Do you ever have those days when everything feels like a problem? When the voice inside your head has nothing good to say and it’s all just too much effort? Some days it seems like my internal dialogue is a slow moving train of negativity, trundling around the track in my head, belching up clouds of obnoxious smoke as it chunters and grumbles (in a predominantly Cumbrian accent) about anything and everything.
Imagine my relief when I discovered that rather than being an unfortunate part of my personality, this negativity is actually a biological function of my brain; apparently, the human brain is pre-programmed by evolution to have a bias towards negativity. This helps it identify external threats. I can see how it was useful in cave dwelling days when I could be a tiger’s lunch, but it serves less of a purpose when I’m worrying I might have said the wrong thing, or I’m stressing that our house renovations will never end.
As well as dwelling and catastrophizing, it seems our brains give more weight to negative events and outcomes than positive ones; so even if I’ve had an okay day and one bad thing happens, then I’m likely to condemn that day to the pile of crappy days. We all know the news is biased towards negative stories, but it turns out even if I actively look for positive news, I’ll still remember the negative stories more! My daughter has managed to bike to school safely on her own for a while now and yet every morning she clambers onto her bike I find myself remembering horror stories I’ve heard about children being abducted or involved in road traffic accidents.
It’s all sounding a bit, well, negative, isn’t it? It’s not all bad news though; it turns out it’s possible to train our brains to challenge negative thoughts. I’ve been doing this in a few different ways for a while now and I have to say it’s starting to pay off.
If I’m dwelling on something then redirection is a good tactic and music helps me most. I have a playlist called ‘beef casserole’ (must’ve made it when I was cooking) and the songs on it remind me of places I’ve been, people I love and good times in my life. My favourite track on there at the moment is Alabama Pines by Jason Isbell because it makes me think of my Dad, who’s always introducing me to new music; this then connects my mind to happy memories of going to gigs with my parents, listening to music with them, of my Mum dancing in the kitchen (she’s a good mover) and this guides me away from whatever it is I was dwelling on.
If I’m ruminating about some imagined future problem then I’ll try to bring myself back to the present by noticing something positive around me, however small; tonight it was the moon, which was startlingly bright. When I’m projecting negative future outcomes I also like to remind myself that I’m not actually psychic and no matter how much I worry about some future event I cannot impact the future with anxious thoughts (same goes for the past).
When I’m feeling overwhelmed by things I can’t control right now (like the state of our building site – I mean our house), then I’ll try to focus on something within my control, like lighting the log burner every night, which helps this building site feel like home and allows me to make peace with the rest.
I recently gave a repeat listen to a podcast episode I found really inspirational; in her podcast How to Fail, Elizabeth Day interviewed former Google X executive Mo Gawdat. Mo developed an equation for happiness and after the death of his son during a routine operation he resolved to share his equation with at least ten million people. There were so many lightbulb moments in this podcast, but my biggest take away was when Mo identified that one of the main obstacles to human happiness is that we identify too much with our thoughts, particularly the negative ones.
He tells it like this; our brains are a biological organ; our thoughts are a product of that organ (and we’ve already established they’re pre-programmed to be more negative than positive), but our thoughts are not always truth and they are most certainly not ‘us’. Mo personifies his brain, he calls it Becky and when Becky starts trash talking he calls her out and asks her what evidence there is that what she’s telling him is true.
I love a good personification so I tried this for a while in my journaling; I called my brain Brian (original I know), and if I started to worry, catastrophize or berate myself in my journal entries I’d type, ‘oh, hello Brian’, and that would prompt me to look again at what I was typing and consider its validity; was it a fact or was it perhaps a matter of perspective; a product of my brain’s negativity bias?
Since my awareness of my thinking patterns has been developing so too has my awareness of my negative thought patterns. This doesn’t mean I can always stop negative thoughts, but it does mean I’m getting better at recognising them, which usually stops my chunter train from building up too much steam.
My goal is not to be positive all the time, how exhausting would that be?! It’s more about awareness; if I’m more aware of my thoughts and their proclivity towards negativity, then I can question them (is what you’re telling me true Brian or did you just make that up?) and uncover the areas in my life where I want to make changes, whilst making peace with the things I can’t change.
Elizabeth Day (2020) How to Fail: Mo Gawdat [How to Fail] 24/04/19 Series 4 Episode 4 access at https://podcasts.apple.com
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (2011) Alabama Pines, Here we Rest copyright 2019 Southeastern Records