Why Do We Fixate on the Negative? (and how to stop!)

It was all going fabulously. The venue was full of smiling faces, bopping along to the beat as I sang my heart out. The atmosphere was electric, and fun was being had by all. Except for one. One, out of around eighty people. One scowling, disapproving face in a sea of enthusiasm, and I homed in on it as if it was all that mattered in the world.

You may have found that, regardless of the wonderful, positive, amazing experiences you are blessed with, your focus seems to zoom in on the one or two negatives, no matter how much you try to reason with yourself.

Why We Fixate on the Negative

It makes perfect sense, when you think about it. We are designed for survival. We fixate on the negative because we’re designed that way.

If you were enjoying a picnic with family and friends, in beautiful surroundings, and a bear approached, you would need to be focused on the bear. You would need to maintain focus on that bear until the danger had passed. If you continued to focus on the good stuff, you may not be around to enjoy it for very long.

For this reason, the stress chemicals that cause negative feelings have a more powerful impact on the body than that of “feel-good” chemicals like endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin.

Stress chemicals are designed to grab, and keep, our attention — for survival.

Death by Mean Comments

So, what have bears got to do with negative comments, being unable to pay your bills, or missing a deadline?

The subconscious cannot tell the difference between a negative emotion and physical danger.

When you feel hurt, angry, frustrated, disappointed — or any other negative emotion — your brain and body are producing the same stress chemicals they would if your life was in immediate danger.

Knowing this is the first step to being able to stop it from happening.

Why Stop Fixating on the Negative?

Every negative emotion is a level of the fight-freeze-flight state. The truth is, unless you are in immediate physical danger, there is no need for that emergency state. In fact, one of the effects of this stress state is the impact on the prefrontal cortex of your brain.

Whenever you go into any negative emotion (fight-freeze-flight), blood is drained from the part of your brain responsible for cognitive thinking. This means that you literally can’t think straight!

Learning how to bring down the levels of stress chemicals in your system means bringing your prefrontal cortex back online, and along with it, your ability to strategize, problem-solve, communicate effectively, and process information.

Two Steps to Stop Fixating on the Negative

First, a word about the references: We don’t all respond to the same triggers in the same way. To one person, a negative review among twenty raves may mean absolutely nothing; to another, it may eliminate the good feelings from hundreds of rave reviews.

What makes the difference? The subconscious references. The “evidence” of what that one negative comment means. Subconscious references are different for every individual, and will be based on life experience.

In order to create permanent, long-term freedom from the effects of negative experiences, changing those subconscious references will change the automatic reaction.

In the meantime, though, here are two steps to stop fixating on the negative, in the moment:

Step One:

Remind yourself that you’re focused on the negative, not because there’s good reason for it, or because it’s that bad, but because it is simply your “burglar alarm” going off because the cat moved.

It’s a guard dog that barks at every person who walks past, as if the place is being broken into. Your “security system” is responding as if you are being threatened by a bear… when there’s no bear.

This won’t get rid of the negative feelings on its own, but it will help you to prevent them from escalating.

Step Two:

Make peace with the worst-case scenario. Ask yourself: What’s the worst that can happen? How bad can this get? Do this, not to frighten yourself, but to really drill down to exactly what it is that’s really bothering you — and face it.

For example: A few years ago, I didn’t have enough money to pay my rent (again!). And I was terrified of picking up the phone and telling the landlord.

When I asked myself: what’s the worst that could happen, the answer was:

“He’ll be angry with me.”

And then?

“He’ll shout at me.”

And what then?

“I’ll feel really bad.”

And then? How bad could it get?

“He could eventually evict me.”

And what’s bad about that?

“I’ll have nowhere to live.”

And then what will I do?

“I don’t know. Go to a shelter? Start all over again?”

And what’s wrong with that?

“It’ll be really unpleasant and hard… but, I guess, I won’t die…”

By the time I’d faced that worst-case scenario, I was calm enough to pick up the phone and ask for another week. The landlord was understanding, and gave me until that Friday.

As I hung up, I remembered I had money coming in from a job I’d done — that I’d completely forgotten about. (Prefrontal cortex coming back online!) I chased them, they paid on the Wednesday, and I was able to pay the rent two days earlier than the landlord was expecting.

How Does it Work?

By drilling down, you end up at the conclusion: your life is not in immediate danger. And as you get to that point, you start to bring the prefrontal cortex of your brain back online.

This means you regain your ability to think strategically, communicate effectively, and come up with solutions you hadn’t come up with before.

And that means you probably will not need to experience that worst-case scenario, because you’ll have found a solution before you get to that place.

But, if you do end up there, you know what you’re dealing with and what your options are. That lowers the levels of stress chemicals in your system, allowing you to continue to think more clearly.

So, the next time you find yourself fixating on the negative, remind yourself — it’s not because there’s good reason; it’s not because you’re in real danger. It’s because your brain and body are programmed to respond to any negativity as if your life is in danger — your natural, automated survival system.

Then, drill down to the worst-case scenario, make peace with it… and watch what happens!

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