Our brains are hardwired to highlight negative situations and downplay success. This bias for negativity was helpful for humans living in a world where everything was out to get them—from hungry animals looking for their next meal to unrelenting storms destroying shelters. Our ancestors had to be on their toes, thinking of risks and dangers of every action to live longer lives.
Present-day human beings have inherited these survival instincts but have worked towards making the environment safer. We no longer have to worry about predators hiding in the woods and rain destroying homes. What is left is a brain thinking about the worst-case scenario, even if it’s not rooted in reality. The negative mental filter impacts decisions and actions that can harm one’s well-being. Research from King’s College London shows the effects of prolonged negative thinking, which drains the brain’s ability to reason and form memories, increasing one’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Over time, it is possible to decrease the hold of negative thought patterns through practices like doing mindfulness meditation and taking nature walks. These help the person become more aware of their thoughts and bring them in focus, much like how off-road LED lights illuminate the treacherous road in front of a car. You can adopt a more objective lens instead of being dragged into a spiral of stress and anxiety.
Here are some common negative thinking traps you should be aware of, to change for the better.
The world is complex, full of gray situations rather than strictly black or white. A person who has all-or-nothing thinking places everything in two polarizing “either/or” boxes—there is no middle ground. You are either a complete success or an utter failure. Take, for example, attempting to lose weight and exercise more often. One or two moments of weakness can derail the motivation of the all-or-nothing person. They will think they have failed and will abandon the rest of the plan, instead of accepting the situation and doing better next time. Anything that’s not 100% might as well be 0% for this person.
Over-generalization happens when a person lets one instance define a certain result. They already come to a conclusion based on a single incident and apply the thought to succeeding events. When something bad happens, they expect it will happen over and over again, forming a cycle of defeat and depression. This thinking can influence the person not to try anything new after a bad experience. A job seeker will think that he can never get a job after just one less-than-an-ideal interview.
While comic books portray superheroes using mind-reading to save the world, this “power” wreaks havoc in a person’s thinking and approach to life. Someone prone to mind-reading assumes what a person is feeling or thinking based on little clues that might not mean anything. They would conclude that someone is angry at them if that person takes time to reply to a message. More likely, reasons like a drained cellphone battery or being busy studying do not cross their minds.
Learning to recognize negative thinking patterns helps change the way our brains work. This sense of awareness makes people more in control of thoughts and feelings, rather than letting them run free toward stress and anxiety.