions like fear and pleasure.

An amygdala hijack is when the fight, flight, or freeze responses activate when we experience something that we perceive as threatening but isn’t actually a threat at all. You might hear your phone buzzing and someone calling unexpectedly. In that instant, you might notice your heart rate increases, your palms begin to sweat, and your breath quickens.

When the amygdala senses danger or a threat, it makes an instantaneous decision to activate the fight, flight, or freeze response by sending out signals to release stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) that prepare your body to fight or run. The release of these hormones leads to the experiences I shared a minute ago: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, racing heart, shaking, sweating, etc.

When cortisol is released, it can physiologically render us incapable of responding rationally, concentrating, or problem-solving for a period of time. This process takes a toll, and it may take several hours to return to our original level of function.

An amygdala hijack can lead to overreacting, saying things we don’t mean, having a panic attack, and irrational behavior. If you’ve ever looked back on an experience and asked yourself, “Why did I react like that?” This might be your answer.

Is there anything I can do to change this?

The good news is, yes. To prevent an amygdala hijack, the first thing we can do is identify the trigger. When we start to feel our bodies go into the initial mode of fight, flight, or freeze — try to pause for around six seconds and take a few deep breaths. This pause, coupled with breathing, helps diffuse the brain chemicals associated with the hijack.

A practice that helps prevent future amygdala hijack is the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is awareness of what’s happening in the present moment, without judgment, but with acceptance. It includes being aware of your feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and the environment around you through a gentle, nurturing, and balanced lens.

When we practice mindfulness, we tune into the present moment. What are we experiencing right now? What are we feeling in the body right now? This keeps us from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

Practices you can do to help:

Settling the Mind is a mindfulness practice that includes settling our attention around a specific anchor. We use an anchor as a way of steadying our attention and remaining present. We’ll be exploring the different types of anchors, allowing you to find what works best for you. This practice is around ten minutes in length. To prepare, find a seated position that allows you to feel supported and at ease while also staying alert and awake. The audio for this practice is here.

Another way to work through negativity bias is through this practice by psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson called Taking in the Good. This practice involves creating more positive experiences for your implicit memory to hold onto, making them a permanent part of you. Here are the three steps of this practice:

1. Turn positive facts into positive experiences.

Wonderful things happen all around us, but much of the time, we don’t notice them. Even when we do, we hardly feel them. Someone is kind to you, you share a meaningful conversation with a friend, you finish a difficult task, you enjoy a walk through nature—and it all just rolls by.

Instead, actively look for good news, particularly the small details of daily life: a deeply rooted tree on a walk, the smell of a home-cooked meal, a happy memory, meeting someone that shares your passion for justice, and so on. Whatever positive tidbits you find, bring mindful awareness to them—open up to them and let them affect you. Think of it like putting on headphones to listen to your favorite song, and closing your eyes to savor the music instead of putting it on as background noise.

2. Savor the experience.

Make positive experiences last by staying with them for 5-20 seconds. Don’t let your attention waver; stay focused on this positive experience. Loyola University psychologist Fred Bryant has shown that savoring positive experiences intensifies our positive response to them. And research by Marc Lewis at the University of Toronto has found that the longer something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger its trace imprints itself into our memory.

Pay close attention to the rewarding aspects of the experience—for example, how good it feels to get lost in a conversation with a friend or loved one. Focusing on these rewards increases dopamine release, making it easier to keep giving the experience your attention. It also strengthens its neural associations in your implicit memory (the information you remember subconsciously or effortlessly). You’re not doing this to cling to the rewards—but rather to internalize them so that you carry them inside you and don’t need to reach for them later.

You can also intensify an experience by deliberately enriching it. For example, suppose you are savoring a relationship experience. In that case, you could call up other feelings of being loved by others, which will help stimulate oxytocin—the “bonding hormone”—and thus deepen your sense of connection. Or you could strengthen your feelings of satisfaction after completing a demanding project by thinking about some of the challenges you had to overcome.

3. Let the experience sink in.

Finally, imagine or feel that the experience is entering deeply into your mind and body, like the sun’s warmth into your clothing or water into a sponge. Keep relaxing your body and absorbing the emotions, sensations, and thoughts of the experience.

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