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Nov 19, 2018

Is Pessimism Bad for the Brain?

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

We all have those days: everything seems to go wrong, we just cannot seem to say or do the right thing and our hopes and dreams seem to be going down the drain. At times like these it is hard to see any good in ourselves, in the people around us or the world.

It is of course healthy to think realistically and see our circumstances for what they are—this is normal. Indeed, as I discuss in my books Switch on Your Brain, sweeping things under the rug and pretending everything is great is never a good idea and can actually allow toxic mindsets to take over our thinking. We should never stick our heads in the ground like an ostrich if there is something negative we do not want to face, because toxic thoughts and emotions grow like weeds if we do not deal with them. 

On the other hand, deliberating on our negative thoughts and feelings and allowing pessimism to take over our minds is incredibly damaging to the brain. Every thought we have changes the structure of our brains. If we constantly have negative thoughts, we build these thoughts into our brain, which affects our future thoughts, words and behavior. Indeed, a 2013 BBC study has shown how ruminating on negative thoughts is one of the “biggest predictors of depression and anxiety”! A cynical mindset also tends to stop us from seeking helping or trusting others to help us, which can isolate us and further impact our mental and physical wellbeing.  

So how can we stop ourselves from falling into a cycle of pessimism? As I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed, being thankful is one of the best ways to improve your mental and physical health, and avoiding the black hole of doubt and hopelessness. One recent study that investigated the effects of gratitude on behavior and looked at the response in the brain to the mind found that subjects who participated in a gratitude letter-writing exercise showed both positive changes in their behavior and greater brain activity in the front of the brain (medial prefrontal cortex) up to three months later! Other research on the effects gratitude has on our biology shows how being thankful can increase our longevity, our ability to use our imagination, and our ability to problem-solve.  

Every time we feel pessimistic, we should practice being thankful rather than merely ruminating on our lot in life. This can revive the wired-for-love design of our brains, activating a self-perpetuating cycle of positivity in the mind. Choosing to be grateful instead of thinking the worst in any given situation helps us see our circumstances differently and gives us the ability to persevere and stay positive even when times are tough! 

How can you avoid getting caught in a cycle of negativity?

  • Think about what you say or do before you say or do it. Your words and actions are a reflection of your thoughts: “catch” those thoughts by writing them down on a piece of paper, in a journal or on your phone or computer. Then think about and write down what you have to be thankful for right next to your negative thoughts. Practice doing for several minutes every day over the next three weeks to help develop an awareness of your thinking. 
  • Don’t just say you are thankful for a specific thing or person, analyzehow grateful you are. Keep a record, somehow, of every time you are grateful and every time you are feeling down and how you attitude affected your ability to think and act in a particular situation. Remind yourself of what you have to be grateful by setting a reminder on your phone or stick post-it notes on the fridge, your computer or anywhere you spend a lot of time. Make it a habit to read these reminders throughout the day. 
  • When you feel burdened with work, emotionally challenged, or are going through something, try stopping for a moment and contacting someone in your life, even if it is just an email or text to tell that person you are thinking of them and are grateful that they are in your life. Think about how much you love them and all the good times you have shared together, perhaps writing down your feelings and reminding yourself of them throughout the day. 

As Thanksgiving approaches, we should truly take the holiday to heart and meditate on what we have to be thankful for rather than what is going wrong in our lives. When we begin incorporating gratitude into our everyday life, we start to change to structure of our brains for the better, enabling us to see the world differently and avoid falling into pessimistic thinking patterns. We will begin to see that “thanksgiving” should really be every day!

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