Training Ourselves to See The Positive


Do you ever notice how when you are having a bad day, everything seems to go wrong? It’s not just one little thing; it’s everything. Conversely, when you’re having a good day, everything seems to go right, or, at least, the little things that go wrong simply slide off your back. Is it the universe’s way of mocking you?

Not quite. Well, maybe the universe is throwing a lot your way, but you can control how you view and react to the seemingly negative events happening. The key to this is understanding our brain’s negativity bias.

In terms of opportunity and threats, our brain is always on the lookout for threats both internally and in our environment.

Evolutionarily speaking, a threat was more of a life-or-death situation than not obtaining the opportunity. If I miss seeing the signs of a tiger nearby, it’s quite likely I won’t be here tomorrow to have the chance to try again. If I miss the signs of berries and nuts to be gathered, I might be hungry, but tomorrow is another day.

This default setting is often referred to as our negativity bias, and whether we are doing this scanning and threat detecting consciously or unconsciously, our amygdala, the part of our brain that directs our fight or flight response, still activates to register the information. When we experience something negative, we create a memory of it and the associations with it. If we were chased by a tiger, we would remember paw prints in the mud and the trampled grass, and if we saw these cues again, we would be on high alert. When we experience reward, we create a memory of it and the associations with the reward so we can react to those opportunities in the future. It’s why Pavlov’s dogs had an association with the ringing of the bell.

The interesting thing is our brain doesn’t stop with just observing the event as it happens in the real world. We replay events over and over in our head so that we strengthen the connections in our brains to ensure that we pick up all of the tiny details of the situation. Since our ancestors didn’t come across the tiger every day, that event really needed to make an impression, so the brain simulated this event over and over again, like watching a movie of the event, energizing the same areas of the brain to make those connections strong. The berries and nuts were more frequent, so it was less necessary to replay the event over and over, though if you found plentiful bounty, you might.

Most of us don’t have to worry about lions, tigers, and bears these days. Our stressors come from work, finances, relationships. All very important, but not quite the level of life-and-death stressors we evolved to have a laser-sharp focus on, though our brain treats them as such. Thanks to the brain’s negativity bias, we can get stuck on a loop of negative information. Have you ever thought of the perfect comeback to a snide comment 2 days later? Whether you realized it or not, your mind was simulating the experience, ruminating on the negative interaction, so you would know how to react to that situation in the future. And it’s not just your mind that’s reacting. The same reactions of tension, holding the breath, cortisol releasing – those reinforce themselves too. How often do you get to use those comebacks? Maybe replaying the negative situation in your mind and body isn’t the most effective thing to do. It certainly won’t save you from starvation or imminent death.

The good news is, our brains have the ability to change. The brain is constantly changing based on what you ask it to do. If you ask your brain to focus, as in meditation, the area of the brain that is activated gets more blood, more oxygen, more energy, and it grows stronger. If you let your brain focus on a stressful event, such as fleeing from a tiger, it reinforces the fear you might have felt along with all of the details you are remembering (paw prints in the mud, the types of trees surrounding you, etc.). Just as you can play negative information on loop in your simulator, you can reinforce positive thoughts, feelings, interactions in the same way. It just might take a little more repetition to sink in, since we are more attuned to take in negative information than positive.

So how do we train ourselves to see the positive? We practice reinforcing positive moments in our day and in our life.

This is the point of gratitude challenges. Write down 3 things you are grateful for when you wake up, or before you go to bed, or both. Reinforcing the positive makes you more attuned to recognize and notice the positive. Another technique is to pause when you notice something good happening and repeat it to yourself five times. An example: have you ever felt after attempting a challenging asana that you just weren’t good at it? And then, even though you continue to work at it, and occasionally get it, you still feel like you’re a failure at it. This is me and arm balances. Even though I’ve grown leaps and bounds in my arm and core strength over the past 3 years, there’s still a loop in my head that says, “I’m not good at arm balances.” To help offset this, every time I attempt an arm balance, I should focus on the positive. Two years ago I might have been a wobbly mess, now I don’t hold the pose for long (which I should not focus on), but I’m holding the pose. I’ve gained strength. I’m holding the pose. I’ve gained strength. I’m holding the pose. I’ve gained strength. I’m holding the pose. I’ve gained strength. I’m holding the pose. I’ve gained strength. See what I did there?

Going back to the beginning of this article… Stress makes us all the more attuned to notice the negative. Our default is to notice negativity, but when our sympathetic nervous system is heightened and cortisol is released, our amygdala goes into hyper-alert, processing everything that could potentially be a threat, while the part of the brain that assesses the threat and says, “Hey! Guess what? This actually isn’t a threat. Amygdala, you can calm down now,” is shut down. So on a bad day, when stress is higher, the little things seem bigger. An off-handed comment a co-worker makes might feel like more of an attack than a joke. Your husband not paying attention to you might feel like your relationship is falling apart. The instinct to protect and nurture your children just might wane as they do everything they’ve been told not to do, loudly. Instead of reacting, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Is this really what’s happening? Or am I amplifying the situation?” Then, as the day progresses, notice if your thoughts wander back to this moment, replaying it in your mind. If so, just become aware of how often the thought comes through, whether it loops or whether you are projecting how you would react in the future. The simple act of awareness can often cause these negative thoughts to vanish. If not, it shines a light on our patterns, and knowing is half the battle.

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