Do you tend to imagine bad things that haven't happened yet? Do you replay arguments in your head over and over? Or have trouble shaking off a bad mood? You're not alone. Find out why we have so many negative thoughts and what they do to our health.
The fear and trepidation you feel when the phone rings in the middle of the night, the anxiety you get when your boss calls you for a one-on-one meeting, the mistake you keep fixating on, the argument you keep replaying in your head… Do any of these sound familiar?
Why do these situations have the power to dominate our thinking and even change the course of a day? Why do we have so many negative thoughts?
Answer: for the same reason the media is plagued with negative news. Your brain is designed to prioritize the negative.
Suppose you have a wonderful day where 20 good things happen, but when you get home, you have a fallout with your partner. What are you most likely to think about when you go to bed that night?
Chances are (and research suggests) it’s the argument. But why?
Why do We Have Negative Thoughts?
The short answer to this question is: because we’re human.
The tendency to dwell on the negative is many times attributed to problems like depression, insecurity, or overthinking, and, of course, those things don’t add any joy to our lives, but there’s more to the story. Because it turns out the human brain is wired for negativity.
You read that right. Having constant bad thoughts is not a flaw of character or a bad habit – it’s a genetic endowment and all humans share it. It even has a name: the negativity bias.
What is the Negativity Bias?
The negativity bias is our natural tendency to pay more attention to negative information, remember negative events more vividly than positive ones, and respond more strongly to negative stimuli.
There’s a logic to it. For starters, our attention is selective by nature – we can’t focus fully on two things at the same time (that’s why multitasking is extremely hard). For a fun demonstration of how selective our attention is, check out the following video.
Even though our brain can perceive most of what’s going on around us, we can’t pay attention to everything, so we have to pick. And the brain is designed to pick the negative over the positive.
Why? Well, in the early days of human history, paying attention to danger and threats in the environment (“negative” things) was literally a matter of life and death. The caveman who heard a loud noise, got worried, and anticipated that there could be a wild animal lurking around had more chances of survival than the caveman who dismissed the sign and went about his business.
As Dr. Rick Hanson explains: “Over hundreds of millions of years, it was a matter of life and death to pay extra attention to sticks (i.e. threats), react to them intensely, remember them well, and over time become even more sensitive to them.”
That’s why negative information weighs more heavily on the brain, and why we learn more quickly from and remember bad experiences more than good ones. So that downward spiral of dread, anxiety, and negative thoughts you had over a hurtful comment? Thank your ancestors.
Research shows that negative stimuli elicit a larger brain response than positive ones. And the amygdala (an emotional center in the brain related to the fight-or-flight response) uses around two-thirds of its neurons to detect negativity and quickly store it into long-term memory. Negative stimuli are also detected more easily and quickly than positive ones.
Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, and Catrin Finkenaue have found that "bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good,” with almost no exceptions.
This psychological phenomenon explains, for example, why a single negative review can ruin the reputation of a business, why trauma and negative experiences have such a grip on our well-being, and why a single setback can become the most salient part of an otherwise perfectly nice day.
Of course, nowadays we aren’t surrounded by as much danger as our stone-age forebears (contrary to what the news may try to convince you of, we live in the safest era humans have ever seen), so that much negativity just gets in the way and, when unchecked, it can prevent us from leading happy, fulfilling lives.
There’s an added problem: even though we all have negative thoughts from time to time, many people are addicted to negativity. Complaining, victimhood, and drama can become your go-to behaviors, most likely because that’s what you learned from your role models when you were growing up. Over time, these coping mechanisms get wired into your brain, and you become addicted to the hormones and neurotransmitters released in response to those emotions and behaviours.
Effects of Negative Thinking on Health
The negativity bias has lasting effects on many aspects of our lives. Having constant negative thoughts makes us worried, irritated, and stressed – emotions that have become rampant in modern society. It also contributes to problems such as depression, low self-esteem, and social anxiety.
But it’s not just our emotions or thoughts that suffer the consequences. Naturally, spending the day ruminating about worst-case scenarios also takes its toll on the body. The stress response activated by having constant negative thoughts sends the body into survival mode and causes the release of cortisol (the stress hormone), which is great to deal with short-term stressors, but has serious implications if we remain in stress, as it happens when you have a negative mindset.
Some common effects of negative thinking on the body are:
- Increased likelihood of degenerative brain diseases
- Digestive issues
- Cardiovascular problems
- Decreased immune function (you’re more likely to get sick)
- Sleep problems
- Changes in metabolism
Prolonged bouts of negativity also make it harder to recover from sickness and make you more likely to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, smoking), and over/under-eating.
Having a negative mindset also affects our mood and it can look like:
- Anxiety and irritability
- Lower mood and vitality
The impact of automatic negative thoughts is so inescapable that we are more motivated to do things to avoid something bad than to achieve something good.
Not even language is immune to it: research shows that languages across the globe have more negative words than positive ones because negative words signal threats in the environment that we need to pay attention to in order to survive.
Just as important, our focus on negativity has damaging effects not only on ourselves but also on those around us. Think of that coworker who’s always complaining and is irritable all the time. How do you feel around them?
We drain each other’s energy. When you’re surrounded by people with a negative mindset, you get dragged down into lower-level emotions. And we can -unconsciously- do the same to others. It’s contagious.
Becoming aware of our natural -and learned- tendency to think negatively can help us understand not only ourselves but also others. This is especially important to remember around the people closest to you: they also have a brain wired for negativity and have probably learned unhealthy coping mechanisms in childhood too. This is an opportunity to practice compassion.
We all have unhelpful thoughts from time to time, it’s part of life. The key is to become aware of what they’re there for, keep them in check, and know what to do when they appear so they don’t mess up your day – and health.
If you sometimes find yourself thinking “why am I so negative”, the answer is in your biology. And it’s not just you, it’s every person on this planet.
The human brain has evolved to focus and place more importance on negative information and events, a phenomenon called “negativity bias”.
The effects of negative thinking can be seen in almost every aspect of our lives at the cognitive, emotional, and physical levels, from anxiety and irritability to fatigue and increased likelihood of disease.
This tendency is wired in our brains. Not only is it normal, but it also has a function: it helps us survive and avoid potentially fatal situations (if the smoke alarm goes off, you will want to pay attention). But in order to live a more balanced life, it’s necessary to keep our negative thought patterns in check so they don’t ru(i)n our lives.
Even though we might not be able to override this bias completely, we can learn how to rewire the brain to balance things out a bit – for the sake of everyone.
If you would like to learn how to deal with negative thoughts and negativity from others, check out our next article, and stay tuned for more information on science-based healing and wellness.