Why we have negative thoughts and how to change them
Have you caught yourself thinking negatively about yourself or a situation you have no control over? You may like to know, you’re not alone. Fear, shame, guilt, distress and sadness are some of the negative emotions that many people experience during difficult times.
While they may be unpleasant, negative emotions have a very important purpose- allowing us to survive as a species. Humanity has relied on these powerful emotions to protect us from danger and remain an essential part of our evolution. However, there is a substantial downside to this survival mechanism. This evolutionary mechanism in our brains, known as the Negativity Bias, makes us pay more attention to the negative experiences or things in our life compared to the positive experiences. There’s a good reason for this. For survival, our ancestors had to be more aware of life-threatening risks such as predators. Paying too much attention to the positive things around them (that did not pose a threat) made no sense when survival was a day-to-day proposition.
Fortunately, life is much safer in the 21st century. But the Negativity Bias is still alive and well in the primitive part of our brain. Our brains are, in fact, hardwired to ‘Velcro’ the negatives and ‘Teflon’ the positives. This can cause problems for us by creating an unhealthy positive-to-negative emotional ratio, which can contribute to mental illness.
The good news? Research suggests that we can improve our positive to negative emotional ratio and the ill-effects of Negativity Bias. By applying simple, evidence-based strategies, we can feel better and function well more often.
Automatic Negative Thoughts (aka ANTs) are thinking traps or stories that we tell ourselves that aren’t necessarily true. Sometimes our brains get into the habit of repeating these distortions over and over, causing a pattern of unhealthy thoughts that can lead to low levels of wellbeing and even depression or anxiety. These harmful thoughts can make us feel even worse while we are already dealing with the stress and uncertainty or difficult periods.
ANTs begin due to the Negativity Bias, which is hardwired into the human brain. Fortunately, you can learn to identify your ANTs and transform them into PETs, (aka Performance Enhancing Thoughts) with a little help from Positive Psychology and a process known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
You can start transforming your ANTs and PETs by challenging your thoughts. You can start by asking yourself some of these simple questions:
- How much do you believe this thought?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of this thought?
- What is the evidence for and against this thought? Could you convince a jury that your negative interpretation is the best or only valid one?
- Is there something you could do to determine if this thought is true?
- If the thought is true, are there some things you can do to improve the situation?
- ASK YOURSELF THE KEY QUESTION: Is this thought helping me?
You can learn more about how to create PETS (Performance Enhancing Thoughts) as well as other techniques to build your Resilience with our ‘Bouncing Back and Leaping Forward’ Mental Fitness Toolkit.
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