Can You Train Yourself to Become a More Optimistic Person? + The Brain Science Behind Why the Negative Affects Us So Much & How to Get Out of a Toxic Thinking Spiral
As I discuss in this podcast (episode #239) and blog, the brain has a natural optimism bias—we are what I call “wired for love”. This means that when we are connected to others in deep and meaningful ways, and when we are satisfied with where we are in life and where we are going (even if we have ups and downs, which are normal!), we can function at a healthy level. The brain likes it when we are in a good place!
If this is so, why does the negative seem so…overwhelming? Why do bad things and bad people tend to stick to our mind like super glue? Why is it so easy to fall into negative thinking spirals?
The negative affects us more because it is so unusual. Think about the many noises you hear at night: cars driving by your home, the chittering of crickets, the hum of the washing machine or refrigerator—these sounds are “normal” and don’t disturb your sleep because you are used to them. But, if you hear a door quickly open or a window break, you are suddenly on high alert. Something is out of place/out of balance, and your attention will stay fixed on that noise until you figure out what is going on and if you are safe.
The negative is like this out-of-place noise: it doesn’t make sense and your brain is not happy about this imbalance, so it tries to figure out how to fix this situation. It is easy to fix all your attention on this abnormality until it does make sense, but this can have some serious mental and physical repercussions if we are not careful, because, over time, toxic rumination disrupts the energy flow in the brain. Whatever we think about the most grows!
As I mentioned above, when we think too negatively or just focus on the bad (a pessimistic state of mind), the energy flow in the brain becomes distorted and incoherent, which can result in inflammation in the brain and body, jumps in cortisol levels, digestive issues, heart problems, mood swings and so on. In fact, this state of mind, which is what is known as a “red brain” on qEEG scans, can even activate weaknesses in our genetic code! And, over time, it can become a pessimistic thinking habit—the more we think this way, the more the world seems like a terrible place.
Thankfully, we can combat and heal the effects of focusing too much on the negative by self-regulating our mind, which is how we think, feel and choose—I discuss this in detail in my new book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. When we learn how to control our mind, we can rebalance the chemicals and energy in the brain and combat the negative health effects of toxic rumination.
This doesn’t mean that we should fear negativity. It is normal to have negative thoughts and experience uncomfortable emotions. If we think we are happy all the time, then we are lying to ourselves—we are suppressing the negative, which will only make things worse. Rather, we need to change the way we perceive the negative. We need to see negative thoughts and feelings as signals that something is going on in our lives that needs to be addressed; there is an “out-of-place noise” in our mental house that we need to get to the root of. This means asking questions like “why I am so pessimistic?”, “what are my triggers?”, “how does the negative affect me?” and “what is the thinking pattern behind my thoughts and feelings, and how can I change or rewire this?”.
The brain changes all the time because it is neuroplastic. The great news is that you can direct this change with your mind (your thinking, feeling, and choosing). You are always thinking, which is why self-regulation is such a great habit—it gives you the tools to control your mind!
Based on decades of research and practice, I developed a self-regulation method that harnesses the neuroplastic nature of the brain through specific techniques to combat the negative influence of toxic rumination, which we examined in our most recent clinical trials and I discuss in Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. Although there is a lot going on behind the scenes when you self-regulate your thinking and manage your mind, the process itself is not only simple but also accessible, no matter where you are, who you are with or what you are doing:
1. When you find yourself getting trapped in a toxic thinking spiral, take a 10 second pause, for as many times as you need. I recommend deep breathing during this pause, which helps bring brain energy back into balance. Breathe in for 3 counts (say, mentally or out loud, “think, feel”), then breathe out for 7 counts (say mentally or out loud, “choooooooose”).
This is like a reset button in the brain, and will increase your decision-making ability and clarity of mind. Indeed, doing this 6 to 9 times can really reorganize chemical chaos that results from negative thinking in the brain by transferring this energy from the toxic thinking pattern to cleaning up your mental mess!
2. Do a NeuroCycle, which is the self-regulation technique I developed centered on my research and practice with the Switch On Your Brain 5-Step Learning Process©. Here are the steps:
- Gathering awareness of your physical and emotional warning signals. We can only change what we are aware of!
- Reflecting on why you are feeling these things in your body and mind.
- Writing down your reflections to organize your thinking.
- Rechecking what you have written and how your thoughts and feelings have changed.
- Active Reach: taking action to reconceptualize your thinking and find sustainable healing.
If you do this daily for 63 days, you can actually rewire a negative thinking habit or a pessimistic mindset, as I discuss in detail my new book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. Each of these steps essentially reset the brain, taking you deeper into your own mind and transferring energy from toxic to healthy. Doing this not only makes your mind and brain more resilient to the pull of negative rumination; it teaches you to use your mind to change your brain! It shows you how to make negativity and life challenges work for you and not against you—YOU TAKE CONTROL, which will have positive carryover effects in other areas of your life.
When you learn how to self-regulate your thinking, you change the energy flow in the brain, which has a host of positive effects on your wellbeing. You still have negative thoughts, of course, but they don’t control your thinking, you control them!
For more information on the optimism bias and self-regulation, listen to my podcast (episode #239). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!)
For more on lifestyle habits, mind-management and mental health, preorder my new book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and receive exclusive bonuses!
You can also check out my app SWITCH, which is a great tool for helping you learn how to manage your mind and go beyond mindfulness by dealing with the roots of your choices and overcoming thought patterns and toxic food behaviors that are affecting your wellbeing through the mental process of reconceptualization.
2:00 Our natural optimism bias & how we are wired for love
2:27 What is the mind, and how is it different to the brain?
3:26 How optimism helps us survive AND thrive
7:00 How negative thinking distorts the brain
12:00 How negative thinking can become a habit and impact your mental and physical health
16:50 How to get rid of a bad thinking habit
17:50 Why we need to embrace the negative
20:21 The best way to control your thinking and manage your mind
21:50 How to make negativity work for you and not against you