4 Steps to Reversing the Brain’s Negativity Bias

19 Aug

“I can understand that memory must be selective, else it would choke on the glut of experience. What I cannot understand is why it selects what it does.”

~ Virginia Peterson

Looking back over the last 10 years or so of my life, I can’t say I’ve come full circle. I wouldn’t want to.  A decade ago I was on the fringes of a spiritual catastrophe. I was bitter, lost, demanding answers that I was not quite as willing to search for as I am now, and inexorably and painfully insecure. I was involved in a relationship wrought with delusions of escape. I was realizing that I had sacrificed far too much of who I was at my core to satisfy another person. But in the beginning I believed I was collecting the pieces of what had been broken years earlier.

At some point amidst the inner hell, as well as the external turmoil I was facing, I made a decision to BE different. I could no longer make so many concessions knowing and FEELING that I was compromising what mattered most to me. I was sick of being tormented by the push/pull nature of my thoughts and actions. I was exhausted from acting in ways that felt completely foreign to me to appease or please others.

I don’t think that what I describe is far from what many individuals experience in their lives. As a therapist I am trusted daily with the robust memories, day dreams, and emotions of those who have trusted me to provide a NEW experience for them so that they may develop the skill to do so themselves.

Often what I must teach them first is that our brains are bent toward negativity. They come to me with requests for learning how to be more positive, thinking less like a pessimist, and getting out of the “downer” mentality. I get it. I see it. I live it. And when I’m in it and notice it, I have to be active about changing it.

The negativity bias can be viewed as adaptive. The “bad” stuff in life, if we pause and let it sink in, gives us valuable information about the threats in our world and perhaps by focusing on it we can avoid future harm, right? Once bitten, twice shy? While negative experiences certainly have their place and can provide opportunities for learning, , they can also become pervasively harmful with too much emphasis placed on them, creating permanent long-term storage of negative memories. If you’re in therapy now and all you do is rehash your negative “stuff”, you’re not helping yourself.

On the flip side, while we can all attest to the great feelings we have when something positive occurs, how often are you dwelling on them? This weekend in Sam’s Club, I walked past the DirecTV salesman as I pushed my cart toward the familiar food aisles, and with a broad smile said, “Hi! How are you?!” like I knew him well. He gave me an upturned lip and said, “I’m living.”  First I thought, wow, they need to train their salesmen! Then I responded with, “What?! You’ve gotta be doing better than that!” A big grin spread across his face. Perhaps I provided him with a positive experience that he’ll remember later. Even better though would be him intentionally and deliberately sinking into it right then and there.

How many positive experiences go by do you think, that you don’t even notice?  I’ll answer this question for you– A LOT. Why? Because you don’t sit on them and let them sink in like you do with those experiences that hurt, get you angry, make you frustrated, or cause you to experience anxiety. Dwelling on an experience allows it to become a part of you. You permanently change the structure of your brain when you take the experience in, mull over it, wallow in it. Think about what this might mean for you if you applied it to positive experiences!

But reversing your brain’s negativity bias takes work! How often do you read in my blog about INTENTION, EFFORT, and DELIBERATENESS? Speaking of the brain, I hope these words have become etched into yours by now. They are power words that convey brain rewiring.

You can think of the work toward becoming more positive like installing new software on  your computer. There is no shortage of viruses that could infect your computer. They’re inevitable. But the virus protection software that you install can head off the pernicious effects of any threats much faster if it has been downloaded and is utilized regularly. So what can you do to begin the download?

Follow these 4 steps to reverse your brain’s negativity bias:

  1. Use positive experiences! You can do this in a number of ways. You might watch for them, be ready for them in your day to day life. You can think of something positive from the past, hold it in your mind’s eye, and rehash the experience. Over and over. Or you can imagine a positive experience that you’d like to have.  It’s important to remember that verbal thought passes through your brain quickly. It is not like emotion, housed in the deeper brain centers, that creates lasting structural changes. This means that the sensation of experience, the feeling that you derive from it (think in terms of a sense of connection, feeling loved and appreciated, or an intense sense of wonder or gratitude) must be dwelled upon.
  2. Play out the scene and using all your senses, make a movie out of it. Extend the experience in the space of time–make it last and make it as intense as possible.
  3.  Be intentional and deliberate about this. Don’t hope it will just “sink in” and happen. Actively create the space and time to do it and intend and feel it creating change within you.
  4.  Hold in your awareness a positive and negative experience together.  For example, in a moment that I experience a sense of appreciation by another, or I am told by a client that I have helped him to see his inner power and that he feels so much more confident, I might go back to an experience I had 10 years ago when I was told I could never get anything right. In this instance I would make the positive experience prominent so it envelopes the negative. Taking this one step further, I imagine it folding up the negative. The envelope of the positive opens up to let the negative out to dissipate and float away like dust in the wind.

I can look back at the last 10 years of my life and view them in a positive light and I can approach each day with an appreciation for the positive experiences ahead of me.  Will you do the same?

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2 Responses to “4 Steps to Reversing the Brain’s Negativity Bias”

  1. Dynamic Demo August 19, 2012 at 6:19 PM #

    True to form… Kori Excellent Blog!! Thank you for sharing of ideas and your personal experiences. Nice to know that we all share common experiences and by sharing perhaps we can help each other…there is strength in awareness.

    • kpropst August 20, 2012 at 3:34 PM #

      Thank you, Demo. We tend toward believing that we are in our own little worlds and that no one could ever understand what we’re going through. In all actuality, others are experiencing very similar hardships. We need to learn to destigmatize our experiences. Was there something in particular that resonated with you about this article?

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