Have you ever gotten pine pitch on your hands while putting up a Christmas tree? Or blobbed adhesive on your fingers while gluing two things together? Or stepped on a piece of gum? Not only is the gooey residue hard to get off, everything you touch sticks to it.
That’s the way it is with negative emotions. They’re sticky, attracting more gloomy thoughts. And they keep you from moving, similar to spinning your wheels in the muck.
There is no complete list of negative emotions, but the chart at the left lists some most cited. Any of them can have dramatic impacts on your physical health.
Anger, for example, heightens the risk of high blood pressure and heart problems. In the words of Dr. Joseph Mercola, “short-fused people live shorter lives.” He also suggests that anger might increase dementia risk. Negative emotions cause other symptoms, including stomach problems, fatigue, headaches, back and neck aches, and immunity dysfunctions.
It’s clear that reducing negativity is a good thing. But it’s hard. Negativity bias is an automatic habit of the brain. When people receive both positive and negative ideas of equal intensity, their memory of the negative ones is stronger.
Professor Alison Ledgerwood, pointed this out in her TED talk. She shared personal anecdotes about her feelings after publications accepted or rejected her articles. An acceptance caused a temporary high. A rejection caused a longer-term low, even after a subsequent acceptance. The bleak stuff had a stronger impact that the sunny-side stuff. I experienced the same phenomenon in corporate training where I stressed over one low rating against an overwhelming number of higher ratings.
Ledgerwood also emphasized that it’s harder for people to shift an attitude from pessimistic to optimistic than the reverse. In her research, she presented equal groups with a positive or negative stimulus. There was a favorable reaction to the positive stimulus, and unfavorable reaction to the negative one. Then she presented both groups with the opposite stimulus. What happened? The favorable group downgraded their opinions after receiving the bad information. The unfavorable group remained unfavorable even after receiving the good information.
That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless to unstick negative emotions. It just requires effort.
Cleanse your mind
When I studied karate many years (decades?) ago, we began each class by emptying our minds. Our instructor stressed the need to relinquish all negative thoughts before sparring with other students. Makes sense. But clearing our minds should go beyond martial arts. Purging negative emotions can be part of daily life.
My go-to approaches for mental detox are mindfulness (often in the form of meditation), yoga, and physical exercise. Mindfulness has become as ubiquitous as the internet. On the most basic level, it is the practice of focusing on the present moment. Think about paying attention to your breathing. Concentrating on a mantra (a repeated word or phrase, such as “I choose peace.”). Focusing on something in your immediate environment (like a picture, a design in the floor, the hum of the furnace, the texture of a chair).
Yoga involves controlled movement and breathing. There are many branches, from restorative poses, to extended stretches, to more advanced conditioning. All stress the intersection of mind, body and spirit.
Physical exercise can be almost anything active. Not all remove negativity. Look for those activities that allow your mind to relax and release toxic thoughts.
Name (and interact with) your inner critic
Do you have a harsh inner critic that never allows you to let go of negative thoughts? It’s your internal Judge Judy that holds court on you day after day.
But wait. Maybe that’s the answer. When you have a negative thought, acknowledge it and respond to it. “Okay, Judge Judy. I heard your criticism.” Separate yourself from your inner critic. Then, similar to being in court, test the evidence.
- Is the thought true?
- Is it helpful in any way? (Can you learn from it?)
- Is the thought relevant today, or are you replaying old stories over and over? (Maybe you can create your own statute of limitations.)
Create a good-thought habit
Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones works long-term only when it’s a habit. That means it’s necessary to retrain your brain. Determine the foundations and triggers for your pessimistic mental patterns.
- Either-or: Do you view the world as black-and-white, with no shades of gray? Do you believe that what you and everyone else does is virtuous or evil, with no in-between?
- Exaggerating: Do you Magnify every adverse circumstance by overemphasizing the badness?
- Situational: Are there certain people or circumstances that trigger negativity?
- Shouldness: Do you keep telling yourself things you should do, without questioning the value?
Once you’ve identified the patterns, use them to create your personal brain retraining program. For example, create a mantra that refutes the pattern you are trying to change. For example, if you fall into the either-or trap, repeat to yourself, “the world goes beyond black-and-white.”
Negative emotions are sticky (and icky). While some are necessary to warn us of danger, dwelling forever in pessimism is dangerous. It puts us on a path to physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual problems.
It removes us from the path to well-being.