Our brains are naturally pessimistic as part of a primitive and protective mechanism called negativity bias. From an evolutionary standpoint, this protective aspect has been essential for our survival. When we needed to evade predators, picking up on small threats in our environment extended our lives. However, in this modern age, we are no longer trying to avoid saber-toothed cats and the like, so this heightened awareness is no longer as essential as it once was.
In a given day, we experience a myriad of equally positive and negative events; however, when we give more weight to the adverse events, negativity bias is at play. Fretting over a negative comment someone made is hardly a threat to safety; however, it's not uncommon for us to ruminate about it for hours and give little or no attention to the positive or neutral comments of the day, which can result in spiraling into more and more negative thoughts.
Negativity bias can also impact our ability to make decisions when we give more attention to the possible negative aspects or outcomes. When excessive time is put into our thought process resulting in delaying a decision or not making a decision at all, this is often referred to as analysis paralysis.
Typically, everyone is affected by negativity bias. However, some people may experience a stronger negativity bias than others, such as people struggling with a mood disorder, chronic stress, and those who have experienced past trauma.
We can gain control over this primitive brain mechanism by mindfully going about our day. Simply noticing the quality of our thoughts can help us achieve a calmer state. Once we notice a negative thought, we can try the following:
Perspective Shifting/Cognitive Reframing
Ask yourself “Is there another way to view this situation?” Think of at least two different perspectives to take on the situation or circumstance and then notice how differently you feel as you consider this alternative. Reframing our thoughts is a helpful tool and repeatedly doing so can result in a decrease in negative thoughts and a more optimistic outlook in general.
Proof or Truth Testing
You can also try truth testing the negative thought. Typically, negative and anxious thoughts are largely fictional. If a friend doesn't return your call, rather than assume they are upset with you or avoiding you, ask what proof you have that this is the case. We are typically incorrect when we make assumptions.
Relying on Resilience
Finally, it can help to keep in mind that our natural state isn't to succumb to negative events and completely fall apart to the point of no return. Resilience tends to be the default, which means that we will continue to put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes it's as simple as telling ourselves “I'm going to be okay.”