Button-style symbols representing positive and negative

Stressed? Anxious? Irritable? Balancing Your Brain’s Negativity Bias

Fear, and even stress, are essential – to a certain degree. They keep us alive by insisting we pay attention to potential dangers and threats. However, living with too much fear – and fear’s conjoined twin, anger – leaves us living lives that are small, miserable, and stressed.

In order to protect you, your brain has what’s called a negativity bias. The bottom line for survival, the first order of business, is to make sure you don’t die, right? In order to be good at surviving, then, you have to be good at detecting threats, and then to make sure they take hold: “Hey, that place over there is where the lions hang out – so don’t ever go there.”

Bad things – negative things, potential threats– are essential to notice and remember for survival.

From a strict survival perspective, your nervous system’s Prime Directive is to make sure you don’t get hit over the head. Joys, sources of good stuff – like the smell of fresh-mown grass, or the smile of your child — is “non-essential” for the Prime Directive. Good things aren’t essential for “not dying,” so the brain doesn’t need to hold on to them in order to keep you alive.

As a result, as my friend and fellow neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones”; we also tend to overestimate threats, not because we’re neurotic, but because we’re wired to pay attention to danger more than the delight of a cool, sunny day.

Or, to look at it another way, we’re wired to respond when someone says, “Be afraid! Be very afraid!” than we are when someone else says, “Look at how much good there is in the world.”

So, what if you want to live in a way that’s about more than fear and survival? Living in reality, in a way that includes joy, connection, creativity, and thriving?

For that, your brain needs some practice to balance out the negativity bias. You need to be able to use all of the parts of your brain – not just your threat-detection-and-response pathways, but also the pathways that help you feel calm, wise, strong, and resilient. Some ways to do that:

Accurately assess: Is there an actual danger? Am I (or my information sources) overestimating threats? Assess the motives of the sources from which the constant shouts of alarm are coming at you. Use your frontal lobes and higher-level thinking – more than your amygdala “alarm button” – to assess the source of information, and whether or not the messages of fear are valid.

(An example: A few years ago, I had a viral infection hit my inner ear, leaving me with a lousy case of vertigo. After awhile, I was able to function pretty well (not fall down, not throw up) as long as I didn’t move my eyes or my head much – making driving impossible. I arranged for a car to drive me to the office. In order to prevent the overwhelming dizziness that came from being in the back seat of a moving car, I closed my eyes during the trip. One morning, the driver had on the audio feed for a television news program (and not even one of the famously inflammatory ones). With my eyes closed, I was stunned to really hear all of the myriad and powerful ways the audio was designed to hit my amygdala, the alarm button of my nervous system: Fast-paced, threatening music (dun-dun-DUNNNNN), verbal warnings with only a teasing hint of what dire things I should stay tuned for to protect my loved ones, anxious and imperative voices, rapid fire shifts from one story to another so I had no way to calmly assess what was actually a threat and what wasn’t. If I didn’t STAY TUNED to their program, I might miss “vital” information (or die?). By the time I arrived at work, I knew I needed to recalibrate.)

Balance out the negativity bias: It takes a lot more awareness and attention to the “positives” (or even “neutrals”) to balance out the natural negativity bias. Make it a habit to notice the positives and neutrals, hold them in your awareness for 10-20 seconds before moving on, to help them “stick” better in your nervous system.

Exercise your ability to make a positive difference: Experiencing not only the positive connection to your community, but also a sense of “agency” – your ability to choose how you navigate and shape the world – help inoculate you from a sense of despair, isolation, and helplessness.

Avoid getting hijacked by negative events in relationships: Certainly, relationships require that we address problems, but keep in mind that it can take at least several positive experiences with a loved one to “balance out” the effect of just one negative one – the negativity bias at work. Think of it this way: Getting frightened by a horse once will stick in your memory more than a dozen lovely times on horseback.

Rewire your brain toward the positive (or at least the neutral): I’m not suggesting we all become Pollyannas, or ostriches with our heads in the sand. However, keep in mind that whatever we ask our brains to do the most, that’s where the highway funds go for building pathways and turning things from a dirt road into a smooth-running road. There’s great research suggesting that we all have a kind of “set point” for the ratio of brain activity in areas that focus on the negative and areas that allow us to be more positive, more resilient, and more likely to approach rather than withdraw. With practice, you can shift that ratio’s “set point.” It does take conscious practice. (Simple examples: Hold a positive experience in your mind for 10-12 seconds; notice all of your senses during positive experiences, which helps register and store the positive memories in more ways.) This is why the mindfulness practices I recommend to my patients can be so helpful – here are three you can try:

This is about far more than “the power of positive thinking” – it’s about consciously, mindfully choosing where to send the highway funds to literally (yes, literally) build better, more resilient pathways in your brain, and balancing out your basic survival instincts, so you can move beyond merely surviving, and into thriving.