If you are reading this article you would likely have heard the saying “that good and bad are only a perception”. It is a simple enough concept, but exceedingly difficult to put into daily practice. This is especially true when events and things do not go our way and we begin to experience negativity in life. Sometimes, the negativity spirals out of control and we end up having a ‘bad day or week or month’. If this continues unchecked, it can extend to years and decades and before we know it, we seem to be a bundle of pessimism and not much else. We can feel overwhelmed and that it is all hopeless, but it does not necessarily have to be that way.
For instance, it does not necessarily follow that a ‘negative’ event must lead to a negative day. We can set our minds to have a good day despite things not going our way. The intention to have a good day is a necessary step towards enjoyment of the day ahead. However, it must also be accompanied by several other ingredients.
One of the important ingredients is a recognition that it often is difficult to just ‘switch’ the negative stream of consciousness off. There are good reasons for this. Human beings are evolutionary wired to look for threats in the environment. This made sense when wild beasts roamed the plains and we had to watch our steps lest we be eaten. In modern society, these types of predatory beasts are far and few between, but we have inadvertently created a society which is exceedingly anxiety prone. Large segments of society have become addicted to drama of one type or another with only has the affect of keeping our central nervous system on high alert.
At a neurological level, when we focus on negativity, the adage of ‘neurons which fire together wire together’ comes sharply into play. Our negativity strengthens the more we allow negativity to rule our lives. There is another pertinent factor which goes hand in hand with the strengthening of negative pathways in our brain. It is that information along the neurons quicken over time.
To appreciate what occurs within our brains, consider the example of when someone first learns to drive a car. At first there is a lot of conscious effort as the person attempts to learn the required skills. But as time goes on, driving a car becomes less reliant on conscious effort and mainly becomes an automatic process. The technical term for this is called automaticity.
Automaticity applies to negative mind sets in a similar manner. Sometimes we find ourselves in a bad mood for no discernible reason. We might not even be consciously aware of negative thinking. Yet we act and feel as if we are. This would be automaticity working behind the scenes via memory processes. Our memories are comprised of two distinct memory processes. One is explicit memory, the kind of memory that can recall an experience or event. It is the form of memory which most people are familiar with and the type of memory which garners most of the attention. However, human beings have another equally important memory system called implicit memory. It is the type of memory where our body or sensory systems remember, but we do not consciously recall an event or experience which might be linked. If we learned to swim at a young enough age, we might not be able to recall those first experiences of learning to swim. But we do remember how to swim. This would be an example of implicit memory at work. It is important to recognize that negativity can be both conscious and unconscious processes and often is a mixture of the two. What this all means in its simplest form is the more negativity is allowed the easier it becomes to thrive. And later in life this process may become so automated that we may not even notice negative thoughts but are in a grouchy mood.
As you may have gathered things are not exactly in our favour when it comes to having a mind which is largely bereft of negativity. Yet where there is a will there is a way. One of the ways out of the dilemma is to begin to pick what we are choosing to pay attention to. If neurons that fire together wire together, then the task at hand is to give negativity less and less attention. At first this will be difficult since many people carry around ingrained patterns of negativity. But with persistent and consistent effort we can change the contents of our minds into something resembling peace and ultimately, we can parse more pleasing content through the mind.
One way to begin to achieve this is to distract our minds away from the negativity. Watch some comedy, do something creative, go for a walk or swim, read a good book, have a good conversation with a dear friend and so forth. Try and engage yourself in something that will be good for the body, mind, and soul – something which enlivens rather than dulls us.
It is vitally important to not fall for the belief that our negativity defines our identity – the strains and stressors of our lives are not us. These are events or a sequence of patterns which we have learned to carry around with us. A large part of what needs to occur is to facilitate a different type of learning which leads to a more productive lifestyle.
A related facet of letting go of negativity is to not embrace a myopic view of the world. When things go wrong, our tendency is to shut ourselves down. We constrict ourselves and narrow our view to only take in the negative. When we are caught in this cycle everything becomes dark and bleak. We have enormous difficulty in seeing anything positive about the day.
At these times it becomes especially important to learn to appreciate the small things in life. While the small things in life are abundant – we also must take the time to look and appreciate what is around us and in us. I understand that practicing gratitude can sound corny, but the scientific research on gratitude is noticeably clear. It works and it works very well. The trick like many other things in life is to be consistent and persistent with a gratitude practice.
Meditation is another powerful tool at our disposal which can effectively help us deal with negative mind chatter. Meditation practices that use a mantra or have positive affirmations are particularly useful in this regard. Rather than watching negative thoughts arise and go, it is better to focus the mind on a direction when trying to cope with negative mind streams.
An often-overlooked area is our social network and here I am not particularly referring to twitter or Facebook feeds. The power of having great friends who can make us smile and laugh and generally have a good attitude towards life should be right up there as one of the best things we can do to stop our doom and gloom mentality. People, especially people we like, tend to enliven us, and help alter our moods for the better. If you are in a bad negative spiral, take the time to visit with a friend. This might be more difficult in the days of covid-19 but alternatively you can skype or zoom or use the phone.
Something that we do not normally consider when we are in a negative spiral is to do something nice for someone else. Not only are we tapping into the social sphere and connecting in various ways with others, but I find that most people derive contentment from doing things from others. This is particularly true when we do things without expectation of reward or praise. If we can make someone else feel a bit better about the day through an act of kindness or love, then it starts to rewire our brains away from negativity and towards kindness.
It would be remiss of me not to remind people, that we should also apply kindness and compassion towards ourselves. Learn to look after yourself psychologically and emotionally as well as physically. Our mindset towards ourselves should be as if we were speaking to a great friend in a manner which makes them feel heard and seen. While at the same time acknowledging that change is often difficult and frequently does not go to plan. Be gentle with yourself, find ways to appreciate yourself. It really does add up and makes a difference.
People tend to think of our thoughts having an affect on our emotional and physical being. We do not tend to consider that the physical can impact our emotional and mental states. Exercise is a particularly powerful practice to take up when combatting negativity. Not only is the release of endorphins in the brain beneficial in that it helps elevate mood, but exercise also helps rids the body of stress. Exercise does not necessarily mean taking up a competitive sport, it can be as simple as going for a daily walk. Doing something active which you enjoy is more likely to see the behaviour stick over time.
It is wise to note that often when we are in negative state, we are not going to feel like doing things. Consequently, we must get into the habit of pushing ourselves to do things, especially in the early days. I am reminded of the people I have worked with who suffered from depression. One of the first things I try and encourage people who suffer from depression to do is to start exercising – exercising is not a panacea and does not cure depression, but it does help. As you can imagine, anyone who suffers from depression is not particularly going to feel like exercising. It is depression after all… The only way they are going to exercise is if they push themselves to exercise even when they do not feel like it. We should not allow negative feelings to dictate our lives even if the feelings are strong.
Trying a brute force approach often ends in failure because we do not consider the complexities involved in trying to change. If we want to overcome negative mindsets, it often takes multiple strategies which are applied to the problem. For instance, a certain amount of awareness is required -know what sets the negative mindset in motion. Then we might have to develop some skill in distracting ourselves. We may have to change our physical response by taking some deep calming breaths. Another skill might be that we must develop our tolerance to uncomfortable feelings. Or we might have to challenge and reframe our beliefs. We must have the intention to push ourselves to combat negative mindsets, but at the same time we must develop the skills needed to help us defeat these unwanted states.
How could you arise anew if you had first not become ashes? Friedrich Nietzsche
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