When I began speaking publicly and delivering workshops, there always seemed to be one audience member who looked disengaged. Despite the other 30+ happy and enthusiastic delegates, my mind fixated on that single seemingly unhappy person. Inevitably, I’d start to doubt myself, which affected my performance.
In the face of so many good things to be happy about, why does our brain obsess over the negative?
Humans are hard-wired for danger.
According to Personality and Social Psychology Review, when two events of equal objective magnitude take place, you feel the bad event more forcefully, pervasively and enduringly than the good event.
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This negativity bias served the evolution of humans thousands of years ago, helping us respond to imminent threats, like a dangerous animal.
In the Review of General Psychology, Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Vohs and Finkenauer say, “A person who ignores the possibility of a positive outcome may later experience significant regret […], but nothing directly terrible is likely to result. In contrast, a person who ignores danger […] even once may end up maimed or dead.”
We’re not in that kind of danger anymore, but our brain still operates primally, reacting disproportionately to those things we perceive as "negative."
Fight-or-flight hijacks creativity and productivity.
The brain is complex, but there are two bits of grey matter that are central to this discussion. The prefrontal cortex is in charge of brain functions that are critical to business success, including things like empathy, creativity and problem-solving. Then there’s the amygdala, a key player in our emotional development. It's also known as the fear center.
Since the amygdala sits closer to the brainstem than the prefrontal cortex, it rapidly transforms stimuli into signals, alerting the body to threats. Your body obeys the warning, triggering an increase in heart rate, a shortening of breath and tension throughout the body. Furthermore, when the amygdala is triggered, some functions of the prefrontal cortex shut down, eliminating unnecessary brain activity to conserve energy.
As entrepreneurs, we have to make decisions, prioritize and solve problems every day; essentially, we get paid to think. But the science shows that if we operate from primal states of fear and scarcity, we are not operating optimally.
Stop getting carried away by negative thoughts.
Negative thoughts and emotions are like a juggernaut tearing down a highway. You’re not going to stop them with an emergency handbrake manoeuvre. You need to slow them down first. There is a way of rewiring our instinctive negative bias.
Studies show that after regular mindfulness meditation practice the amygdala quiets down and actually shrinks while the prefrontal cortex thickens. Like building your upper body with pushups, you can increase your emotional balance and tame your fear response with regular practice.
Follow these four steps to tame your brain’s negativity bias.
Here are four simple steps you can practice to reduce anxiety, maintain your calm and operate from an empowered state.
1. Get present.
During a three-minute break in the workshop mentioned earlier, I paid attention to my hands to anchor myself to the present moment. When you catch yourself in an unproductive or agitated state, pay attention to your sense perceptions. Be aware of your hand on your lap or your foot in your shoe. Some days you might barely register a vague tingle while other days it might seem your hand is vibrating. This simple mindfulness practice can be done anywhere and doing so takes attention away from thoughts and brings you into the present.
2. Detach from your thoughts.
Next, you want to be aware of thoughts without getting carried away by them like a runaway train. Observing your thoughts creates detachment. You can do this by asking yourself, "What am I thinking? What is the conversation in my head?" Repeat this a few times.
In the workshop above, I told myself the audience member was not enjoying himself. In his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Dr. Dan Siegel says naming an emotional affect soothes firing of the emotional center. Or in other words, “Name it to tame it."
3. Challenge the thought.
Perhaps that one audience member wasn't unhappy. Or perhaps it was just his resting face.
According to Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, challenging negative thoughts can reduce the emotional intensity and eventually eliminate feelings of panic. So ask yourself "Is that thought really true, right now in this moment? What is the likelihood of that really happening?”
4. Crowd out negative thoughts.
Finally, to shift yourself to an empowered state ask yourself what you are grateful for. I reminded myself that everyone else in the workshop was having fun and that even though that one audience member looked unhappy he was doing the exercises so he was probably engaged.
Invest the next two minutes listing the things you’re grateful for in your business and why you’re grateful for each one. Flooding your mind with thoughts of gratitude crowds out negative thoughts.
Next time you see an email, news headline or something that triggers your negativity bias, get yourself present, detach from the thought, challenge the thought, and ask yourself what you are grateful for that day. This process will shift you to a more empowered state. Practice regularly, and you will eventually tame your brain’s negativity bias, allowing you to operate in a more optimal manner and unleash your creativity.