Managing negativity rebalances a brain that is out of balance or leaning toward the negative.
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) sits in the very front of the brain. It is your brain’s CEO, the part of the brain that when working well allows us to delay acting on our feeling and impulses in order to achieve long-term goals. In contrast, the limbic system deeper in the brain makes up the brain’s more primitive centers for emotions and urges. Emotions and urges “want what they want when they want it.”
The techniques to manage negativity strengthen the capacity of the PFC to offset the limbic system; they help to offset the negative default position of the brain. You are literally strengthening your PFC when you do these exercises. When you distract yourself and manage to get distance from your negative thoughts, and counteract the negative thoughts with more rational responses, you are enhancing your PFC’s control over the limbic system. And a stronger PFC ultimately helps check the emotional turmoil we feel from an out‑of‑control limbic system. A stronger PFC not only reins in the horses, it helps prevent them from bolting in the first place.
How Do We Manage Negativity?
1. Distance and Detach
Remember, “You are not just your brain, you are not your thoughts.” Thoughts arise automatically, just like the heart beats automatically and we breathe automatically. We don’t control our thoughts. And yet they can control us if we let them. If we remind ourselves that our brain makes our negative thoughts, that we are not our brain, we gain much-needed distance from our negative thoughts. They happen; that’s it. Don’t fight them. But we can think about our thinking. We can put things into perspective: Our thoughts are not facts. With practice and experience, we can learn to more automatically gain distance from our negative thoughts. Try observing the flow of negativity in your mind, the way you might sit on the bank of a stream and watch the water flow by. You might even view your negativity as a scientist would: “Oh, how interesting that there are self-critical thoughts occurring now.” Another way to create distance and detachment is what I call the “Ronald Reagan Approach.” In his presidential election debates with Walter Mondale, Mr. Reagan repeatedly and quite effectively said to Mr. Mondale: “There you go again.” Tell yourself: “There’s my brain being negative again.”
2. Distract Yourself
Pour yourself into something productive and positive or at least seek out a change of gears. When we are preoccupied with something we enjoy (a crossword puzzle, a good book, a game of catch) or even just find something to absorb us (take a coffee break or talk to a colleague), it gives our system a chance to calm down and our thoughts a chance to refocus from negative to more neutral, if not positive. Another distraction technique is something I call “Sole Therapy”: Focus on the bottom of your shoes as you walk. It moves your attention away from the negativity, distracting you.
3. Remember Your Values
Remind yourself what your values are. If you are ruminating over negative thoughts and decisions, refocusing on your core values will help reduce the negativity.
4. Practice Gratitude
Embrace an attitude of gratitude. Write down three things for which you are grateful. Studies show that simply writing down what you are grateful for can really change the brain and improve mood, moving you away from negativity.
5. Shun the Shower of Shoulds
Get out of the “Cold Shower of Shoulds.” Among the torment of negative thinking that afflicts us often is a constant flood of “shoulds”—“I should do this . . . I should do that . . .” This cold shower of “shoulds” is nothing but destructive. Once we become more aware of our tendency to stay too long in this destructive shower, we have a better chance of stepping out of this negative shower stall.
6. Twist the Dial
Imagine that there is a dial on the side of your head that you could use to turn down the negative thoughts. Imagine yourself turning down the negativity by twisting the dial.
7. Have a Laugh
Can you find the humor in what the negative critic is saying to you? Laughter can be the best medicine. Make fun of the negative thoughts. Laugh at them and yourself for believing them… but make sure that you do so gently.
8. Power Up Your Problem Solving
If the negative thoughts relate to a clear problem (e.g., a serious health issue), make a list of the steps you can take to deal with the situation. Break down the potential solution into small, achievable steps you can take to improve things.
9. Find the Positive
Try to find the positive in what seems to be a negative situation. Turning around a negative thought often shows us another side of the situation. A problem or crisis can even be an opportunity. Search for it.
Take slow, deep breaths. This relaxes the body and the brain and reduces brain overactivity.
Do something physical; exercise. Don’t stay stuck and immobile, literally and metaphorically.
This article was written by Dr. Joseph Annibali, M.D. and originally appeared on MariaShriver.com