Have you ever had a really good day, when everything seems to go right? Maybe you gave a presentation at work and got lots of great feedback. But what if among the great feedback you got one bad comment? Do you focus on the overwhelmingly positive feedback? Or do you dwell on that one negative comment? If it’s the latter, you’re not alone. Most people do.
The brain sees negative information as three times more interesting than positive information. This means we spend more time thinking about negative experiences and the memories of them last longer and are more detailed than positive ones.
From an evolutionary perspective, this helped our ancestors to survive the daily physical dangers that they lived with. If you remember the noise of a wild animal, you know what to do next time you hear it.
But focussing too much on negative thoughts is not great for our mental health.
What can we do about negative thoughts?
The brain is designed for survival and naturally focuses on the negative so it takes effort to give equal attention to the positive. But the more time we spend thinking positively the less we dwell on negative thoughts.
Recognise and reframe negative thoughts. If after an event, you catch yourself automatically thinking negatively (“everything went wrong, I shouldn’t have done…”), stop, and think about some of the things that went right. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help with this.
Celebrate the good things, no matter how small. Share them with friends, write them down, spend time thinking about them, savour them. It’s easy to have a moan about a bad day, but don’t forget the good bits.
Practice mindfulness. Bringing your awareness to the present moment can help to break a negative thought cycle. Regular practice can help to change the way you respond to your thoughts. Watching your breath is a simple practice that can be done anytime.
Practice gratitude. Keeping a gratitude journal or just thinking of three or four things you’re grateful for at the end the day can promote positive thinking and balance out any negatives.
Distract yourself. Sometimes the best way to reduce the power of nagging thoughts is to distract yourself. Do something you enjoy – listen to music, read a book, go for a walk, laugh.