The science of negative thoughts and how to stop them

By Kate Hassett

The science of negative thoughts and how to stop them
Science explains why we dwell on negative thoughts and find it so hard to let go.

Have you ever been asked to recall a specific incident, memories from a holiday or past experiences only to think of negative ones?

When someone asked you about your break in Europe do you find yourself being more likely to respond with a horror story of a noisy hotel, the time you nearly lost your passport or when you had your wallet stolen on the train?

Our likelihood to recall negative experiences over positive ones can be explained by examining how each memory is processed in our brains.

According to science, recalling negative experiences or stressful situations is easier to do in greater detail because of the way those experiences affect us.

In a study conducted by Professor Teresa M. Amabile of the Harvard Business School, findings pointed to the ability for a single negative setback, to have double the effect of a positive experience, in terms of memory recall.

This tends to explain why something that could be considered tiny in the grander scheme of things, can seem impossible to shake, even hours, months or years later.

The brain and negative thoughts

This doesn’t mean however, that we are all pessimists or incapable of recounting the positive aspects of our lives.

Instead it just means that these memories are stronger and are kept in a more easily accessible part of the brain.

According to Professor Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, the ability to recall negative experiences over more positive ones comes down to our ‘hardwiring’.

“Research over and over again shows this is a basic and wide-ranging principle of psychology,” he writes in his paper “Bad is Stronger Than Good”.

“It’s in human nature, and there are even signs of it in animals,”

“Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”

However, it’s not all bad. Negativity doesn’t necessarily win out every time.

“Many good events can overcome the psychological effects of a bad one,” according to Baumeister.

So how can we overcome negative thoughts when they cease to be productive?

Change direction

If negative thoughts are building up without hope of reprieve, then it might be time to distract yourself into a better frame of mind.

Go out with friends, take a walk or simply take up an activity.

All of these things can help clear a worried mind and if even just for a few hours, take your mind off the negative and make room for positive.

Acknowledge and accept

By acknowledging that this too shall pass, you have accepted the negative connotations of your thoughts and paved the way for positivity to enter afterwards.

By learning to accept that sometimes we can not control what happens, it can be easier to move past bad situations.

Don’t blame yourself

By allowing negative circumstances to rule your life you are treating yourself badly.

Instead of focussing on the one bad thing that happened at work or home today, focus on the other good things that happened around that.

Instead of focussing on the failures, believe in yourself and know that we will all fail sometimes, but it’s how we respond, that matters.

Learn more about ways to bring positivity into your life here. 


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