Negativity Bias, and how to Overcome it

Negativity Bias, and how to Overcome it

Good morning TrAk fam, today we're digging a little deeper into one aspect of mindset and motivation that SO many of us struggle with from time to time, and maybe surprisingly, for good reason- we're talking about Negativity Bias. We believe knowledge is power, and by simply knowing and understanding why as human beings we have a tendency to operate a certain way, we gain an advantage and can start working with, rather than against ourselves. 

Negativity Bias, positive/negative asymmetry, or the negativity effect, are all different phrases describing the same phenomenon - that negative experiences or adverse events have a greater effect on ones psychological state than equally positive ones. Maybe some ideas come to mind for you just reading this, different ways this theory plays out in your own lived experience day in and day out - like when someone gives you a compliment and a criticism, it's so much easier to focus and ruminate on the criticism. Maybe when you recall different parts of your day, you find it extremely easy to pull up the difficult, most annoying, frustrating parts, but remembering the good seems to take a bit more effort. It's easy to examine your latest workout and break down the parts you feel like you could've done better, and sometimes you fail to celebrate your own wins. You might have a tendency to get frustrated with yourself for being "so negative", but hopefully understanding that we ALL have this same experience to some degree, you can cut yourself some slack and find a way to make more effective changes in your life. 

Most believe the fact that our brains are hardwired this way is a byproduct of evolution. In life and death situations, for our ancestors brain to be biased towards negative information was actually a very necessary and useful tool. Being able to quickly scan and assess a situation and log the potential dangers and then react accordingly meant living to see another day. Looking at it through this lens we can easily see how necessary this was and why our brains would then evolve and adapt accordingly. Consider the case of eating a wild berry. The concern was not "how good does this berry taste" it was "is this berry going to kill me or not". The worst thing that could happen wasn't an unpleasant taste in the mouth, it was death. Much higher stakes back then, and pretty clear why it was more important to know and remember without a doubt, whether or not something was poisonous instead of how good it tastes. 

As most of us in the modern world are not continuously facing life or death scenarios, the negativity bias no longer serves us quite the way it used to. In fact, it kind of makes living in our current world a lot harder. With rapid information coming at us from the news, television, celebrities, emails, social media, texts, phone calls, the list goes on... we process a LOT more nuanced information these days. Not only that, but the information that we receive through many of these mediums is often designed to grab our attention (hint, they know about the negativity bias!). So the information already has a negative spin on it as it comes in, and then we latch onto it.  

The good news is there is plenty of research and anecdotal evidence that says we can in fact re-wire our brains. Developing a mindfulness practice is an amazing place to start - but what do we really mean by "mindfulness" (and practice??). Mindfulness is the ability to draw our attention and awareness to only what's happening in the present moment, with non-judgement. We can almost consider the practice of mindfulness as the very core of its own definition, because it is a continual and ongoing process. No one ever just arrives at mindfulness without practice. They consciously choose, over and over again, to come back to the present moment. As a starting point, you can think of this in two parts. Let's break it down.

Part one: Meditation

There are a lot of different meditation techniques out there. Sometimes having too many options can feel discouraging, and bouncing around too quickly from one technique to another, especially early-on can be distracting - exactly the opposite of what we're going for! Best practice is to develop a solid foundation and find something you can stick to. Here's a great way to get started: 

Eliminate any distractions for your chosen period of time by telling your family you're off limits, closing the door, turning off devices, and settling in. You may wish to set a timer, try 10 minutes to start (if this honestly feels impossible to you, start where you can. Maybe it's 3 minutes. Do it, and eventually work your way up!). Make your way into a seated position with a tall spine, relax the shoulders down and away from your ears, and let your hands rest gently in your lap. Think of a comfortable yet wakeful posture. You may wish to bring your eyes softly to a close, or to keep your eyes open- if so, set your gaze gently out in front of you. From here, simply draw your attention towards your breath. Notice the inhales and the exhales. Maybe there is a physical sensation that you can anchor onto, like the coolness of the air flowing in and out of the nose, or perhaps a rise and fall in the chest or the abdomen. As thoughts pop into your mind (and they will), try your best to gently notice them, and then come back to the breath. Continue to practice in this way, noticing the thoughts, and coming back to the breath.

Part two: Mindfulness Exercises

Think of this as an opportunity to bring your practice into your day-to-day activities. Some examples can include pausing to notice how you're thinking and feeling during the workday. If you're sitting at the desk, pause, relax your jaw and your shoulders, and take 3 deep breaths. You can bring mindfulness to a meal by taking a moment to savor it, really bringing full awareness to the flavor, the smell, the texture, chewing and swallowing even just for one bite. When you're in the middle of a conversation, you can bring mindfulness in while you listen - instead of waiting for your turn to respond and planning what you'll say, take the time to allow what they're saying to sink in, without judgment. While you're at the gym during a warm-up, you can draw your attention to the body part as it's moving, and link the breath to the movement. If it helps to remind you, you can even schedule timers with labels to go off throughout the day. "7:03am, move mindfully through warmup". "2:40pm: relax at work, take 3 deep breaths". "5:47pm, eat mindfully". The more consistently you practice meditation, the more accessible all of these tasks become. The more time we spend in the present moment, the less opportunities our mind has to run wild and dredge up negativity. 

If these tools sound simple, it's because they are! If they sound hard, it's because they are. Simple does not equal easy, but it is absolutely worth it once you start to reap the benefits of re-wiring your brain and existing fully in each moment that is right in front of you. The best part? It's completely free, and you can start right now. You have absolutely nothing to lose. So get after it, and let us know how you feel!

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